Readers may remember when the Board of Supervisors, with the support of Gavin Newsom, voted into law one of the country’s most comprehensive mandatory composing laws. Today the Examiner reports how, over six weeks after the legislation went into effect, local restaurants get top marks for compliance, but that some national, chain fast food restaurants are still struggling to get on board.

McDonalds would have been my first guess, but fuse those golden arches together and they become a halo when it comes to composting! San Francisco McDonalds restaurants place all kitchen generated waste into the appropriate bins, and even filters through the customer bins to sort out recycling and compost. They are presently working with the city to introduce customer-side bins to collect scraps from diners.

The franchises having difficulty complying are Subway and Burger King, but the Examiner reports that the city (which won’t start instituting fines of up to $500 against non-compliant businesses until after July 2011) has yet to take any action against either franchise. I wondered at first if this was related to a supposed moratorium against fining individual tenants and multi-tenant business complexes, so I contacted Alex Dmitriew of the San Francisco Environmental Department to get more information.

Dmitriew informed me that the reason no enforcement has been taken is because both Subway and Burger King say they are eager to comply, but lack the educational and technical resources to do so. One example is how fast food waste management is built upon a system of one-stream disposal (one container for everything), as opposed to a three system method (trash, recycling, compost). Since the the homogeneous design of a fast food restaurant is determined by corporate branding, franchise owners have more hurdles to jump if they wish to institute a change.

The philosophy of the San Francisco Environmental Department is not to fine wantonly, but rather support and encourage businesses struggling to comply. However, SFED plans to take strong action against any businesses that flat out refuse to comply (Dmitriew hinted at several examples but declined to name any specifically).

Dmitriew says SFED is currently working within the corporate structure of Burger King to precipitate top-down change. He believes that one of the reasons McDonalds has been able to make the adjustment so quickly is because of a longstanding working relationship with the department, and hopes that in time a similar relationship will develop with BK and Subway.

The San Francisco Environmental Department has taken a more hands on approach with the Burger King located at 1200 Market St, due to its proximity to the department headquarters. Officials are working with the that franchise manager to develop a creative solution around the one-stream trash disposal approach, which involves taking pictures of all the food and compostable materials served by Burger King, and posting them on the appropriate bins for customer convenience. Dmitriew anticipates that this particular Burger King will be compliant by the first week of January.

Businesses like Burger King and Subway have reason to comply with the new law, considering the financial incentives composting has to offer. Separating compost from trash can earn businesses a diversion discount credit. Though more nuanced in print, the general idea is that a discount is calculated based upon the volume of trash being diverted–removing fifty percent would earn a fifty percent credit. It caps at 75 percent, but beyond that, every piece of compost or recyclable material separated from the trash lowers a businesses’ dependence upon trash removal, thereby lowering their trash bill.

It is important to recognize the complexity of this issue from the point of view of a fast food franchise. Unlike a local restaurant, which typically exerts full control over all aspects of the business, a franchise manager would have to work within a corporate infrastructure that has remained largely unconcerned with issues of sustainability for the last sixty years.

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