Racing to Zero: documentary review

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

R20_Poster_HREncouraging and inspiring, the film Racing to Zero documents the great work in which the city of San Francisco is engaged (see trailer below). By the year 2020, San Francisco hopes to have achieved zero waste leaving their city destined for a landfill. At the making of the film they had already reached an 80% reduction in waste since 2000. Through a combination of creative entrepreneurship, city oversight, and passionate initiative of many community members, the entire culture of the city is in the process of transformation. Instead of seeing leftover and discarded items as garbage, this city sees them as resources. Watching this city tackle its waste problems with innovative versions of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” offers hope that even Americans are able to do this kind of work when we put our minds to it.

How do they do it, you might ask? They implemented curbside compost, as well as trash and recycling. The trash goes directly to the landfill. It is not sorted. But the compost and recycling go to their respective facilities, and the compost heads just outside of town to be turned into dirt with the help of some local worms and farmers. It is then used to grow food for the city. They have also set up a program to combine and compost the agricultural waste from nearby farms, including tomato skins and hazelnut shells. On their own, these do not compost well, but when combined they are able to add a diversity of nutrients back into the soil of all the participating farms. The city encourages individuals to use compostable plastic bags to reduce the presence of “urban tumbleweeds” in their city, and especially in the compost.

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Robert Haley, San Francisco’s Zero Waste Manager

San Francisco’s recycling system is broad and exciting. They can recycle most kinds of plastic, as well as glass, metal, and paper. Their plastic recycling facility is able to separate the plastic specifically enough to melt it down in the appropriate grade and type, then create new plastic beads for sale to manufacturers. This requires a number of dedicated individuals who have created a processing plant for this purpose.

They also have an excellent system for recycling electronic waste. Rather than shipping e-waste to foreign countries, where the useful scraps are dismantled but much of them are burned, releasing toxic chemicals into the air, e-waste is carefully attended to so that some of it is refurbished and sold and others are carefully dismantled into recyclable components and every piece possible is melted down for use in new products. Again, a group of committed individuals have been instrumental in making this possible.

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James Kao, Founder, President, CEO of Green Citizen

San Francisco encourages people to reuse products prior to recycling them, of course. The film showed a Goodwill donation center, and discussed the life of a textile product, reused and reused until it is threadbare and then created into new thread.

The city even emphasizes the safe disposal of biohazards and toxic chemicals, from chemotherapy waste to expired medications to household cleaners. San Francisco emphasizes education, ease for the citizens to know where and how to recycle or dispose of their waste, and volunteer or entrepreneurial energy to passionately implement the goals that the city set for itself. City personnel happily go about their jobs with a sense of dignity and joy. They are making it possible for people to do what they already want to do: to responsibly use their resources.

I appreciated that this film shows many regular, everyday workers doing the job of dealing with waste or recycling, and we see their care for their work and the sense of dignity and respect with which the city treats them. Garbage, compost, and recycling collectors are not second class citizens, but are performing an important and valued service for the community. Rather than the enemy, the city officials are shown collaborating with entrepreneurs to create jobs and opportunities, and to keep the local economy strong, and to work with those who use toxic, unsafe chemicals to find alternatives that are healthier for them and for the land.

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Sushma Bhatia, San Francisco Toxics Director

The documentary is not visually very exciting, but the information and ideas are well worth watching. I recommend this film for city planners and other officials thinking about implementing sustainability goals, for entrepreneurs wanting ideas of how to turn recycling into a career path, and activists who want to activate new ideas and energy for their organizations. It may also work well for student groups in a university setting. I can see it being quite helpful for business, economy, or political science students who want to know whether sustainability can be an effective and economical policy.

Racing to Zero encourages us to transform the way we think about trash, and, as one individual in the film said, instead of “making mountains out of trash, we can live in a way that’s less trashy.” We can remember that each of the things we use is a precious resource with a long and respectable lifespan, working alongside us to create a thriving world.

Educational and community groups can host screenings or show the film in their classrooms by securing rights through Bullfrog Films.

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