@WorldChanging - Designing a Zero-Waste City: A Visit to the San Francisco Dump
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by Jen Biederman on 03/19/2009
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It might seem strange to have a group of creative types clamoring to learn from the city dump, but there are numerous good reasons why their thinking is important to the waste management process. As we've often pointed out here on Worldchanging, getting to zero waste isn't simply a question of how we deal with the garbage we've got. Much more important is how we handle things upstream, at the point where we design the stuff and systems that fill our lives. If we can design waste out of the picture, we save not only the final product that gets tossed in the trash, but also the materials, time and energy required to get it there.
Bob Besso, Waste Reduction Manager, started out by showing the audience of graphic designers several examples of packages that can't be recycled because of the combination of materials. He made a strong point about why it's important for designers to look at how any product - including packaging - will be handled, used and disposed of, and to choose materials accordingly. "One of the messages we need to get out to designers is to say, look, you have no right to put a product like that into the marketplace and force someone else to deal with it," Besso said.
He also noted the problems that the waste facility faces when recyclable materials are poorly marked. Compostable corn-based plastic (also known as PLA), is increasingly popular among businesses who want to improve their ecological footprint. But it actually causes a serious problem for sorters when it isn't clearly marked. It looks just like regular clear plastic, and if there's any doubt, it will end up being tossed out of the compostable pile. And because its composition is different from conventional plastic, PLA becomes a contaminant when uninformed users toss it in the recycling bin.
Besso led the group around the 44-acre site, where waste and compostable materials for the entire city are processed before being sent elsewhere. The facility, billed as "the greenest dump in America," by the conference materials, is certainly doing many things right. Currently, 70 percent of San Francisco's waste stream is being diverted from landfills through a combination of strategies including waste avoidance, waste reduction, composting and recycling. The city's goal is to divert 75 percent by 2010, and to achieve zero waste by 2020.