California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

"Innovations" Case Studies: Curbside Recycling, the Next Generation

Case Study: San Francisco Fantastic Three Program

After two and a half years of pilot programs, the City and County of San Francisco and one of its permitted haulers, Sunset Scavenger Company, have started their new Fantastic Three program. This innovative residential curbside collection program includes separate collection and composting of mixed organic materials (all food scraps, food-soiled paper, and yard trimmings). The program makes San Francisco the first large U.S. city to initiate a large-scale curbside collection program for food discards.

The impetus for the program was due in part to a 1996 waste characterization study that indicated residents were throwing away 200,000 tons of garbage every year. Thirty percent of this was food. San Francisco residents generally have smaller yards than most locations in California, so food discards are a larger percentage of their overall residential waste. The city determined that capturing residential food discards, along with yard trimmings, could be key to meeting the State’s 50 percent diversion goal.

The city began planning pilot programs with Sunset Scavenger-a subsidiary of Norcal Waste Systems-in fall 1996, and they became operational in July 1997. The programs were intended to test the feasibility of collecting a range of residential organics, from yard trimmings only to all food materials. The programs were designed to test and evaluate collection containers, vehicles, outreach needs, and processing needs. They were also comparing recycling patterns in neighborhoods with different demographics.

Eventually, more than 9,300 households were targeted for services. They received lidded wheeled carts (Toter brand) for all the organics pilot programs, which fell into one of seven categories:

  • Weekly yard trimmings only in a 32-gallon green cart.
  • Weekly yard trimmings and vegetative food discards in a 32- or 64-gallon green cart.
  • Biweekly yard trimmings only in a 32- or 64-gallon green cart.
  • Weekly collection using a split 64-gallon cart for yard trimmings and vegetative food discards (organic materials on one side; trash on the other).
  • Weekly collection using a split 64-gallon cart for yard trimmings and vegetative food discards (organic materials on one side; mixed recyclables on the other).
  • Weekly collection using a split 64-gallon cart for yard trimmings, all food discards, and soiled paper (organic materials on one side; recyclables on the other).
  • Fantastic Three program: yard trimmings, all food scraps, and soiled paper in one 32-gallon green cart; commingled recyclables in a second 32-gallon blue cart; and remaining trash in a third 32-gallon black cart.

The city also conducted pilot programs testing different recycling configurations.

Because the addition of food wastes was a major factor in designing these programs, this case study focuses on issues related to that addition to curbside recycling services. Organics recycling information from the pilot programs are summarized in Table 6.

In September 1998, the city surveyed households in the pilot programs to determine resident satisfaction. The city found that the majority preferred their new collection system to that of their previous trash and blue bin recycling system. The one exception was the organics/trash split cart, which only 44 percent of participants preferred. Twenty percent rated it equal to their previous service.

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Table 6: Results of San Francisco’s Organics Pilot Program
Start Date Pilot Program Avg. Lb. Of Organics/ Drive-By Weekly Set-Out Rate (%) Monthly Partici-pation Rate (%) Compostables (% of Residential Generation, Excluding Recyclables)
7/97 Yard trimmings only 5 20 45 11
8/97 Yard trimmings & veg.* food 6 22 55 15
3/98 Biweekly yard trimmings 13 (6.5 weekly) 30 (15 weekly) NA 11
3/98 Split yard trimmings & veg./trash 7 50 75 26
3/98 Split yard trim.mings & veg./recyclables 6 40 67 13
10/98 Yard trimmings. & all food 5


20 NA NA
4/99 Fantastic Three 9** 40 60 25

*Veg.: vegetative food scraps (no meat or cooked food)

**Includes five small businesses with compostables collection. Residential only estimated at 8 lb.

(Source: Jack Macy, organics recycling coordinator, San Francisco solid waste management program, February 2000.)

The most frequent customer complaint was about the size and handling of the 64-gallon split cart. The pilot route with the most complaints about container size was the organics/trash split route. There were very few complaints about separating food (for example, messiness or smell).

The city and Sunset Scavenger found that while all the pilot programs increased diversion, using separate dedicated carts was preferable. Dedicated carts provide the most flexibility in size (from 20 to 96 gallons). Split carts were not available in 20-or 32-gallon sizes or with unequal bisections. The split carts required more maintenance and resulted in lower resident and hauler satisfaction.

The city and Sunset Scavenger also determined that the 32-gallon cart size for collecting organics (as well as for commingled recyclables) was the most appropriate size. Only a few households requested the larger 64-gallon size. In the pilot programs, extra organics that did not fit into the collection cart were set out less than 5 percent of the time.

The Fantastic Three program, which began as a pilot in April 1999, integrated the best elements of the previous pilots. Approximately 2,800 households were provided with three new 32-gallon carts: one blue cart for recyclables (paper, bottles, and cans) commingled together; one green cart for compostables (yard trimmings, all food scraps, and soiled paper); and one black cart for the remaining trash that is not recyclable or compostable.

In addition, residents received a 2-gallon kitchen pail to facilitate the separation of kitchen food scraps. Outreach materials encourage them to use paper bags or newspaper to wrap their food if desired to keep the bins cleaner.

Outreach strategy and materials were similar to earlier pilot programs, since these had proven effective. Outreach materials included several trilingual (English, Chinese, and Spanish) brochures: a direct mailing, including a letter from the mayor, a detailed brochure delivered with the bins, and labels affixed to each bin with recycling do’s and don’ts.

Residents were also telephoned within a week of receiving their new collection containers to make sure they received information and understood the program.

The Fantastic Three pilot included 50 small businesses that were within the residential neighborhood pilot area and that had volumes appropriate for Toter collection service. Five of these businesses are small produce stores and restaurants.

Including these businesses contributes significantly to the quantities of organics and helps buffer variations in seasonal yard trimming generation. This increases overall efficiency and diversion. Sunset Scavenger provided additional in-person outreach and training to the businesses to gain their participation. Businesses did not receive blue and green bins unless they agreed to participate in advance.

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In the initial Fantastic Three pilot area, Sunset Scavenger used two vehicles with split compartments. The capacity was 29 cubic yards (60 cubic yards total), and the vehicles had dual-compartment compacting. Each used a one-person crew to collect recyclables and trash. Recyclables were deposited in the 11.6-cubic-yard compart-ment. Trash went in the 17.4-cubic-yard compartment.

The truck bodies are Labrie with Volvo chassis (two other makers were tested). A crew person collects compostables in a separate dedicated vehicle with a side-loading single compartment.

Once collected, organics are delivered to Norcal’s composting facility at the B&J Landfill in Dixon, 65 miles northeast of San Francisco. The facility uses a horizontal grinder, a forced aerated enclosed “Ag-Bag” composting system (which involves composting for a two-month plus period), screening down to 3/8-inch, and curing. The resulting compost is blended and marketed through a soil company, ReadyGro. The product is sold in bulk for landscaping and in bags for retail markets.

The pilot Fantastic Three program had better results overall than any of the previous pilot programs. From May through December 1999, the Fantastic Three program diverted an average of almost 46 percent from the landfill (14 percent from organics and 32 percent from recyclables).

On some days the diversion level has exceeded 50 percent. The diversion rate for the pilot neighborhood increased by more than 90 percent. Almost two-thirds of this increase was due to the new compostables collection.

A survey of residents in the program found that 73 percent liked the program more than the recycling and trash collection services they previously had.

Based on the success of the Fantastic Three pilot program and the need to increase diversion, Sunset Scavenger developed a plan, in cooperation with the city, for citywide expansion of the Fantastic Three program. Under the plan, the program will be offered to almost two-thirds of the city’s households (more than 200,000 households) during the next three and a half years.

The new routes started in February 2000. The city expects to add a new five-day route approximately every three weeks. After a year and a half, the rate of expansion is projected to increase.

The city expects to divert an additional 50,000 tons per year of residential recyclables (including organics), from landfill disposal through the Fantastic Three program. Residents have demonstrated that they support collecting residential compostables, including all food. Such a program is feasible, and it has great potential for significant diversion in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.

Costs, Economics, and Benefits

Implementing the Fantastic Three program citywide will require purchasing a new fleet of dual compactor vehicles and thousands of containers. Vehicles and containers for the first months of expansion have been ordered.

Sunset Scavenger believes it can provide the expanded program at a cost similar to continuing the original system over the long-term, given the collection efficiencies of co-collection. The company expects initial program costs to be initially higher as the company purchases new equipment. However, because Sunset Scavenger needs to replace its existing vehicle fleet in the near future, costs are likely to balance out over 10 years.

Recycling and composting service is included in the rates residents pay for trash, at no extra cost. Residents can actually save money by participating and switching to a smaller trash container (for example, 20 gallons).

Equipment costs for the pilot program are summarized in Table 7.

Table 7: Sunset Scavenger’s Equipment Costs (for City of San Francisco Residential Program)
Equipment Item/Service Unit Cost
Dual compactor vehicle $192,000
Organics collection vehicle $142,000
32-gallon container $35
64-gallon container $41
2-gallon kitchen pail $3.50 to $4
Container delivery with outreach materials ($/cart) $2 to $3

(Sources: Jack Macy, organics recycling coordinator, City of San Francisco; and Ken Pianin, Sunset Scavenger Company, San Francisco, 2000.)

Funding Mechanisms

Sunset Scavenger’s costs are funded through the rates it charges customers for trash service.

Sunset Scavenger included the cost of the pilot collection programs in its rate application submitted in September 1996 and in its rates effective March 1997.

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Last updated: October 2, 2002
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