San Francisco Youth Help Meet Recycling, Landfill Diversion Goals

The City of San Francisco has long been at the forefront of recycling and landfill diversion. Almost 20 years ago, the city introduced green waste bins and implemented a three-bin waste collection system in residential neighborhoods. Shortly after that, the city launched Food to Flowers! in its schools.

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Food to Flowers! familiarizes students with the same waste management best practices the city encourages in residential neighborhoods: recycling, source separating, and understanding what materials are compostable.

Program Director Tamar Hurwitz has been with Food to Flowers! for more than 14 years and has spearheaded the effort to develop a comprehensive educational component to food waste diversion and recycling in schools. The program includes image-based slideshow assemblies to educate K-12 students about recycling and the environment. Today, more than140 schools in San Francisco have implemented a food-scrap collection program that encompasses education, outreach, organics collection for off-site composting, and vermicomposting with worms.

“We teach students that nature gives us everything. Kids love animals. It’s a very natural instinct,” says Hurwitz. “We teach them that if we care about the animals, then we need to protect nature and we introduce zero waste as way to do that.” 

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When Hurwitz began developing the program, she noticed many recycling mascots were bottles and cans with smiley faces on them. She didn’t find that very motivating. “I don’t want to save a can, but I do want to save an animal,” she says. Food to Flowers! created a phoenix bird mascot called Phoebe that children really love. “Kids remember Phoebe for years. … She’s beloved.” Phoebe is the star of the school assemblies and a recycling training video.

The Food to Flowers! campaign includes installing green carts in cafeterias to collect food scraps. Students learn how to separate their food waste from plastic packaging and other non-compostable items. Fourth-graders are trained to be compost monitors,  and they wear bright orange aprons. The goal is to prompt students to stop and think about their trash rather than doing a “dump” and running off to recess.

“It’s a reasonable request to ask students to dump food, sort out recyclables, and stack plastic trays,” says Hurwitz. “You have to make it consistent and support them when they are confused.” Compost monitors tell fellow students to think about compost in terms of worms. If a worm can eat it, it can go in the green cart.

Hurwitz puts a lot of thought into the educational messaging. She recalls asking a classroom why trees are important and a student called out, “Because they give us paper!” Hurwitz realized she needed to reframe the question and asked why living trees are important. “The implication is that living trees have such value—we need to keep them alive.”

Schools that implement the Food to Flowers! campaign often see benefits in many different areas beyond waste management. The program’s positive messages have a trickle-down effect. “When a school can incorporate a zero-waste program, it can help create a school culture of respect and teamwork,” says Hurwitz.  

Waste issues plague most cities, but programs like Food to Flowers! model environmental stewardship to children so it becomes a natural and normal part of how they view their trash.

— Christina Files
Posted on Apr 6, 2017

Summary: The City of San Francisco has long been at the forefront of recycling and landfill diversion. Almost 20 years ago, the city introduced green waste bins and implemented a three-bin waste collection system in residential neighborhoods. Shortly after that, the city launched Food to Flowers! in its schools.