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March 5, 2013

Can a City Produce Zero Waste?

Watch San Francisco on Track to Become Zero Waste City on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Americans throw away about 250 million tons of garbage every year; roughly four pounds per person per day. All of this trash builds up in monumental landfills, causing environmental damage and emitting harmful greenhouse gases.

The city of San Francisco is currently a leader in waste reduction, with 80 percent of its waste going either to recycling or composting instead of a landfill; far above the national recycling average of just 35 percent.

However, for some residents, including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, think this doesn’t go far enough.

“We want 100 percent zero waste,” he says. “This is where we’re going.”

The city hopes to meet this goal through a combination of laws and information. The city randomly inspects residents’ trash cans to see how they’re doing, and sends teams of workers to educate those who had put items in the wrong bins.

The city plans to ban those items, like plastic bags, that cannot be recycled. And for residents who refuse to sort their trash, the program could be quite expensive. San Francisco can impose fines on those who don’t comply that range from $100 to $1,000, although the city has only handed out warnings at this point.


“All of us, as part of our culture of living here in the Bay Area, have appreciated the goals of our environment and climate change and doing everything that we can.

And I think the 80 percent, we’re not going to be satisfied with that, Spencer. We want 100 percent zero waste. This is where we’re going,” – Mayor Ed Lee, San Francisco.

Warm up questions

1. Do you recycle? Why or why not?

2. What is the difference between recycling and composting?

3. What are greenhouse gases? Why are they bad?

Discussion questions

1. Do you think cities should be able to impose laws and penalties on residents for not recycling? Why or why not?

2. What do you know about the trash and recycling policies where you live?

3. What could the city do to make it easier or more attractive for people to recycle?

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