When Robert Haley was a kid growing up in the ’60s, he collected Coke bottles for a nickel or dime.
Today, Haley is the Zero Waste Manager for the San Francisco Department of the Environment and he recycles a lot more than just bottles and cans. After working for both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, Haley realized the government sector was where he could effect the most change.
“I work in this field because it feels good,” he says. “It’s part of my being, the way I want to live.”
In his job, Haley has helped develop a comprehensive recycling program for San Francisco with goals of 75 percent landfill diversion by 2010 and zero waste by 2020.
“It’s an ideal,” he says. “We may not ever get to 100 percent zero waste, but we’d like to get as close as possible.”
And while colored bins and progressive legislation push San Francisco residents to improve their waste management practices, Haley’s own recycling habits have become “almost an obsession,” he said.
“In my office, I don’t have a trash can,” notes Haley, who says he hasn’t thrown away so much as a staple in 13 years. He has a ten-pound ball of staples on his desk “the size of a grapefruit.” Haley and his partner Rachel recycle and compost about 99 percent of the waste that comes into their house.
The zero-waste lifestyle all begins with what he buys.
“I only like to food shop. Occasionally I have to buy clothes, but I really think about whether I need something, if it has toxics in it, and how it is packaged,” he says.
Haley resoles his shoes when they wear out and has become accustomed to telling people he doesn’t need a paper bag or napkin when they offer him one. At the cleaners, Haley takes off the bag from his clothes and hands it back right there.
“If I accumulate extra hangers, I take them back,” Haley says. “I don’t take any waste home.”
Amidst rising concerns about climate change, Haley says he sees the momentum picking up, but worries about whether there’s sufficient political will to catalyze change. Even so, he remains idealistic.
“You should try to do some good while you’re here, leave the world a little better,” he says. “I’m going to do whatever I can do.”
—Alissa Dos Santos