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Kevin Drew

Senior Residential & Special Projects Zero Waste Coordinator, San Francisco Department of Environment

BACKGROUND/ Academic and professional background

Hamilton College, 1975 BA in History

Organizer –  United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO – 1979-1981

Collective member –  Red Vic Movie House 1981-1988

Executive Director – SF Community Recyclers 1988-2000

Residential Zero Waste Coordinator – City of SF 2000-present

ACHIEVEMENT/ What is your project, initiative, start-up, company all about?

The City of San Francisco set a goal in 2003 of getting to Zero Waste by 2020, this means no material to landfill or incinerator. I have been involved in coordinating recycling, reuse and composting in SF since the 1980’s. Our efforts have led us to focus on the recovery of organic materials and we are one of the leading cities in the world. We capture 700 tons of organic material every day. We make this into organic compost for use on farms and vineyards that send their products back to the city each day. This is truly a closed loop, circular local economy.

LOCATION/ In which city, country, part of the world do you conduct your activities?

I coordinate reuse, recycling, source reduction and composting programs for the entire residential sector of San Francisco, California, 380,000 households, about 800,000 residents.

I also am the Zero Waste Special Projects Coordinator for San Francisco. In this role I have had the honor of travelling around the world describing SF’s Zero Waste system. We have “discovered” a way to safely and productively collect and process the so-called “wastes”  of modern life into new resources.

Our leadership role is due in great part to San Francisco and California’s long history of pro-active government initiative, underpinned by a progressive political populace and leadership.

 IMPACT/ What is the positive economic, social, political, environmental…of your activity, project, initiative, start-up,4 company?

San Francisco is leading the way to a vision and reality of Zero Waste, a key element of a truly sustainable human economic system. While this goal may seem impossible and we approach it as an aspirational quest, there are many practical steps that SF has uncovered in the journey that reinforce a positive economy. We recently reached 80% diversion from landfill, the highest measure in California. And we intend to keep moving forward towards this goal, whether we “make it” by the 2020 date or not.

Our Zero Waste philosophy sees nothing going to landfill or incineration and everything being recovered to its “highest and best” use. Both of these tenets are relentlessly positive – they seek to coax or squeeze the most usefulness out of the bounty of our global treasure chest and to NEVER reject, destroy or “throw away” any of these gifts, when we are “done” with them.
The practice of Zero Waste has lead us to see value in our discarded resources, such as the 20 year old Artist in Residence program,

( ) providing  studio space, a stipend and access to the stream of materials for artists. This “recycled” art has brightened the lives of hundreds of artists and art-lovers and San Francisco, including an extensive show in the International terminal in SFO (

Or the Household Hazardous Waste Facility – one of the very first in the US – accepting all sorts of toxic and hazardous materials. And the program has become a source of free latex paint for thousands of NGO’s, businesses and residents in SF and worthy groups around the world.

Out of need during the early years of the AIDS crisis community members constructed a food recovery network led by Project Open Hand that has persevered as a very comprehensive food recovery and reuse system. It gets edible food into people’s mouths before going to the landfill or composting. This early start helped create a web of food capture and re-purpose that resulted in over 120 food pantries in the city and dozens of soup kitchens and other free meal options. The grant program at the Department of Environment that I coordinate has supported many of the NGO’s that become a part of the network as part of our Zero Waste work assuring that food resources reach their “highest and best” use.

The most recent “innovation” San Francisco is developing may just be the most positive of all. Scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and the University of California at Berkeley have proven the powerful climate impact that compost can make when spread on rangeland soils, compost such as we make from our 700 tons per day of collected food and other organics. Just 1 centimeter of compost spread over rangeland ignites a state change in the soil that results in the sequester of 1 ton of elemental carbon per hectare. This single application also creates up to 50% more forage and increases the water holding capacity of the soil be 26,000 liters/hectare.

The truly amazing impact is that a single application produced these results each year for 7 years running. Models predict the increased sequestration and other benefits will persist for 30-50+ years. This holds out the promise of soil sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere down to the 350ppm and below, all while increasing environmental and societal benefits. ( )  This is the most POSITIVE news possible!

The challenge before us is to act, act swiftly, and broadly across the globe in order to reach the magnitude of CO2 reduction necessary to avoid the looming climate disaster. To do this we will need to capture all the organic matter we are currently using and make compost out of it. This is a herculean task as well, but one that is well within our physical and mental capacities. Carbon dioxide is uniformly distributed around the world, equally accessible to all.  Rangelands are the single greatest cover type on the planet and just 7 countries contain enough accessible land to do the job lowering atmospheric carbon.

Is it within our political and social behaviour models? That’s a harder question. Let’s talk about it at the Positive Economy Forum and get to work.