SF woman gets help sorting out recycling rules


Debra Seglund is mystified about, of all things, her garbage.

"I don't know if this container is recyclable, maybe it is," she said.

She wants to be a good citizen, but is not quite sure how to go about it.

"Well it has coffee grounds in it, so I know those can go some place, but I don't know where the cup goes," she said.

Seglund lives in San Francisco, where the law says residents must sort their garbage three ways or face a penalty.

Trash must be recycled, composted or as a last resort, dumped in the landfill. Seglund really wants to do it right, but sorting is a lot more complicated than one might imagine.

"Some things are made of different substances. Where do those things go? Do I need to take things apart? You know, how in depth do I have to get on this," she said.

Seglund has spent a lot of time in her kitchen analyzing her trash and still is left with questions. Can you recycle a takeout food box? What about rancid olive oil? Do you have to wash bottles or containers before recycling them? How do you handle messy food scraps?

"I'm pretty good at getting the paper things out and the cans and then after that I'm kind of lost," Seglund said.

Seglund called 7 On Your Side and we brought over somebody who really knows her garbage.

Joanne Wong is a top waste manager for the city of San Francisco. She insists this whole garbage sorting thing is really a snap.

"They have to see their waste in a different way," Wong said. "I think it's becoming second nature. I think people really do know what goes where. We try to make it as simple as possible."

Wong set out to unravel the mysteries of Seglund's trash.

Messy food scraps go in a compost bin lined with something biodegradable.

Rigid plastic containers? San Francisco recycles all of these.

Coffee lids too.

The rancid olive oil can be turned into biofuel at a city-sponsored center.

And yes it is OK to recycle stuff with food residue on it, but it is nice to rinse it off first.

The simple breakdown is -- anything that was once alive goes into the compost.

Bottles, cans, clean paper, rigid plastic and clean foil goes into the recycle bin -- at least if you live in San Francisco.

Elsewhere, there are fewer options and fewer rules for sorting trash.

For example, in San Jose yard trimmings get picked up for composting but not food scraps; same for most of San Mateo County. In Santa Rosa, residents can compost food scraps like veggies and tea bags, but not meats or dairy.

Seglund and Wong worked for nearly an hour sorting her trash; in the end three-fourths of her trash was saved from the landfill.

That matches the city-wide statistic -- 75 percent of trash is recycled or composted.

"I was surprised at how little actual trash I ended up with once we separated things out," Seglund said.

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