The Zero Waste Program is a policy initiative to reduce waste and increase access to recycling and composting.ix Zero waste is defined by San Francisco as sending nothing to landfill or for high-temperature destruction (incineration). Instead of waste being sent to landfill or incineration, products are designed and used according to the principle of highest and best use, and the waste reduction hierarchy: prevent waste – reduce and reuse, recycle, and compost (in that order). By becoming a zero waste city, San Francisco aims to achieve three goals: conserve valuable resources, reduce environmental impacts – such as climate change resulting from methane emitted by landfill – and help create green jobs.


As a result of this programme, landfill disposal in San Francisco is now at its lowest level in decades, with a mid-2013 rate of 80% diversion of waste from landfill (1,593,830 tons in 2010) up from 35% in 1990, helping the city set a North American record for recycling and composting.x Through the number of measures and initiatives introduced,xi San Francisco has already reached a 78% recycling rate, collected 300 tons/day of food scraps in what is the largest urban food scraps composting programme in the U.S., and has decreased the use of plastic bags by 100 million per year. Reduction in landfill waste results in GHG emissions savings, contributing towards San Francisco’s carbon reduction goal of 80% by 2050.

Reasons for success

When the Altamont landfill closure was approaching, San Francisco seized the opportunity to take an alternative sustainable path, underlined by a thorough cost-benefit analysis, taking into account the co-benefits of the 3R approach (reuse-reduce-recycle) and the true costs of landfill and incineration.xii From the start, the project defined an ambitious vision and set of goals, as well as measurable milestones to track progression. Additionally, clear communication with citizensxiii made the programme understandable and easy to participate in, ensuring continuously improving results. 

C40 Good Practice Guides

C40's Good Practice Guides offer mayors and urban policymakers roadmaps for tackling climate change, reducing climate risk and encouraging sustainable urban development. With 100 case studies taken from cities of every size, geography and stage of development around the world, the Good Practice Guides provide tangible examples of climate solutions that other cities can learn from. 

The Waste to Resources Good Practice Guide is available for download here.  The full collection of C40 Good Practice Guides is available for download here.  

All references can be found in the full guide.

  • Economic
  • Environmental
  • Social
Key Impact
Increasing diversion and pursuing zero waste achieves three key sustainability goals: 1) Conserves valuable resources 2) Reduces environmental impacts, such as climate change and pollution 3) Creates green jobs
Emissions Reduction
When materials are not reused or recycled and sent to the landfill, valuable resources are wasted and greenhouse gasses are emitted into the atmosphere
Financial Savings
Recology has 1,050 employees in San Francisco alone, and the Department of the Environment has a green jobs and environmental careers program that employs local residents from the city’s diverse communities
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