Reducing Waste: Recology Tour

By Mashav Shelef | Sensible Cooking

May 31

Last week I joined the Recology monthly tour, the city’s recycle and waste collection company. Although I thought I know a lot about how to reduce waste in San Francisco, this tour was quite the eye opener and I learned so much more important information. Turns out the SF is doing a good job leading the country with a top diversion rate of 80%. That means that 80% of all the trash that can be salvaged by recycling, composting, collected and correctly handling is actually done. It’s not bad but we still have a long way to go till we reach the 100% zero waste goal hopefully by 2020.

With our growing population, our “disposable society” has reached that point when waste is piling and we have to do our best to reduce it. The good news is that with just little effort we can.

Even before getting to the recycle bit, first step of reducing waste happens when you choose what to buy: Try to buy in bulk, avoid these products that comes in multiple packaging, Styrofoam materials or individually packaged. It might be a little bit more convenient but a hell of a lot more wasteful and often, more expensive.

Second step would be to try and reuse and re-purpose before throwing things away: wash and re-use glass and plastic container after finished, keep and reuse plastic bags from the market, get some fabric reusable bags to go grocery shopping, have a reusable water bottle and so on. Also encourage buying second hand goods when possible. For many household items, clothing and electronics it can be both a way to reuse other people’s stuff while getting a great bargain.

Third step is when you’re left with the actual waste that you can’t reuse and have to decide where to send it off. Every city has its own recycling rules but it’s important we all get to know them and their limitations. For example, SF Recology can recycle hard plastics but not plastic bags. It’s not that they’re non-recyclable but the equipment isn’t able to separate them and they end up getting stuck in-between the wheels of the machinery. So while you think you recycled better, you actually jeopardize the process. You can re-purpose bags and recycle the clean ones in a Safeway plastic bag recycle station. When you start separating your trash correctly (Recycle, Compost and Land Fill) you’ll see that it doesn’t take that much effort and it’s the easiest way to directly contribute to the health of our environment. Here’s a short video to explain how easy it is to put the right waste in the correct bin:

Recycle Center at Pier 96

It’s pretty amazing to see all that waste coming in just from the blue bin in one day collected around the city, how it then gets sorted out in a huge loud warehouse and packed to send off as raw material. What makes SF better than others in recycling is that all the recyclables goes into one bin and separated in this recycle center, making it easier for people to recycle.

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This is where all the trucks unload the collected recyclables


Unloading trucks



The waste go through a sort line where both machinery and manual sorting is done


Bales of aluminum cansare extruded from an automated baler at the Recycle Central recycling facility at Pier 96 in San Francisco. 2/25/03 Photo by: Larry Strong

Bales of aluminum cans are extruded from an automated baler at the Recycle Central recycling facility at Pier 96 in San Francisco.
Photo by: Larry Strong


The outcome are piles of clean materials which are condensed together into cubes called “Bales”. These gets shipped to processing plants around the world to use as materials for all kinds of industries. Most of the paper and plastics are sent all the way to Asia on the same cargo ships that brought shipments to the city and used to come back empty to Asia.

The Transfer Center or The Dump

This is a huge site in the south of the city where all the waste is going (except for the recycles)  right before sorted and shipped to their final destination. There’s a big pit for the land fill garbage, the construction waste sorting area, the organic compost dumping site before going in the shredder, collection center for public disposal and recycle for residents and an educational center that even holds art exhibitions made by artists using waste.

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Contraction waste is separated here


Residences of the city come here to drop off hazardous waste like paint and batteries among other things

Residents of the city come here to drop off hazardous waste like paint and batteries among other things

There’s an estimated 50% of waste that could have been salvaged if it was to go in the recycle or compost bins instead of the land fill. Unfortunately there’s no coming back from the land fill. There’s just no way to sort through all this at all, so next time you put something in the black bin, be certain it can’t go elsewhere.

This is "the pit" where all the land fill garbage is dumped before putting into bigger trucks to go to the land fill

This is “the pit” where all the garbage is dumped before getting into bigger trucks to go to the land fill


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Recology hires a falconer who’s responsible for scaring off all the birds, especially the seagulls who are attracted to garbage but pose an actual risk when eating harmful pieces of waste. This is safest way to scare them off without a harm. The falcons are kept hungry enough to come back home but not enough to go and kill a bird.


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All the collected compost waste is made into fertilizers for local farmers with commercialized heating process that takes up to 90 days. This is the reason we can compost all that waxed paper containers and such. Over 1.2M lbs of compostable waste is collected each day (!) just in SF but a lot more can be handled and there’s the demand for it!


Spread The Word

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You can spread the word around and help people lower their waste. You can invite recology to your workplace to better educate your staff or you can go to one of these tours and see this whole process for yourself. More information in the recology website.


About the Author

Inspired by International and Asian cuisine and her bringing up in Tel Aviv, Mashav Shelef leads the team of Le Couloir, tailoring private events, creating new and inspiring menus and making sure every event is one to remember. A graduate from Ferrandi - Paris and experienced in several Michelin starred restaurants. In 2013 created a Pop-up Secret Kitchen in Tel Aviv and now starting her way as a Personal Chef in San Francisco. She brings dedication, creativity and her undeniable passion for food together with a fresh approach to cooking derived from her scientific background.

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