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City Rising 9: How San Francisco Takes on Composting, Fast Fashion & More with Alexa Kielty
Podcast

City Rising 9: How San Francisco Takes on Composting, Fast Fashion & More with Alexa Kielty

How does the “greenest” city in America divert compost and clothes from landfills? Alexa Kielty, Zero Wast Specialist of San Francisco talks about their journey with wins and hurdles in today’s episode. (This is a follow up from our last episode when we chatted about Zero Waste with Nic Esposito in Philadelphia. )

Tune in to learn:

  • How San Francisco manages trash, recycling and composting
  • What terms (biodegradable, compostable) mean it’s ACTUALLY compostable?
  • Problems with compostable plastics
  • The ongoing debate between buying a single-use cup or washing a reusable cup
  • San Francisco’s program to fight fast fashion and textile waste
  • One idea for how to stop people from throwing away so much trash

You can listen to the episode by searching for City Rising or clicking any of the links below. Like the episode? Leave us a review and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogleSpotify, TuneIn or wherever you listen to podcasts.

City Rising 9 Transcript

Julie Hancher:  Welcome to city rising, a podcast that compares how different cities are working towards climate solutions. I’m Julie Hancher, Co-founder and editor with Green Philly,

Brady Halligan:   and I’m Brady Halligan, the director of strategy and business development with the green program. Our goal is to chat with diverse stakeholders about our changing environment on how it connects people planet and creates future opportunities.

Julie Hancher:    Green Philly as a website that helps you live a more sustainable lifestyle by making sustainability simple, accessible, and fun. Find recycling tips, news about local change makers and upcoming events by visiting thegreencities.wpengine.com.

Julie Hancher:   And our last City Rising episode, we chatted with Nic Esposito, Philadelphia’s zero waste and letter director. If you did not listen to that episode yet, I recommend going back and listening to it so this episode makes a little more sense.

Philadelphia has reputation for litter, so we’ve decided to talk with a city that has a reputation for its environmental standards. San Francisco has been named the greenest city in North America and a very more waste from landfills in any other major city according to CNBC Today. Alexa Kielty is the zero waste specialist at the San Francisco Department of the environment and has been working on zero waste since 2001. Alexa, thanks for joining me today. Can you please share a little bit about your role and how zero waste has evolved since 2001 when you started?

Alexa Kielty:     Sure. My name is Alexa Kielty and I’m working at department of the environment in San Francisco since 2001. And um, my position is zero waste specialist. I’ve been working on a number of different areas in zero waste, mostly focused in residential, but I also work on a zero waste grant program. But since the beginning of my time here at the department in San Francisco, we were first starting to roll out our curbside composting program, which includes all food scraps, food, soiled paper and landscape debris. Um, which is a bit unusual for a city of our size. Most cities usually just do landscape debris, but we had to include food scraps in order to reach our California mandate. A 50 percent recycling by 2000 was our goal at the time. So we had to add food scraps and since then we now have mandatory composting recycling for all sectors, commercial, residential, and city government and composting and recycling is available to every generator, which essentially means every apartment building, every business, every office building, even events all have access and are using the program.

Julie Hancher:                     Hmm. That sounds great. And I saw the nickname of that is called the fantastic three model.

Alexa Kielty:  Yeah. That’s kind of shorthand as someone came up with that term, That’s what they call it, the fan three.

Julie Hancher:  That’s also almost like the captain planet five or whatever else, you know, the planeteers. So how. Yeah, how does San Fran manage that with a compost and you know, having that for it sounds like a great range between the businesses. And he said events to what does, like how does that actually come out to fruition?

Alexa Kielty:  Well, we have a unique scenario here in San Francisco and that we have one permitted hauler called Recology and it’s a private company and they provide all the composting or recycling and landfill service for the city of San Francisco. So we have a much simpler system than most communities and that we don’t have a franchise agreement, we don’t go out to bed, we the city regulates the rate in which they can charge residential customers. Essentially it’s a regulated monopoly and because we have that arrangement or able to offer uniform programs to all businesses, residents and apartment buildings and events in office buildings, it’s all the same program and so there’s a lot of repetition, a lot of consistency and it’s a lot easier to do outreach and education and we have the added benefit is the company can do long-term investing in new technologies and new facilities that help us get to zero waste because they have this long-term relationship.

Julie Hancher:  Well, we were talking in the pre-interview a couple weeks ago. I knew your, we were talking about the cost of composting and how people see their different ways, fees in, you know, through the government or however that shows up on their household. Bill, can you explain to me just how, whether this is just like one costs for residents or how does the city pay for such a program?

Alexa Kielty:   Yeah. Like I mentioned, Recology is a private company, so they issue all their bills directly to their customers and it’s a package you pay for your composting, recycling and trash all together. You see it in line items on your bill, but essentially it’s one program that you can’t opt out of any one of the composting or recycling. It’s a basically a package deal like I said, and you pay your bill directly to Recology the company and a certain percentage, a very like, I think it’s a couple percentage points of that refuse rate revenue goes to fund our department, the environment. So our positions here at the zero waste program, so there’s about 10 of us that are funded through that refuse rate program

Julie Hancher:  and I think another issue about recycling is the contamination rate that you often see or people have this, they call it, which cycle. Like I’m sure, I’m sure you’re probably familiar with that term. I haven’t heard it, but I do know people doing that for sure, but that’s a great term. Yeah. I was going to say it’s funny, nick and I were talking about in the last episode, I think I saw it on some sort of article, but yeah, you know there’s siren to try to recycle as much as possible. Is there something similar with composting or how did you educate the public about what goes in the compost bin and what doesn’t.

Alexa Kielty:   Where I see the wish cycling happening the most in composting as people putting their food scraps in plastic bags and then throwing that entire plastic bag into the composting bin and so they. They’re doing everything exactly right other than the fact that they’re putting it in a plastic bag that is not going to break down our composting system, so I definitely do see it. I think it’s probably taken about 10 years I would say. I know that seems like a really long timeline, but to normalize food, scrap composting. I mean if you think about the timeline on recycling, which is probably a lot longer, perhaps that’s shorter than recycling, but it does take awhile to normalize the behavior of setting aside your food scraps while you’re doing food prep. And your post-consumer plates scrapings into a separate area and then bring that out to your agreement.

Alexa Kielty:   And we’ve rolled that out and apart. All the apartment buildings, we have 8,500 apartment buildings. They all have the program. And so for some of these folks it’s a big ask to, you know, climb down 24 stories to compost your food scraps. But we’re instituting a lot of compostable bag programs. EcoSafe has been one of our really great partners in the apartment buildings rolling out close. We’ll bag dispensers, making it easier for folks to not use plastic bags and also to transport their food scraps from the 24th floor all the way to the basement. And then many times the composting bin is not on each floor.

Julie Hancher:  So it was about to ask about that. So there are plastic bags that are compostable that you’re using in this program or you’re able to use then?

Alexa Kielty: Yes. And um, we are pretty strict on which ones will accept. We like the ones that are bpi certified. It’s a third-party certification. But in California, we’re lucky in that the words compostable, if you’re going to print the words compostable on your products, then it means it’s gone through a test for compostability to stm standards for compostability. So it’s easier to train the public if it says the words compostable, it’s good. If it says biodegradable, it’s probably greenwashing. If it says degradable or anything, some variation of that, It’s probably fake. So the only legally merited certification or wording out there on products as compostable. But I believe that’s only in the state of California and less Philadelphia is doing something different. I mean in Pennsylvania. Sorry.

Julie Hancher:   Really interesting because I was going to say I think a lot of people locally, they see the compostable or biodegradable on are the core and plastics on their cups. Ido and AC goes somewhere and they think it can be compost and I have to clarify, you know? No, it’s actually has to be in a commercial facility. It was. You don’t have locally. That’s a really interesting comparison. I did not. I did not know about those different terms and what the difference was.

Alexa Kielty:  Yeah. I think it’s really unfortunate because people are really trying to do the best they can and there are purchasing these products. I mean the market share on these products has gone up considerably in the last 10 years and most places that are buying these products, they don’t actually have industrial composting facilities, so buying compostable plastics and then land felling in my mind is actually could potentially worse. I, I’m sure people could debate the lifecycle analysis, but one you’re going to be paying more for those products to their designed to break down. You don’t really want anything to break down in a landfill. You actually want it to basically maintain its shape and its consistency and because once it starts breaking down, then that’s when you have leakage of gases into the atmosphere and into your groundwater. Hmm.

Julie Hancher:   I know you also just mentioned the lifecycle and the comparison, you know, the environmental responsibility and I had someone recently asked me about if you were to wash a glass cup or something versus having a disposable and what that difference is. Do you know specifically if there is a comparison or whether you know like what that, how that equals over time.

Alexa Kielty:   I don’t know that off the top of my head. However, given, you know, when people look at life cycle, you really have to look at where that product was grown, the roads that were needed to be created to get to that timber that’s in some national forest somewhere and the hauling costs and fuel costs and then the bleaching agents and the water and the energy. I, I, I find it really hard to believe that there would be that a disposable product would outdo a reusable product in that scenario. I mean, I know people want to have that argument with me over cloth diapers all the time, but I’m sure there’s many different studies out there depending on who paid for that study and which way it’s going to lean. But I, I don’t in my mind, I don’t think that there’s ever a debate. Reusables are always going to be lower on the waste. They’re going to be a lower carbon footprint and they’re going to be producing less waste. So in the long run they’re going to be more environmentally preferable.

Julie Hancher:  Well yeah, I was just reading something recently about just like we are saying about who’s creating that study or who is paying for it often leads for, you know, the outcome sometimes. So that’s an

Alexa Kielty:  Yeah, absolutely. Awesome. And I think yeah, there’s probably 100 different ways you could do one life cycle analysis. So I mean all the way down to the hauling cost of your waste at the end of the end of its life and you know, in 20 years what, what happens to that product in the landfill and where does it end up? And you could get, we could go on and on, but I don’t think it’s a debate personally.

Julie Hancher:    Yeah, that’s a good point, and I’m done, I’m sold.

Julie Hancher:   There was actually a New York Times article that came out today or according on December 18th, 2018, and it said that nearly three fist of all clothing ends up in center eaters or landfills within one year of being produced, which is crazy and very wasteful if you think of our entire lifecycle of our clothing and how we’re using these products. But I did see San Francisco has been pretty progressive for clothing and textile waste, so I love to hear how that program has worked and what you’ve learned from it and just whatever you can share on that regard.

Alexa Kielty: Yeah, absolutely. So probably over five years ago now, I can’t remember when we launched our zero waste textile initiative, which was essentially an initiative to get at the 20,000 tons of textiles that were landfilling from San Francisco and it was in the top 10 material types that we were landfilling. So we knew we needed to target it and do something about it. And the campaign basically had three different components. It’s been a little while, but the first part was building awareness for the general public that this is an issue that your textiles shouldn’t be going in the landfill and we want to. Yeah, so we did an installation, actually have a textile installation in the Westfield Mall and we gathered many volunteers to build basically textile towers out of used materials, materials, used textiles and educate people and the amount of textiles that are being landfilled every minute in San Francisco, which all those figures are very astounding.

Alexa Kielty:  And the second piece of it is we really wanted to build convenience for textile recycling and we know that the general public just wants it to be convenient and easy so there they’ll do something as long as it’s highly available and easy to access. So we had an initiative trying to get textile collection bins and all high rise apartment buildings in San Francisco as well as a partnership that we had with ICO. It’s a European based company that did basically set up collection boxes in clothing retailers. So we’ve got American Eagle, north face, Levi’s. A number of big brands that are high profile are either headquartered at high profile here in San Francisco to do in store collection of all brands and many of them offer discounts for future purchases and we also got some smaller companies to participate like skunk funk, more local small retailers and that program was fairly successful, but some of the businesses have decided to continue on their own.

Alexa Kielty:  Some have dropped off that we did learn a lot and that it’s not quite normal behavior yet for people to bring their use closed back when they’re purchasing new clothes. So I think trying to get over that sort of behavior change obstacle is still an issue, but we were. We do have over 100 drop-off locations in San Francisco, so it’s. Our challenge is to continually promote those and we have such an influx of new folks. We knew San Francisco, so making sure they know where those locations are and in my mind the most ideal ways to have it in your apartment building where you’re going to be disposing of it. We also gave a grant to goodwill and which is a nonprofit that does job training program and we gave them $200,000 to build a, what they call a go box, which is a bin that collects aware residents in apartment buildings, can deposit their clothes and then it’s equipped with smart technology so it alerts the headquarters global headquarters when that bit needs to be serviced. So we were able to install a few of those. Actually we got some of those in office buildings as well. That’s awesome. So I would say we still have a long ways to go. We are considering some legislation and I don’t think we’ve solved it yet and we, we still are very reliant on overseas markets for textiles, which is not completely sustainable, but you know, I think we, we have to address it. There’s no other way. We’re drowning in our textile discards.

Julie Hancher:    Definitely. And that’s such a, there are so many big moments right now with slow fashion and getting consignment shops. You know, I actually went to, we have a green street, consignment is a local consignment shop and I found an awesome north face jacket for like $42. They’re normally two to 300 for winter, so yeah, no, I was going to say those are always win and actually found out through my good friend who’s Australian and super sustainable. That meanwhile also has a program where if you bring your old pair of jeans to get recycled, when you purchase a new pair, you get 20 bucks off, which is really great to see that companies are implementing some of these initiatives to. What was the name of the company made? Well,

Alexa Kielty:    Madewell. Okay,

Julie Hancher:                     cool. Yeah, so I don’t know if that it all stemmed from the San Francisco initiatives or this is just a thing that they’re taking on, but this, you know, it’s really great whenever you do see that connection and you know, the, the communication to customers directly about what they’re doing. So I really, you know, I love saying that all over.

Alexa Kielty:   Absolutely. Yeah.

Julie Hancher:  So earlier this season on City Rising, we interviewed both directors, the sustainability, Christine, Knapp of Philadelphia and Chris Castro of Tampa, Florida, and they’re both talking about ways they either work together with other cities or have relied on each other for new information. So do you feel like from the zero waste initiative that you’ve been able to collaborate with other cities or who do you learn from and who do you help along the way?

Alexa Kielty:  Not to sound holier than thou, but because we tend to lead in the zero waste movement in San Francisco, we tend to be out ahead of many other cities. We don’t collaborate as much as we probably could. However we’re not. There are areas we definitely could learn a lot from other cities, especially in the area of wasted food reduction. That some area where we’re working on right now, I’m sure you’ve heard the statistics, 40 percent of all the food that’s grown in the United States gets thrown away and about a third of that is at the farm level. On a third of it is in the supply chain and a little bit more than a third is coming from the household waste. So we’re working on some initiatives and stop waste is the Alameda county are our Alameda county equivalent and they’ve done a lot in this area and um, we’re looking to them for guidance and we’ll probably do something a lot similar to what they’re currently doing on that front.

Julie Hancher:   Yeah. That food waste statistic always shocks me. Especially, you know, when you think Philadelphia is the largest poorest city is one of our unfortunate reputations and is thinking of, I think it’s one in five Philadelphians don’t have secure access to food and thinking that we’re wasting so much of that is just insane. Yes, absolutely. And I know, I mean obviously we’re talking to today because there is such a leader in zero waste. So I’m curious what you would recommend to other cities, what your biggest lessons have been or what, what information and wisdom you can share on in your role over in San Francisco?

Alexa Kielty:     I would say I know of a lot of cities, and I think you said Philadelphia is one of them were the refuse bill is paid in the property tax, so I would definitely encourage cities that to sort of mirror of their refuse bill along with like other utility. So when people use more energy, they see that on their bill and refuse should be the same, so it should be transparent what people are paying and that that the more they produce in terms of discards, the higher their bill. We call that a pay as you throw a system. So I would say making your, your refuse bill transparent and doing a pay as you throw. So the more you throw out the Harrier bill because what you want to do is really drive people into not thinking this is their God given. Right. To waste that. They need to see this as like it really has an impact on the environment and there is a cost associated with it. Then people tend to abuse it and you don’t get people to really see the value of, of what they’re producing, what they’re buying and what they’re discarding.

Julie Hancher:                     Yeah. That’s a brilliant point. I’ve never thought of the utility model of, you know, having uh, you know, if I throw a 50 pounds of waste this month versus 30 the next month, that price can fluctuate. So that’s a really innovative, cool idea. Yeah. Have you had any major challenges from implementing the zero waste goals or what? How are you, what are you trying to overcome? Currently

Alexa Kielty:  the direction we want to go in is having consumers pay for their disposable products such as your to go coffee cup, there should be an associated price. I think there is some trepidation that the public’s going to pushback and particularly around like cost sensitive populations, you know, how do we overcome that? How do we make it equitable? Something like that, right. For people, people that are in the tech world and make all sorts of money here may not feel the effects of the cost. Additional cost of paying for a disposable products, but lower income people will fill those impacts greatly. So I think that’s a challenge, but I do think that we still have to go in that direction and look for creative ways to solve some of those issues, whether it’s making reusable cups at no cost for low income communities. We did something similar with the, when we passed our, our um, plastic bag ban and there’s a charge for, for paper bags at the checkout counters. I’ll check out counters. We were concerned about the impacts on low income communities. And so the city purchased hunt, like probably close to 100,000. I’m reasonable canvas bags and just went out to seniors and worked with nonprofits. All of our community based organizations to get those out to people who needed them. And I mean in my mind if you’re allowing coming doesn’t mean you aren’t concerned about the environment and it doesn’t mean that you can’t comply using creative solutions with environmental policies.

Julie Hancher:                     So I just think we have to think creatively how to do that. Yeah, that’s such a good point. I’ve, I actually worked on a plastic bag legislation a few years ago in Philadelphia and that was one of the things we were talking about is how to distribute reusable bags and really make that easier for people, especially since companies love doing that with logos and promotional. And so why not, you know, figure out ways to do that creatively. Absolutely. So it’s actually time for our quick tip of the episode that helps you, the listener make one small change that helps fight climate change. So Alexa, what would you recommend? Gosh, well, I don’t know if it’s. That

Alexa Kielty:  can easy, but I really am a huge proponent of backyard composting. If you don’t have a curbside composting program, one of the best things you can do for the environment is take your food scraps. You can just be your vegetable and fruit trimmings, your banana peels and may start making a compost pile in the backyard and you’ll get a fantastic resource out of it. Your compost for your future garden, and you’ll be avoiding all that methane that’s produced out of the landfill. When you put your food scraps in your banana peels in the landfill, it actually produces methane, which is one of the more potent greenhouse gases, so it’s really the best thing you could do. I think it’s even more important than recycling. Believe it or not, given that we’re so reliant on international markets, compassing is local and you can keep it right in your backyard.

Julie Hancher:                     Lux. I love that tip, but I am such a proponent. I actually say the same thing of composting over a cycling, so I’m really glad that you said that. Yeah, I’ve been saying that for awhile. I’m like, AH, recycling. You really should be composting. Awesome. Yeah, I’ve got her on the same page, but thank you so much for all that great information. It was so interesting talking to you. Do you have any final thoughts or anything else that people you’d want to share of how to learn more about what you’re doing in San Fran by chance?

Alexa Kielty:  You can check out our website, SF environment.org. We have quite a few programs besides zero waste. We have an energy program and we have a fantastic toxics reduction program. If you want to learn more about toxic free products and what you should be buying and that are, you know, making your kid sick, go on our website. Also, we have environmental justice program. We have a urban forestry program. Go check us out, love to hear from you, and they’re so, so my ways to way to connect through social media as well.

Julie Hancher:   Perfect. And we will add those links to the show notes, so thanks again for all that information and we will make sure to link to those below. Great. Thanks so much for having me. Appreciate it. Thank you.

Julie Hancher:     Thanks for tuning in to city rising. We hope this podcast helps you understand how climate change is presenting opportunities and our urban environments. Check the show notes for links from today’s podcast. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please leave us a review on iTunes. You want to hear from you, email us at contact at GreenPhillyblog.com, and follow us on social media at Green Philly blog. Thanks today to our sound guru like the holiday. Thanks to my cohost, Brady Halligan things to our producers, bringing Halligan and myself, Julie Hancher. Thanks to Alexa our guest, with her great information today and this podcast is brought to you. Thanks to funding from customers, the climate and urban systems partnership. For more information, visit www.cuspproject.org.

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Julie Hancher
Julie Hancher is Editor-in-Chief of Green Philly, sharing her expertise of all things sustainable in the city of brotherly love. She enjoys long walks in the park with local beer and greening her travels, cooking & cat, Sir Floofus Drake. View all posts by Julie Hancher

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