(Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

5 Cities That Are Recycling Superstars

The West Coast leads the nation in keeping its trash out of landfills.
Sep 17, 2014· 5 MIN READ
Chris Clarke is a veteran environmental journalist and science writer who focuses on wildlife and renewable energy. He lives in the Mojave Desert.

When you look at the American cities with the highest recycling rates, an interesting pattern emerges: They’re mostly on the West Coast. Maybe it’s the West’s environmentally conscious culture, or maybe it’s something in the water, but of the five cities we found doing the best jobs diverting their discards from local landfills, all were on the Pacific Coast—and all but one in California.

That’s not to say that cities elsewhere aren’t doing important work to reduce their waste streams. But when you map those cities that reduce, compost, or recycle more than 65 percent of their trash, that map is heavily weighted to the left.

Some of the reason for California’s dominance is that the state has been mandating tough waste diversion quotas for a long time. A California law passed in 1989 required cities and counties to cut their landfill shipments in half by 2000; another law passed in 2011 upped that to 75 percent by 2020. So it’s no surprise that California's cities are ahead of the rest of the United States when it comes to diverting trash from landfills. They have to be: It’s the law.

San Francisco: 80 percent

(Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

San Francisco is the undisputed queen of recycling cities in the country, with an 80 percent success rate at keeping discards out of landfills as of 2013. That’s partly because of the heightened environmental awareness among San Franciscans. It’s also because the City by the Bay has spent the last decade instituting sweeping—and strict—rules about how its residents and businesses can discard items they no longer want.

Take, for example, the city’s 2007 ban on disposable plastic bags—the first in the nation, and subsequently followed by other cities and soon the entire state of California. The ban prompted more use of reusable shopping bags, cutting down on the amount of litter reaching local landfills—and local beaches.

Two years later, San Francisco made recycling and composting mandatory: residents, businesses, and events face fines if they put recyclables or compostables like food waste in regular trash instead of the proper curbside bins.

Bans and laws have made a difference, said Guillermo Rodriguez, policy director for San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, but he said the real secret to San Francisco’s waste reduction success is more intangible. “People like to poke fun at ‘San Francisco Values,’ ” said Rodriguez, “but the reason our program is so successful is that reaching Zero Waste has really become one of the core values of San Francisco.”

Los Angeles: 76.4 percent

(Photo: Fred Prouser/Reuters)

Los Angeles diverted more than three-quarters of its waste from landfills in 2012, according to a study published that year by the Bureau of Sanitation and the University of California, Los Angeles. That rate has almost certainly climbed since. For one thing, L.A. started phasing in its much-heralded plastic bag ban at the beginning of this year, with even disposable paper bags subject to a 10-cent charge. For another, the city has set an aggressive waste reduction goal of 90 percent by 2025, with Zero Waste as an ultimate goal.

That may surprise people who’ve been following environmental news in Southern California for a while. Los Angeles has a long-standing reputation for exporting its solid waste to a network of landfills scattered across California—and it’s deserved: In 2011, Los Angeles sent its trash to 26 landfills, ranging from the Bay Area to San Diego. But Angelenos have been getting on the stick. From 2005 through 2011, the amount of trash thrown out per day by the average L.A. resident dropped from 5.9 pounds to 4.2 pounds.

Los Angeles’ waste reduction strategy dovetails with its climate change strategy: The city is aggressively pursuing a number of waste-to-energy projects in which materials that can’t be composted or recycled are turned into biofuels for transportation and power generation. Mainly involving anaerobic digestion, fermentation, and similar methods, these waste-to-energy techs are a lot cleaner than old-school, 1990’s-era incinerators and offer a more carbon-neutral source of energy.

San Jose: 75 percent

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The San Francisco Bay Area’s largest city has long been a bit of a recycling dark horse, with no real reputation as an eco-sensitive hotbed: San Jose has had trash reduction rates above 60 percent for the better part of the last decade. According to city staff, San Jose has met a goal the city council set in 2007 to divert 75 percent of its trash from landfills, putting it at number three on our list.

One of the programs San Jose expects to implement on its way to meeting its Zero Waste goal, set for 2022, is a “Clean Recyclables Cart” campaign to reduce recyclables' contamination. Under the program, waste haulers will note residences with consistently missorted recyclables and compostables. City staff will assess the situation, contact residents with educational material available in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, and offer further help if needed.

Since 2009, San Jose’s innovative Zero Waste Events program has cut trash generated at conventions, fairs, and other public events by 81 percent, not only keeping those red party cups out of landfills, but also performing a crucial public education service for event-goers. Both the public and event organizers have taken up the challenge, with one popular venue setting up refilling stations for water bottles as an alternative to single-serving disposable bottles.

Portland: 70 percent

(Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)

OK, make your jokes about artisan compost and locally sourced food waste. The fact is, Oregon’s largest city has a success rate of keeping waste out of landfills that a few less easily stereotyped burgs would do well to emulate. In 2012 Portland kept 70 percent of its discards out of area landfills, and the diversion rate for households was an impressive 74 percent.

That’s especially noteworthy given that Portland’s waste managers have to coordinate recycling and source reduction programs among the 40 independent private haulers that handle curbside pickup of both recyclables and trash.

(Photo: Education Images/Getty Images)

Bruce Walker, solid waste and recycling program manager for Portland’s Bureau of Planning & Sustainability, said that enthusiastic cooperation between the city and all those private haulers has been crucial, and he’s optimistic that Portland will meet its 2015 goal of 75 percent diversion.

But even with that teamwork, said Walker, Portland might not be the recycling star it is without its motivated populace. “Public support is absolutely critical,” he said. “You can have all the cooperation in the world between haulers and agencies, you can have all the infrastructure in the world, but without a public that’s enthusiastic about recycling and composting, where would you be?”

Someplace other than Portland, the answer would seem to be.

San Diego: 68 Percent

The West Coast’s southernmost big city is a respectable player in the waste diversion stats game: By 2012, San Diego was diverting 68 percent of its discards from landfills. City staff credit two factors for that high diversion rate—an aggressive construction and demolition debris recycling program, and a 2007 ordinance that requires almost everyone in San Diego to recycle. Only small businesses and apartment buildings generating less than four cubic yards of trash a week are exempted from the law—for now.

Those exemptions are likely to go away before long, as the city’s Environmental Services Department is in the process of crafting its Zero Waste plan, with a draft due in December. That plan will provide a roadmap for getting to the goals San Diego’s city council set in 2013 of 75 percent waste diversion by 2020, and Zero Waste by 2040.

Among San Diego’s most innovative initiatives is a large waste-composting program planned for the city’s popular “Miramar Greenery,” a composting facility on the site of the Miramar Landfill. So-called aerated static piles pump air into long composting windrows so that the material breaks down without anyone needing to turn the compost. That saves energy and expense, and similar systems can break wastes down into soil amendments in a month. San Diego expects to use the facility to process as much as 10,000 tons of green waste, and 20,000 tons of food waste, every year.