San Francisco tops list of ‘green’ cities in survey
By Wendy Koch and Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
On trash day in San Francisco, bins in three colors line the streets, each with a different purpose.
Norcal Waste worker Manuel Vera moves a bins with compostable materials while collecting recyclables in a Sunset district neighborhood in San Francisco.
The city requires residents to put recyclable materials into a blue bin, compostables into a green one and regular old garbarge into a black one.
“We even recycle batteries,” says Johanna Partin, the mayor’s director of climate protection initiatives, adding they can be placed in a clear bag on top of any bin.
Since San Francisco launched the mandatory program in October 2009, it’s keeping 77% of discarded materials out of landfills – the highest such diversion rate in the United States, Partin says. She expects the city, which exceeded its 75% goal by 2010, to hit 90%.
The recycling program is one reason why San Francisco, a pioneer in the environmental movement, ranks as the greenest of 27 large cities in North America in a survey released today by Siemens Corp.
City resident Patricia De Fonte loves the system. While the garbage can is usually only one-third full, the recycling and composting bins are almost always full. “It takes so little effort to separate the compost, recycling and garbage,” she says.
Christina Becker isn’t sold. She keeps her family’s trash bins in the garage, and a problem with mice a year ago has left her unhappy with the idea of putting vegetable and meat scraps in the green bin. “The recycling is fine,” she says, but “I don’t want rodents.”
Some residents may grumble, but Partin says they benefit. “You only pay for the trash you send to the landfill,” Partin explains, noting they’re charged for the size of the black bin they choose. She says businesses save an average of 50% on their disposal bills.
San Francisco also was the first major U.S. city, in 2007, to ban grocery and chain pharmacy stores from handing out disposable shopping bags. About 100 million plastic bags each year don’t end up in landfills as a result, Partin says.
Other U.S. cities are blazing eco-trails of their own, according to the survey compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit:
”¢New York is turning green, literally, and it’s not just Central Park. The city intends to plant 1 million trees by 2017 and already has staked 483,229 and expects to hit 500,000 this fall.
“This is about caring for New York City’s urban forest,” says Amy Freitag, executive director of the New York Restoration Project, a private group founded by Bette Midler.
The project is partnering with the city’s parks department on MillionTreesNYC and raising money for the initiative. It’s enlisting botanical gardens, schools and other groups to help care for the trees, more than 100 types of which have been approved for use in the five boroughs.
“We plant a lot of oaks. They’re such noble trees” and their size allows them to absorb a lot of carbon dioxide and provide much shade, Freitag says.
“New York will be forever changed” by the initiative, she says. “People don’t think of it as the green oasis it’s become.”
”¢Denver is embarking on a 122-mile, $6.9 billion expansion to its current 35-mile light and commuter rail T-Rex network. Its voters approved a hike in sales taxes in November 2004 to pay for the initiative, known as FasTracks, which initially was projected to cost $4.7 billion.
The project, however, has been anything but fast.
“There was quite an unprecedented increase in construction costs” at the same time that tax revenue dipped during the recession, says Pauletta Tonilas, spokeswoman for FasTracks, part of the Regional Transportation District of Denver.
Tonilas says the city is considering another sales tax increase to fund the project, and if that happens, it could be done by 2020. Otherwise, she says, “it will just take a longer time.”
She says the first line, 12.1 miles, is 75% complete and is slated to open in less than two years. With existing funds, the city can finish at least half of the system.
“We are the trailblazer” for light rail, Tonilas says. “This is the largest, most ambitious, voter-approved transit expansion in the country.”
”¢Seattle is using $20 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to launch an energy retrofit program for 2,200 buildings, including 2,000 single-family homes.
“This program is designed for moderate-income families,” says Jill Simmons, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment.
She says they’ll get rebates but likely will pay 75% of the costs to make their homes more energy efficient. They can finance it themselves or add the cost to their monthly electric bills. (The city provides free retrofits for some low-income households.)
More than 250 homes have signed for the retrofit program, announced in April, and they’ll begin with an energy audit. Simmons says the city aims to finish all homes by June 2013. She says its goal is to make it easy for people to cut their energy use and, in turn, the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.
”¢Los Angeles is expanding its water and power department’s use of renewable energy, from 5% of the total in 2005 to 20% in 2010. It aims to hit 33% by 2020.
Nearly half of its renewable energy comes from the Pine Tree Wind Power Plant in Tehachapi, Calif., the largest city-owned wind farm in the USA.
The switch hasn’t boosted utility rates, says Romel Pascual, the city’s deputy mayor of Environment. He says Los Angeles now gets about 40% of its power from coal but aims to reduce that to zero by 2030.
“We want to be the cleanest and greenest big city,” Pascual says, noting the challenge given Los Angeles’ past problems with smog. “Our air quality has gotten much better.”
As part of its efforts, he says, “we’re promoting energy efficiency whenever possible” and offering some free services to small businesses and residents.
The city has also planted more than 300,000 trees since 2005 and aims, like New York, to plant one million. Pascual says it will give any resident seven free trees, delivered to their doorstep.