More Indentured Servitude in San Francisco

Via the Thin Green Line:

Throwing orange peels, coffee grounds and grease-stained pizza boxes in the trash will be against the law in San Francisco, and could even lead to a fine.

The Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 Tuesday to approve Mayor Gavin Newsom's proposal for the most comprehensive mandatory composting and recycling law in the country. It's an aggressive push to cut greenhouse gas emissions and have the city sending nothing to landfills or incinerators by 2020.

"San Francisco has the best recycling and composting programs in the nation," Newsom said, praising the board's vote on a plan that some residents had decried as heavy-handed and impractical. "We can build on our success."

The ordinance is expected to take effect this fall.

The legislation calls for every residence and business in the city to have three separate color-coded bins for waste: blue for recycling, green for compost and black for trash.

Failing to properly sort your refuse could result in a fine after several warnings, but Newsom and other officials say fines will only be levied in the most egregious cases.

I think if I lived there I would save some really rank crap buried in the back yard, maybe a few animal carcasses, to throw in the trash when the inspector came by to dumpster dive.

But the whole concept confuses me.  There is this assumption that everything environmentalists always wanted us to do, like recycling, is automatically and without need for critical thought going to reduce CO2 emissions.  But will it?

Doesn't composting increase greenhouse gas emissions vs. land filling? I have always wondered about this with Christmas tree recycling programs. If the program was really about reducing greenhouse gasses, why are we chipping the trees and spreading the chips around so they can decompose faster?  Decomposition is basically just slow combustion, producing CO2 and some methane.  Shouldn't we instead be shrink-wrapping the trees and burying them deep in the name of carbon sequestration?

By the way, advocates will say that recycling saves money.  Well, it is not clear that it even saves the state any money but it certainly does not save you and I any.  In fact, the only way people can even fool themselves into believing there is any economic benefit is to assume that the value of your and my time is $0.  We are indentured servants, working for the state as trash sorters for no compensation.

Postscript: Assume there are 110 million households in the US, and each household has to spend 5 minutes a week sorting trash.  And assume that the value of folk's time is $20 per hour (and I can guarantee you the marginal value of my free time is a LOT higher).  This is $9.5 billion of stolen labor each year.


  1. Larry Sheldon:

    When I was a young lad, (early Pleistocene I think)(in Los Angeles County) we had to segregate our wastes:

    Urine, feces, and vomitus went in the toilet. (hmmmm must have been LATE Pleistocene since most of the houses I lived in had flush toilets IN TH HOUSE, ffor heavens sakes!)

    Food items (should I say OTHER food items?) -- parings, peelings, trimmings, leftovers, coffee grounds, tea bags -- went into a news-paper-lined bucket with tight-fitting lid (called a garbage can) in the yard.

    Tin cans, bottles, and other things that have not been mentioned yet, but that won't burn went into a trash can in the yard.

    Everything else went into the incinerator in the yard--which was periodically set alight to burn the trash that would burn. The residue, by the way went into the trash can every now and again, which practice caused some ignoramuses to call it an ash can, instead of the more proper trash can.

    Once a week the trash can was taken to the street where I truck and crew would collect its contents and start its journey to Japan (after 1945) to be made into whatever.

    Also once a week, but not necessarily on the same day, the garbage can was taken to the street and its contents collected by a crew that hauled the contents to Newhall, where it was fed to County Supervisor Frank G. Bonelli's pigs.

  2. DMac:

    Ugh, I'm just back from a few months on Prince Edward Island in Canada where they have this disgusting program. They pick up the compost bin twice a month so you can imagine the festering flytrap that sits outside your house most of the time. I can't tell you how I burn with hatred of the Trash Nazis as I obediently peel the labels off tin cans and WASH THEM so they can go in the Blue Bag Number 2.

    Of course, to the state the value of our time is zero.

  3. ben:

    Christchurch, New Zealand has recently brought in a three bin system. You have to sort stuff, they have some magic tools that detect if you haven't sorted properly, you get one warning and if you do not sort then your trash is no longer picked up.

    Its not just that the council there places zero value on citizens' time. It also places zero value on the fact that all residents are forced to wade through their trash with their hands sorting organic from non-organic waste. That cannot be healthy and its certainly disgusting on occasions.

  4. morganovich:

    i live in SF. the astounding joke of all this is that every week, without fail, my recycling is stolen when i put it out on thursday night. this happens all over the city. there is a whole armada of recycling thieves who run the gamut from homeless guys with shopping carts to organized gangs in pickup trucks with makeshift plywood sideboards so they can pile the cans 8 feet high. this happens all over the city. i would bet you that more than 50% of SF's recycling is stolen this way.

    it dramatically raises the cost of recycling here (and of waste collection) as the recycling plant has to buy the cans and bottles etc, that it should have gotten for free. there is no way it winds up economically sensible in light of this.

    perhaps i can convince them to separate out anything i missed while they are at it, but somehow i doubt it...

  5. Dr. T:

    Decomposition of organic garbage generates carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ammonia, methane, and other gases. Thus, if you believe that the greenhouse gas phenomenon applies to the entire planet (which is unlikely), then you should avoid decomposition. High temperature incineration of organic garbage would produce more carbon dioxide, but CO2 has a smaller greenhouse gas effect than methane.

    Trash sorting programs generate more environmental damage (from hauling and processing and hauling again) than they prevent. These types of regulations have nothing to do with the environment. Instead, they prove the power of government to control us and affect our lives.

  6. Methinks:

    composting in a city apartment? No health issues there. Instead of driving the trash to the dump, you just make the whole city an even bigger dump than it already is and you can call the problem solved.

    5 minutes of sorting is a gross underestimation. In Connecticut, they force us to separate everything. They pick up cans, glass, plastic and newspaper. However, all the other crap they force you to recycle (and I don't know how many catalogs you get, but at least a billion trees lose their lives every year to produce the parade of glossy uselessness that is delivered to my house every year) must be driven to the dump/recycling center - which conveniently closes by 3pm on weekdays and by noon on Saturday. We spend at least 1.5 hours every week sorting and delivering our recycling. EVERY week.

  7. Matt:

    I'm waiting for the day when we are no longer allowed to bury our dead - they will be 'composted' in a color-coded bin on the curb.

  8. Eric:

    Don't you think we should recycle to reduce the amount of land needed for landfills?

  9. James Barlow:

    The "problem" of proving the recycling is economically viable in the UK has been solved by taxing landfill space. Yes, Europe taxes you if you fill a hole in the ground. I am not joking.

    It's like trading carbon certificates, only with holes in the ground. Gah!

  10. dearieme:

    We have four colour-coded bins, each collected fortnightly.
    (1) paper, glass and cans
    (2) plastic bottles
    (3) Compostables i.e. cardboard and any garden and kitchen vegetable waste that we don't want to compost ourselves
    (4) everything else except the stuff that's banned - oil, batteries, rubble and whatnot.

    Thirty years ago we lived in Edinburgh where our one bin was emptied twice a week. I preferred that.

  11. Michael:

    As morganovich has discovered, some of what people consider household waste, has value. But the so called theives in SF are a free service provider here in Cincinnati. I bought a 1931 house with much of the original mechanicals still in place. As I was taking down the gutters, a guy came by and asked what I was going to do with the old gutters. Long story short, I told him what I was replacing in my house, he told me what he would like, and over the next few months, every week he would come by and take my "waste" away for no cost to me.

  12. Quite Rightly:

    A couple of weeks ago, here in my little corner of Progressive Paradise, a community festival was held. I wheeled my disabled Mom to the food court for a snack, and then looked around for a bin to dispose of the paper plates. None to be found. I walked and walked and finally found a recycling center set up for the purpose, run by a group of smiling Ivy League students who required everyone attempting to throw out their fast-food discards to stand in line to scrape the food off their paper plate into one huge disgusting bin, pick out the recyclable plastic forks and throw those into another bin, throw the greasy napkins into another disgusting bin, and throw the paper plates into yet another disgusting bin. The $60,000-a-year students were genuinely perplexed that I didn't want to spend my "festival" time in front of several tons of food waste learning how to distinguish a recyclable from a non-recyclable plastic fork.

    Grant you, I am a bit germophobic, but I just couldn't do it. For the first time in my life I just left a pile of used paper products on the community table for someone else to clean up and wheeled my Mom away.

    They're going to make a non-recycler of me yet.

  13. Allen:

    "Don’t you think we should recycle to reduce the amount of land needed for landfills?" - Eric

    We should do whatever makes the most sense. But if landfill space was really that scarce or expensive, we wouldn't need laws to get people to recycle.

    I for one am happy that I live in one of the rare cities these days that doesn't require recycling.

  14. David Y:

    Uhh, I'm guessing that city 'policy' (legal code) makes private trash/disposal services illegal. Otherwise, what a great business opportunity! (I'm so happy to have moved out of SF in 2002--more so every day)

  15. Not Sure:

    "Don’t you think we should recycle to reduce the amount of land needed for landfills?"

    How about if you just stopped buying stuff? Then you wouldn't have anything to throw away.

  16. Michael:

    I would think most people agree that "stuff" comes with unneeded packaging. When I lived in NYC, the clerk at a store would take a can of pop, put it and a paper wrapped straw in to a paper bag and then the lot in to a plastic bag.

    At times, it seems like Manhattan generated enough waste to drive a third world economy.

  17. hanmeng:

    Speaking of "smiling Ivy League students", isn't our Coyote an Ivy Leaguer? And yet he wrote "it is not clear that it even saves the state any money but it certainly does not save you and I any". (Surely he meant "it certainly does not save you and me any".)

    I'm just sayin'.

  18. Methinks:

    Recycling in NYC was great. You took everything to the trash room where bins for plastic and glass were set up. Magazines and newspapers were stacked on a shelf above the bins. Everything else went down the chute. Recycling bins on the street were pointless. The city was teaming with people who dug anything worth recycling out of the rubbish bin.

    I can't imagine how composting would work in NYC. I'm disgusted just thinking about the tiny apartments forced to hold composting bins or the stench in the hall coming from the communal composting bin. The city already smells like a compost heap on most summer days.

  19. DaveK:

    What really burns me up about recycling is how much of what we are forced to recycle actually ends up in the landfill anyway. For example, only a few of the plastics are actually recycled (mostly the soda bottles and polyethylene container). The rest just gets diverted to the garbage bin.

    I'd like to see a really good analysis of just what it takes in the way of energy consumption and total cost to run an effective recycling program. Then compare that to what it would have taken to simply fill a hole in the ground (after they let the scavengers have their way with the trash).

  20. morganovich:


    there is nothing "so called" about these thieves. it is not a costless situation, nor one for which homeowners and refuse collectors are grateful. unlike someone helpfully hauling away an old couch i don't want, this has a cost to me. my trash hauler values it. they also own the recycler. having this value taken from them (and then sold to them)increases costs. guess who pays them? my trash bill would be far lower if this didn't happen.

  21. Zach:

    I thought the reason that we had landfills was so that we'd have a few places that were really rancid, but that few people would be exposed to (and the rats, germs and other creepy crawlies associated with garbage), as opposed to the 18th/19th century way of doing things, which was everybody dumps their garbage out on their property. Progressive indeed.

  22. Jim:

    After reading all the comments, I am somewhat puzzled. I live in Athens, Georgia, where we fortunately do not have forced recycling (yet).

    I understand the economic objection to recycling. Those plastic grocery bags in particular are not cost effective to recycle. However, what is a better solution than recycling? Even if it's not cost effective, doesn't it make sense from an environmental point of view? Do economic considerations always take precedent over all other considerations?

    I know for a fact that landfills are not a good environmental solution, as they leak hazardous chemicals into the water system. Aren't we all being short sited by simply allowing our trash to be hauled off to a landfill? Won't that eventually catch up to us, and isn't the remedial process involved with cleaning up the environment much more expensive than preventing the damage in the first place?

    What are you all suggesting? That we keep doing things the old way? That we take the easy way out? That we ignore the ramifications of all the trash we generate? Out of sight, out of mind?

    What about the programs many states have, where you put a deposit on bottles and cans, which encourages recycling? Do those programs make sense from an economic or environmental perspective or not? I've seen a heckuva lot less bottles and cans on the side of the road in Michigan than I do in Georgia. How do people in those states feel about the programs?

  23. morganovich:


    the point is that the government is compelling our labor without our consent and that it has real costs (just not to them). if the city required you to sweep the streets near your home for an hour a week, you'd be furious and call it conscription. how is this any different? they are compelling you to use your valuable time sorting and peeling labels of cans and asking you to keep foul smelling compost in your house.

    if you want to do these things, great. if they seek to reward you for doing them, fine. however, requiring it punishing you for not complying is essentially eminent domain for time.

    the question here is not about "what is important" but rater about "who gets to decide".

  24. spiro:


    In addition to Morganovich's point, where I live we pay an extra $5 a week to have MANDATORY recycling pick-up, requiring separation and individual packaging of all categories of recyclables. The city imposed this fee (and the extra bins) on us about 2 years ago. I am compelled to pay for this, whether I really use it or not, and when I do use it, it requires extra work on my why do we pay EXTRA for it?
    Why can't the city give us an option to use the recycling system and give a $5 SUBSIDY to those who use it, since they use the same trucks to pick up both refuse and recycling, and recycled items can be turned in to s salvage center for cash? OR, contract out one of the locally owned recycling centers to pick up the stuff themselves and give a price break on garbage pick-up to those who choose to recycle?
    It's the govt compulsion that bothers me. Give me a choice and explain to me the benefits of doing something, don't FORCE me to do it and charge me extra for it. That's why I trust big business MORE than I trust the government, big business has NEVER forced me to pay them for anything I didn't want.

  25. MikeL:

    For a thought provoking take on this issue - at least to environmental fundamentalists - go to and read the chapter "Why I Am Not An Environmentalist:
    The Science of Economics Versus the Religion of Ecology" from Steven Landsburg's "The Armchair Economist."

  26. spiro:

    But MikeL, being "green" feels good (and might get me laid on campus). Why you gotta come in with the buzzkill science and facts stuff?
    Al Gore never hurt anybody. He just wanted to be important. So he stuck his finger in the wind, and found that the environ-mentals were his ticket to history.
    For his sake, I just hope he passes away before he is fully exposed as the charlatan that he is. And I hope this move finally got Tipper to stop sleeping in a separate bedroom.

  27. Clem:

    Penn and Teller on their Showtime Channel show Bulls**t looked at recycling (I watched a DVD--I think it was their 2nd season). Their expert said regular trash collection to the landfill is $60/ton while trash plus recycling was around $150/ton (ignoring the costs of citizen's time). The only recycling that made sense was aluminum.

  28. Meredith Wright:

    Oh, Clem, you beat me to it! The Penn & Teller "Bulls**t" show that exposes trash recycling was one of my favorites! I highly recommend it - they point out how innane the entire thing is ... besides wasting time and money.

  29. Craig:

    It would also be interesting to know how many truck trips are required per week for the 3-bin system vs. the one-can system. You need 2-3 trucks for the former, instead of 1 for the latter.

  30. HS:

    Hope the rats don't cause Black Death againin SF. We are allowed to have composts in the backyard but can't have food like meat in them because they attract rodents.

  31. Jess:

    Jim (and others),
    The very best analysis of the "recycle" steps & programs w/real, verifable data is the great volume "Rubbish", the Archaeology of Garbage (Harper Collins).

    It may just be the most authoritative statement yet on "household waste", the "waste stream" and "recycling", and is very easy to read... and their take on "sorting" is, well, epic...


  32. mishu:

    This is why I love my Waste King garbage disposal unit. Just toss those compostables in that hole in the sink, put the cover on, flick a switch and all that crap gets ground up and washed away down the drain.

  33. jacquesvachy:

    Morganovich, did you ever bother to take a look at your receipt after buying something in cans or bottles? You'll notice a charge labled CRV. That means you are PAYING a DEPOSIT on each can or bottle. When the can or bottle is empty, you may choose to forfeit your deposit by putting the items in the recycling bin or you may undertake the effort to reclaim the deposit by bringing the items to a recycling center. If you put a bottle in a recycling bin, you are making a gift of 5 cents to a private corporation named NorCal. They make a profit from such gifts. The recycling is not handled by a city agency or non-profit organization. If you choose to make gifts to NorCal, go right ahead. I seperate my cans or bottles and when I've accumulated a few bags, bring them a few blocks to the recycling center and give them to some grateful person standing on line. NorCal has taken a proprietary attitude toward these cans and bottles, as if anyone who interferes with the provision of this resource free of charge to them is 'stealing' from them.
    They run a composting center up in Petaluma. They SELL, for a PROFIT, this compost to farmers. Once this composting law goes into effect, the residents of San Francisco will be constrained to deliver, without compensation, a raw material to a private corporation which will then treat that resource and sell it at a profit. The city of San Francisco gets NOTHING in return. Anent greenhouse gas emissions, I fail to understand the benefits of composting over burying food scraps. In either case, methane will be released into the atmosphere- it seems a wash. Certainly, though, it would be less toxic to the soil and rivers were farmers to use compost and cease to use petroleum-based fertilizers. I'd be happy to set aside food scraps if I knew they were being given, not sold, to small-time farmers and that NorCal wasn't profitting from my labor. In any case, the State, as always, has no legitimate authority to compel this behavior.

  34. markm:

    jacquesvachy, you seem to be assuming that morganovich lives in the same state as you. I've never heard of a CVR, and you won't find it on a soda can in Michigan - but we do pay a 10 cent deposit on the can or bottle, which we can get back by returning it to the store. Or if there's too long of a line, make a gift to the homeless man talking to himself in the corner. He's got time to wait a half hour for $0.60, and you don't have to be mentally competent to put the can in the slot...

    Originally, soda (beer and milk, too) came in thick reusable glass bottles, and the sellers voluntarily collected and refunded deposits to get the valuable bottles back. The manufacturers realized that their customers hated the inconvenience of returning the bottles, so they introduced various "no deposit, no return" containers: wax paper milk cartons, aluminum drink cans, much thinner glass bottles, and finally plastic bottles. And at some point during the 1960's people started noticing that the roadsides and parks were covered with soda and beer containers. (Funny how milk cartons never were a problem...) So some states passed laws making deposits mandatory on soda and beer containers. Because some people were irresponsible, the government made all of us donate time and storage space, even if we never litter, and even if we're drinking the soda at home.

    It really had nothing at all to do with recycling; while aluminun is definitely worth shipping back to the smelters, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see truckloads of shredded plastic bottles going from the collection centers to the dump. Recycling plastic involves a lot more than just sorting and melting it down.

    And other states had other solutions to littering. When I was serving with the Air Force in New Mexico, it was common to see a group of men in orange clothes picking up trash by the road, superintended by one Deputy Sheriff - one of my sergeants spent six months on that detail for drunk driving. I think New Mexico's roadsides were cleaner with no deposit than Michigan's were with the ten cent deposit.

    There is one good effect I can see to the deposit laws: They create opportunities for kids and bums to earn a little cash, collecting the containers and turning them in. You probably won't make minimum wage, but you make something. Note that recyclable aluminum is worth a cent or so per can, so someone would probably be collecting the cans anyhow, but not bottles.

  35. markm:

    As for methane, it can be collected from landfills and large composting operations. That might be the most sensible biofuel available.