• Opinion
  • September 23, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 0

San Francisco is spinning climate gold from the city’s trash

Opinion: Carbon capture is simple — just look in your trashcan

This opinion article was written by Debbie Raphael, Director, San Francisco Department of the Environment and one of Apolitical’s 100 most influential climate leaders. For more like this, see our environmental policy newsfeed.


Cities around the world are facing a climate emergency of accelerating magnitude.

Whether we are being impacted by torrential “rain bombs” that wreak havoc on our food supply, rising seas that create a new class of refugee, or extensive heat waves that impact our most vulnerable residents—we are recognising that this crisis is truly existential.

In California, last fall we suffered the most destructive fires we have ever seen, with the associated pollution impacting air quality in cities hundreds of miles away.

This bombardment of headlines and images of devastation can have a perverse effect on our citizens and even those on the front lines of the environmental movement. Rather than leading to an upswell of passion, I’m witnessing a new affliction spreading through society — a paralysing eco-anxiety that keeps people from acting.

A 2017 report from the American Psychological Association notes the concept of “psychological distancing”, in which people remove themselves from the problem and become numb to the issue. But I believe there are antidotes to eco-anxiety. I believe we can help others maintain their hope and commitment to action by telling an inspirational story.

And San Francisco certainly has an inspiring story to tell.

Pulling carbon out of thin air

We are showing that cities have a tremendous opportunity to slow and even reverse climate change and environmental damage.

Our simple and elegant framework for articulating our climate action strategies — “0-80-100 Roots” — contextualises the actions necessary to meet the challenges of climate change. We will reduce our emissions by achieving zero waste; ensuring 80% of all trips taken in San Francisco are taken in sustainable modes such as biking, walking and mass transit; and securing 100% renewable energy.

Even if we entirely did away with fossil fuels tomorrow, that’s still not enough to heal the planet

As part of our Roots goal, we are planting trees to store carbon and increase the soil’s carbon storage capacity, quite literally expanding the roots of our ecosystem. But Roots is also a metaphor for San Francisco’s commitment to creating green space and community gardens, connecting neighbours, and protecting local biodiversity – all of which bring us back to our very human “Roots” of caring for each other and the planet.

While 0-80-100 can be thought of as San Francisco’s outline for doing less harm, our Roots goal is about doing more good — and even healing the planet.

Because even if we entirely did away with fossil fuels tomorrow, that’s still not enough to heal the planet. Not only must we commit to reducing our climate emissions, we must also pledge to pull carbon from the atmosphere, and Roots does just that.

Tons of trash

Our Roots goal is also very much tied to our zero waste goal.

In 2000, San Francisco became the first major city in the United States to offer curbside collection of food scraps and yard trimmings. We have taken a major urban challenge and turned it into an asset.

Today, the city collects nearly 700 tons of compostable material daily, giving them a second life as high-value, commercial-grade compost. This compost is sold to vineyards, farms, and rangelands in California, creating a circular economy with big benefits.

Recovering organic materials instead of sending them to landfill avoids creating methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that leaks from landfills. In addition, compost has diverse microorganisms and plant nutrients that improve soil life and structure to reduce or even replace fossil fuel derived fertilisers and pesticides.

Applying compost also helps the soil retain water and reduces the need for irrigation, which is vital for regions suffering from drought.

Cool carbon

When we launched our curbside collection initiative, little did we realise that this urban composting program could become a vehicle to capture carbon from the atmosphere. Compost, it turns out, does more than reduce methane emissions from landfills and improve soil health, its application on soil pulls more carbon from the air.

We need more compost. This is where cities come in

A growing body of science shows that applying just 6 millimetres of compost on grassland and other rangelands can improve soil fertility and increase carbon capture from the atmosphere by at least a ton per hectare per year.

Just by doing this once we will be able to reap the benefits for several years. Scientists have determined that using compost along with other agricultural practices, like carbon farming, on a global scale could pull enough carbon out of the atmosphere to reduce global temperatures significantly.

So, the solution is elegantly simple.

It doesn’t require complicated technology or risky endeavours like “geo-engineering”. It harnesses the full lifecycle of the food that is the centrepiece of our very existence. It replicates nature’s way of dealing with waste, which is to turn it into a beneficial product that serves the next generation – the next generation of plants and the next generation of humanity.

Composting for change

However, as wonderful as this news is, there is still a challenge.

We need more compost. This is where cities come in. Cities must process millions of tons a year of discarded organic materials or “waste”.

If every city in California launched a curbside food composting program, we could have enough compost to pull millions more tons of carbon out of the atmosphere every year. And if composting scaled nationally and internationally, just think what this could mean for soil health, carbon sequestration, and the creation of new green economies.

Composting provides an alternate storyline – one about healing, instead of harming the planet. I believe this is the kind of story that may just mitigate the eco-anxiety I am witnessing, inspiring people to stay in the battle and engaging those who have yet to join us in working on the solutions to this climate emergency. — Debbie Raphael

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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