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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

National Survey Names S.F. 'Least Wasteful City in America,' Gives Locals Even More Reason to Lord It Over No. 25 Atlanta

Posted By on Tue, Mar 31, 2009 at 2:01 PM

S.F. is the greenest in the realm -- or at least we say we are
  • S.F. is the greenest in the realm -- or at least we say we are
A study commissioned by the water bottle company Nalgene -- which definitely has a horse in this race -- has deemed San Francisco the nation's "1st least wasteful city" (their words) in a field of 25 major cities. Atlanta, as the headline indicates, came 25th, making it ostensibly the "last least wasteful city."

You can see the city-by-city shakedown here; we beat out New York, Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles to round out the top five.

Now ... this is a good thing. We should feel proud. But as "The Wolf" put it in Pulp Fiction, "Let's not start sucking each other's popsicles yet."

First of all, how does Los Angeles crack any Top-Five list of "least wasteful cities"? That's a big red flag, and the methodology of the study explains a lot. Unless we're missing something, this was a study done entirely over the phone lines; not one ounce of trash or recycling was sifted in determining what was actually being recycled or tossed away. And you know what? People don't always tell the truth -- especially about their own wastefulness.

Professor Bill Rathje has excavated 21 landfills in North America as archaeological digs, earning himself the nickname "The Indiana Jones of Garbage" (which he hates). Earlier this year he told SF Weekly that sifting through individual households' trash reveals that Americans routinely over-report consumption of broccoli, cauliflower, and other vegetables by 40 percent while under-reporting alcohol consumption by 80 percent.

What's more, Rathje notes that the United States Department of Agriculture recently came to him hoping for help deciphering the results of its household survey of what American families are eating, which is undertaken every decade. "Based upon [production] numbers they got from farmers and processors, it didn't work. People ate, according to their [responses], 30 percent more than what was produced in the United States."

In short, people tend to give the answers they think they ought to, rather than what's true -- especially in San Francisco, where we're probably more likely than elsewhere to feel guilty about our environmental shortcomings. But our trash -- it does not lie.

Of course, asking the good folks at Nalgene (or the folks they hired) to get their hands dirty with our stinking detritus is a tall order. But they needn't. San Francisco has produced a detailed accounting of exactly what's going into our landfill and what's being diverted (i.e. recycled). That study revealed that 67.5 percent of material dumped into the city's garbage pit could have been recycled or composted.

Quite specifically, 31.3 percent of the material San Franciscans throw

away could have been recycled while 36.2 percent could have been

composted. Studies such as this are the gold standard; our telephone responses about our trash are garbage. 

When it comes to mass transit, recycling, and -- especially -- composting, this city really does make it relatively easy for us to live somewhat green lifestyles. But we are not yet close to where we want or need to be. And triumphalism will not help.   

Photos   |   Peter Kaminski

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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