Talking trash with PBS NewsHour

Written by Sven Eberlein

A few weeks ago my partner-in-muse Deb and I welcomed Spencer Michels and his crew from the PBS NewsHour to our house. To be more specific, to our kitchen. The reason we got to scramble eggs in front of a television camera was that they were doing a segment about San Francisco’s nation-leading composting program and were looking for residents to demonstrate how it works in practice.

Yup, we got to reuse our Yes on Prop 37 signs as sun blocker! Jason, the PBS cameraman with Cat Wise and Spencer Michels.

Why us? A while ago I wrote an article for Alternet entitled Where No City Has Gone Before: San Francisco Will Be World’s First Zero-Waste Town by 2020 that went pretty deep into the history, mechanics and culture of San Francisco’s municipal recycling and composting efforts. (I’ve also written about the tremendous potential of urban compost to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere). When NewsHour producer Cat Wise called me she said she’d really enjoyed the piece (especially the line “trips to cities without composting bins feel like visits to strange planets in distant galaxies”), and so she asked if they could come by my place to film the everyday composting routines in a San Francisco household.

Well, when PBS asks to come to take a look at your compost bin, you don’t say no. “Plus,” I was chuckling to myself as I hung up the phone, “they couldn’t have come across a geekier and more committed composting team than Deb and me.”

On Friday, the segment entitled San Francisco on Track to Become Zero Waste City aired, between a piece on Mali and Shields & Brooks (with the awesome “…speaking of garbage” lead-in). Deb and I appear at about 2:10, but it’s worth watching the whole piece.

San Francisco on Track to Become Zero Waste City


As they spent almost 2 hours filming and talking to us, a lot of questions we were asked and things we said didn’t make the final cut. So below, some more photos of the day, along with some thoughts on one particularly strange question.

PBS NewsHour in the Kitchen, January 8, 2013

When the doorbell rang at 9am, we didn’t quite know what and who to expect, but compost and recycling bins full and cutting boards out, we were ready for whatever was going to happen. A couple hours later, we had whipped up a scrambled egg breakfast, tossed a bunch of egg shells, onion scraps and tea bags in our compost, and taken a trip downstairs to our green bin.

We also chatted with Spencer Michels about composting and why we do what we do. Being the docu-nerds that we are, we couldn’t help but do our own little photo shoot of the event.

Deb looking out at Spencer, Jason, and Cat from where she prefers to be: behind her trusted old Nikon.

All in all, Spencer and his crew were delightful and we gave them plenty of material to work with for the 55 seconds we got in a 9-minute segment that took them to Slanted Door restaurant, Recology’s SF transfer station, recycling, and composting facilities, Mayor Ed Lee’s office, and skeptical curmudgeon Quentin Kopp’s office. Kopp is a former CA legislator and the official doubter who thinks that the city is exaggerating how much waste they’re actually diverting. While Mayor Lee and Recology CEO Mike Sangiacomo got to defend the city’s official 80% diversion rate in the final cut, Spencer asked me the same question how I knew whether this figure was actually true.

My answer was that while I had no reason to believe that Recology and the City were breaking all kinds of CA laws and standards by cooking the books, it really seems silly to haggle over numbers here. Whether we are at 70 or 80 percent, what matters to me is that we’re moving in the right direction, and I can see that with my own eyes every day. (and yes, there are still plastic bags around even after the ban went into effect a few months ago, but it takes more than a few months to eliminate an entire generational culture). And as far as the claim of being the nation-leading city, even if SF were at 60% we’d be well ahead of most other cities.

There simply is no other urban composting program as comprehensive as San Francisco’s, but really, I’d be happy if there were. It would actually be way awesome if we were Numero 132 in the U.S., because it would mean our national composting rate would be far above the current measly 3%. What a lot of these doubters don’t get is that the numbers are there much more to inspire others than to be pitted against each other. City officials from all over the world are visiting to learn how SF did it, just as SF officials are traveling to cities like Amsterdam to learn more about bicycle infrastructure.

Cities are ground zero in the fight against climate change and they’ve long realized that we’re all in this one together. So if one city does something really well, then it’s great to point that out, so others can get inspired and learn. Yes, a little competition between cities is healthy, but everyone I’ve met who is serious about this knows that we’re all really pulling on the same strings here.

There was another question, however, that struck me during our interview as rather odd. I didn’t know at the time whether it or our responses to it would make the final cut (it didn’t), but it made me think about the perceptions and culture surrounding environmental issues in this country. In fact, if you will indulge me for a couple of paragraphs, the question raised an even bigger question in my mind regarding the western industrial mindset about who we humans are and what our place is on this planet.

Big drum roll .:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:. here it is:

Spencer: “Are you a fanatic?”

I think it was one of his prepared questions, and perhaps not completely out of context after we had just demonstrated the extra thought we put into sending close to nothing we consume to landfill. It’s probably also one of those questions that journalists ask to challenge their subjects, stir up controversy, and provoke an emotional response.

I guess you could view the word “fanatic” in the most beneficial light as someone who is really enthusiastic about something, which Deb and I are: We love to compost because it’s fun, it keeps our kitchen clean, it helps our city achieve its zero waste goal, keeps CO2 emitting methane out of the landfill, and just generally closes a natural cycle.

The other, probably more culturally prominent and more likely implication of the word is that you’re a nut job.

Deb’s response to this totally unexpected curve ball of a question, naturally, was to burst out in laughter at the not-so-subtle insinuation, followed by a disarmingly innocent and utterly adorable “Yes!” It was such a charming and unrehearsed moment that had it been included, viewers would have immediately gotten that this is a passionate and caring woman on a mission to set a positive example, not a fringe loony with a creepy obsession.

“Hey, it’s Spencer Michels at my desk!” Deb being adorable.

Since Spencer addressed the question to Deb, I had a quick moment to think about it, to let everything I wrote in this last paragraph scroll by me and come up with a proper response. Being asked whether you’re a fanatic is one of those questions that immediately puts you on defense, a bit like the “when did you stop beating your wife?” proposition. So I knew I had to get off this question’s narrow turf and broaden the playing field if I wanted to stand any chance at not looking like a fool.

While I may not live the most conventional life in the 9-5, white picket fence, two cars, two kids sort of way, I’ve always considered myself to be pretty level-headed, open-minded, and relatively free of dogmatic tendencies. I’m pretty passionate about certain aspects of life, like nourishing good friendships, being creative, lifting people up, or treading lightly, but I’ve always stayed away from the kind of personal, cultural, or religious worship of pop stars, gurus, or belief systems that are usually associated with fanaticism. The idea of identifying myself as a compost fanatic just didn’t quite fit, considering how mundane and non-radical it all feels to me.


In fact, it occurred to me that not composting has got to be one of the most radical and crazy things we’ve ever come up with. Go back a hundred years, before garbage disposals and chemical fertilizers, and you’ll find that through most of human history — since the advent of agriculture — people relied on organic waste from horse poop to veggie trimmings for their soil nutrients.

You don’t even have to time travel — just visit any number of countries in the world right now and find that composting is the most normal thing on Earth. I’m particularly reminded of my time in India where the sight of cows in the streets converting palm leaves used as lunch plates into valuable fertilizer is as common as the smell of perfume in a shopping mall. But you don’t even have to travel that far: across the US there are millions of people with gardens who save their sloppy seconds to grow food with.

And yet, in the United States we manage to throw 97% of our precious food scraps into landfills. Sure, it’s a bit different in a modern American city with few back yards and no cows in the street, but if cities can figure out composting systems that work within their community and get the nutrient-rich and carbon-absorbing fertilizer to the surrounding farms and back onto our dinner tables, is it crazy to want to do the best you can to support it and pitch in?

Personally, I think it’s totally and utterly crazy not to.

Does this guy look like a fanatic? Photo by Debra Baida.

With that in mind, I started to chime in as soon as the laughter ringing through our kitchen from Deb’s response had subsided.

I don’t remember the exact words I used but what I tried to convey was that this short window in human history where we’re consuming exponentially more than we’re putting back in is truly extraordinary, exceptional, and temporary. Just because a couple of generations of people have lived utterly wasteful and unsustainable lives long enough to create a majority myth of mindless consumerism  doesn’t mean that it is actually based in any kind of long-term reality as regards the carrying capacity of planet Earth.

While the out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality of a throw-away society facilitated by the temporary availability of cheap fossil fuels is understandable in the context of the relative abundance of resources and space up until a few decades ago, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for even the most naive denizens to ignore the now visible reality that an ever growing human population consuming ever more and faster is pushing up against the earth’s limits.

So am I the one who is crazy for being excited about an opportunity to reduce my ecological footprint and be a little more in sync with the earth’s natural flow?

Am I going over the deep end for digging my city’s composting efforts and doing my part to take it as far as we can together?

Is it extreme for me to bring my own beautiful canvas shopping bags to the store and be happy about San Francisco’s pioneering plastic bag ban that will keep millions of these single-use petroleum-based convenience products out of the ocean?

Is it fanatical to want to live within the planet’s shrinking means, considering that I am sharing it with 7 billion others who all want their children to have a slice of the pie?

Or could it be that, just maybe, it’s those who continue to believe that there’s an “away” when they toss the things they’re done using who are living in a fantasy world?

I, for one, don’t mind pulling my weight. Call me crazy.

“Look, it’s just like a trash can, only green!”

So thank you Spencer & friends for coming to our house to talk trash. I hope PBS and other media will keep reporting on this important issue. There is so much food (and compost) for thought here for all of us, and the more questions we ask about this the more normal it’ll soon feel for all of us to live in a (close to) zero waste world.

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Sven Eberlein

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  • Just posted a comment on Kos since it gets more eyeballs. I love the way you brought the reader into your living room and personalized the experience for all to enjoy. When I get a notice come through that you have posted I always try and clear my calendar as quickly as possible because I know it will be worth it. So far I’ve always been right on with that choice. Great job!

    • Thanks John, much appreciated, I’m really touched by that. I do think that telling a story and personalizing some of these more dry and often overwhelming concepts is an important part in getting people involved. It’s a bit like writing a good historical novel, it gives you the facts but also touches your heart which is what’s ultimately needed to shift consciousness.

  • The abstraction of true wealth is the core of our environmental ills. We don’t make the connection between the food we unthinkingly throw out and the loss of topsoil across our country. I’m thrilled to see that media is opening more and more to the obvious benefits of recycling of all kinds. The book Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins talks about how natural ecosysms are closed loop systems – no byproduct or waste goes unused. I see composting as the back end of the loop that starts with local food. So very cool for you to get highlighted by PBS! Now if stories like this could be on the nightly news we’d really be singing outside the choir!

    • very well said, Naima. It’s really up to us who are conscious of nature’s closed loops to keep telling that story in ways that people can relate to. It’s hard to grasp just how far removed we’ve become from the natural cycle when we’re so fully immersed in the condensed box of industrialized living. I love Paul Hawken and actually got to meet him last year. Great honor. It’s cool to see that some mainstream media are picking up on this. I personally don’t care so much whether I’m on TV or not, but if it serves the purpose of educating people about what’s possible then I’m all for it.

        • It’s funny how things connect. I learned about this book from some friends we hadn’t seen for years spending the weekend with us. Then I found out Sven had some connection with the authors. Then our friends surprised me by sending me this book in the mail as a surprise because of our discussions we had while they were visiting. And it all fits in so well with my current writing/blogging path.

        • And to add to the impromptu reading list, I just finished John DeGraaf and David Batker’s new book, “What’s the Economy For Anyway? Why It’s Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness.” Quite eye-opening and an affirmation of some of the real priorities in life.

  • While I was watching the “skeptic” Quentin Kopp, I was struck by the fact that although Spencer Michaels questioned the Mayor on his figures, he didn’t ask Kopp what made him think that the city’s numbers weren’t correct. Kopp definitely came across as a “denier” type to me. What evidence does he have that the city’s numbers aren’t correct?

    • that is a really great point, frostieb. I’m not sure if Kopp actually has any legitimate research that would back up his claim. Could be that he cited something but it didn’t make the final cut of the piece, but it couldn’t have been too convincing either way. I think he’s mostly just ticked off that Recology has the contract with the city and his Proposition A was voted down by 76% of SF voters last spring.

      Thanks for stopping in!

      • FYI – Been working with a web designer over the past 6 weeks. I’m on the verge of a major upgrade on my site. The one you’ve seen has been a very vain attempt on my part. When the upgrade happens you’ll see me get more public. Your blog is already on that new site (not public yet) as a bookmark. Actually it’s on the old one that is public now but it has been very inactive. If you have a problem with me listing your site as one I enjoy and recommend let me know. My site will be kind of edgy and full of shit so you may not. Let me know.

  • Like a soldier’s story from the frontlines, it was meaningful to read about your experience on the other side of the interview. Looking up Webster’s definition, fanatic becomes problematic because of the word zeal, not because zeal is a bad thing, but a zealot is. Enthusiastic? Yes. Inspired? Absolutely. In those terms, Deb was right to say, “yes.” A zealot, however, does not consider opposing views, which you do considerably.

    Meanwhile, in the story, the opposing view was from a (love the description) curmudgeon. They could have come up with a better example of a naysayer, but they didn’t. I found that most interesting.

    After watching, I left with two questions, one big one that you may have answered in the above links. (Please direct me if so). 1.) Did I see you toss a plastic bag into your compost bin? May I assume it was compostable plastic? PBS might have done well to explain 2.) If methane is a byproduct of rotting food, how is methane reduced when rotting food is diverted from landfill to compost?

    As for the segment, I chuckled when I saw how short the kitchen appearance was. And I thought about the story inside the story … how it even came to their attention in the first place; how one (two with Deb) shed enough light on something positive for it get notice; how it is the PEOPLE’s demand that drives the corporate action; and now, how those people are subsequently asked if they are fanatics.

    Kudos to you and your city. And thank you for having the courage to stand up for common sense.

    • Ruth, glad you enjoyed it and thanks for this thoughtful comment. My intention for writing about the “fanatic” question was exactly to get the kind of discussion about language and perception you’re sparking and as happened in the comments yesterday over at Daily Kos.

      To answer your two questions:

      1. Yes, those bags were biobags. Our local food-co-op just started using bio bags in their produce section, so that’s what we were using the day PBS came. We’re assuming those are made from non-GMO corn, because we know Rainbow is pretty vigilant about that, but we have to double check still. Before that we would buy bio bags every now and then, but for the most part just tried to use milk cartons or newspaper as composting receptacles, or other containers that were already in use and that are accepted by the city’s composting facility. The idea to buy bags so that you can then compost them seems very counterintuitive, so Rainbow offering bio bags in their produce section really works well in many ways: a) no more plastic bags to wash or recycle (we already tried to cut down on those by bringing our own cloth produce bags) and b) we now automatically have a composting bag whenever we do take Rainbow’s bags for produce.

      2. Regarding methane emissions from organic matter
      a) the composting facility has state of the art filters that keep most of the gases (not just methane, but other VOC’s) from going into the atmosphere. It’s a technical process that is a bit complex, but the best explanation I’ve found was in this photo essay about the Jepson facility. There is also a very good discussion about this question in this thread a while ago on Daily Kos. Which brings me to…

      b) the piece I wrote a little while ago about carbon sequestration through composting cover crops. Even if the actual composting process were to emit as much methane as putting food scraps in the landfill (which it doesn’t), by being used to restore soils which take a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere, the net effect of it all is still a significant reduction in greenhouse gases.

      You’re so right, there is so much more to the story than they were able to fit in the piece. But it’s a good start to at least get people’s attention. I hope they’ll do more stories in the future and go deeper. Deb and I certainly provided them with enough material for several segments. 🙂

      • I’m late to all the conversation here. Sorry folks!

        I wish to confirm that YES those are GMO-free BioBags, and from what the sign at Rainbow Grocery says, they are made of GMO-free corn grown in Italy. Vivia Italia!

    • Al, it was quite a way to start out the new year, we’re definitely on a roll now. It may all not be enough in the grand scheme, but doing our small parts to turn this ship around is certainly worthwhile. A million small parts make one big one.

  • Sven!
    I love it!
    We’ve started a potluck event here in Delta, BC to support each other in healthy eating and care for our environment. The link to this will definitely be in the newsletter.
    Thanks for being a real trooper for the environment.

  • […] Of all the things to get me excited, who knew the prospect of talking about my trash on national television would be one of them? Early last month, a crew from the PBS Newshour came to the house to interview Sven and me about residential composting for a story they were producing about San Francisco’s journey toward zero waste. Sven wrote about the happening, its genesis, and more in a most read-worthy blog post, Talking trash with PBS NewsHour. […]