After his family moved from Massachusetts to San Francisco in 2008, Will Anastas noticed a big change in his trash. The family of four went from producing five bags of trash per week to one or two, says Anastas, a manager at Forrester Research Inc., who used to live in Newburyport and Charlestown. He gives credit for the reduction to the city of San Francisco—its culture, its people, and its recycling policies—and thinks he never would have changed his environmental habits if he still lived in Boston.

Boston is a lot like San Francisco. They both are small, hilly cities surrounded by population-dense suburbs; both are rich with history, culture, and educational institutions; both tend to attract young, left-leaning, well-educated transplants. Yet when it comes to recycling, Boston lags light years behind its West Coast counterpart.

In San Francisco, recycling is required by law. An impressive 72 percent of the city’s waste is diverted from landfills, which is the highest rate in the nation among major cities, according to most surveys. Residents must pay a flat monthly fee of approximately $30 for trash and recycling pick-up, but if they reduce how much trash they generate, they may see discounts of up to 50 percent on their monthly bill—meaning they have a financial incentive, as well as a legal mandate, not to toss soda cans into the trash. Similarly, if a household makes more trash than can fill a 32-gallon container, it will be charged twice the monthly rate and given a larger container.

In the fall of 2009, the city took its recycling efforts to a whole new level. Food composting, which previously had been optional, became mandatory. Residents were required to remove all food waste from their trash and set it out in a separate container for pickup. Only one other major US city, Seattle, offers curbside food composting. (The Massachusetts town of Hamilton launched curbside composting in March; the state Department of Environ­mental Protection says the town may be first on the East Coast to do so.) The new policy in San Francisco nearly doubled the amount of food waste the city processes, from 300 to 500 tons. Officials say the cost of composting is comparable to trash disposal, and its environmental benefits are significant: It reduces the amount of methane emissions from landfills, and the resulting fertilizer can be used to improve the quality of soil at northern California’s many farms, golf courses, and vineyards.

When it comes to waste diversion, Boston isn’t in the same league as San Francisco. Recycling in Boston is optional and, as of 2008, only 13 percent of the city’s waste was recycled, compared with the 72 percent figure in San Francisco. Boston’s rate is also one of the worst in Massa­chusetts; neighboring Brookline and Cambridge both recycle at rates nearly three times as high.

The cost of trash pick-up in Boston is hidden as a part of taxes (rather than paid for by each household according to use), so residents are rarely made aware of how much garbage they produce. Although 132 other communities in the Bay State offer financial incentives to make less trash, the capital does not. The city’s approach to recycling has focused primarily on making it more convenient. In the summer of 2009, Boston rolled out “single-stream recycling”—meaning residents no longer need to separate cans from plastics from newspapers—and has since seen a 15 percent reduction in overall trash tonnage, but some neighborhoods still do not have access to the new single-stream carts.

Some environmental enthusiasts in Boston say it’s easy to forget about recycling because the city demands so little of residents. Bill Perkins, who lives in Jamaica Plain, offers community workshops on how to reduce waste production and once ran an informal recycling coalition in his neighborhood. “I think there are a lot of people who don’t know very much about recycling at all,” he says. “You can put just about anything on the curb and have the city take it away. It’s pretty nice for the homeowner, but for the environment, it’s not. People need to be a little more cognizant of what effect they have.”

Susan Cascino, Boston’s recycling director, says she would like to make recycling mandatory and to offer food-composting service. “We would like to do everything San Francisco does,” she says. But she could not give any timeline for change nor say which policies were likely to be put in place. She said the city is “investigating” financial incentives, but that Boston’s many multi-unit buildings make that type of approach a challenge.

Keeping up with the neighbors

San Francisco became an environmental leader using financial incentives and mandates, but it’s helped by what newcomer Will Anastas calls “an environmentally friendly culture,” where people would no more toss cans in the trash than they would light a cigarette on an airplane. So it can be difficult to tease out whether policy dictates culture, or vice versa. Does recycling work so well in San Francisco because of mandates and incentives, or does San Francisco have mandates and incentives because people are environmentally minded to begin with? Michelle McCauley, a professor at Middlebury College who studies the psychology of environmental behavior, thinks it’s a little of both.

“If you want long-term attitudinal behavioral change, you need people to ‘buy in,’ so they aren’t doing it because you tell them to, but because they believe it,” says McCauley. “It’s easy to get people to do things, but those behaviors don’t generalize into other areas. We can say, ‘You must recycle bottles and cans,’ and if you make it convenient, most people are likely to do it. But it doesn’t mean they’ll generalize into turning off light switches and other pro-environmental behavior.”

Technically, tossing a soggy hamburger bun into your black trash bin instead of your green compostable bin could result in a fine of up to $100 in San Francisco. But Mark Westlund, a spokesman for the city’s Department of the Environment, says his office isn’t trying to catch scofflaws and hasn’t issued any fines. “We hope we never have to implement fines,” he says. “We hope that people will participate correctly.”

Westlund says the city did direct its service provider, Recology, to issue warnings when collectors spot violations, but not to go digging through anyone’s trash looking for errant pizza boxes. According to a Recology spokes­man, collectors have issued approximately 8,500 “friendly reminder” warnings since December 1, 2009, 10 percent of which went to repeat violators.

That figure suggests 850 households out of 340,000 are repeatedly flouting the policy.

“I think probably why San Francisco works so well is that it is mandated, but there’s not a heavy hand behind it,” says McCauley. “People have a sense that [recycling] is a community value. I think if you said, ‘We’re going to give you tickets,’ people would start investing energy in how to trick the system,” she says.

The fear of social pariah status, says McCauley, is a much bigger motivator for most people than is the threat of a fine. “People are really sensitive to what their neighbors do, but in our individualistic culture, we deny that to ourselves,” says McCauley. “So if you ask people what they base a decision on, they never say it’s because someone else is, they come up with all these other reasons.” In other words, she says, research shows that if you ask people why they recycle, they’ll talk about global warming and pollution, but in fact, the thing that got them to change their behavior was seeing bright blue carts in all their neighbors’ driveways.

That kind of group reinforcement is difficult to legislate, but it’s worth noting that it exists in a city that also uses financial incentives. And it’s financial incentives that have been proven to work in Massachusetts, despite Boston’s reluctance to adopt any. Outside the capital, more than a third of Bay State municipalities now use what’s known as a “pay as you throw” system. Typically, in a pay-as-you-throw system, residents must purchase official trash bags or stickers, and only designated bags are collected curbside or accepted at transfer stations. The thinking goes like this: If people get charged, they become aware of how much trash they make, but if they never see a bill or have to pay for the service, they never think about it.

“Pay-as-you-throw is the single most effective way to increase recycling,” says Brooke Nash, who manages municipal waste reduction programs for the DEP. Of the 50 Massachusetts communities with the highest waste-diversion rates, 40 of them use pay-as-you-throw systems. Some communities do have high recycling rates without charging for trash, but they tend to be the Bay State’s most affluent communities, where residents are more likely to be educated about the environment. As Nash notes, “studies have shown that higher income and educational attainment correlate to higher rates of recycling participation.” Lexington, Hingham, and Wellesley all divert more than 50 percent of their waste without a financial incentive.

Kristen Haviland, who lives in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood, thinks that when recycling is optional, as in Boston, it becomes a kind of “latte liberal” luxury. But if you’re worried about putting food in your kids’ mouths, you might not take the time to rinse out your milk carton, especially when you have no financial incentive to do so. “I can see how it would not be a priority if other parts of my life were harder,” says Haviland. So while peer pressure and environmental knowledge may be enough in communities where people have more leisure time, pay-as-you-throw works across a wider swath of the population. Worcester, a diverse city with many multi-unit buildings, boasts a diversion rate of 43 percent (more than three times as high as Boston’s) using pay-as-you-throw.

The DEP’s Nash did not address the reasons why Boston hasn’t adopted incentives, but she says charging for trash is often a “political hot potato.” People get accustomed to thinking of trash service as free even though it is, instead, simply “an invisible cost,” she says, in which the price of collecting, transporting, and incinerating trash is tacked onto taxes rather than a monthly trash bill. Cities and towns that do adopt pay-as-you-throw often see significant savings in the cost of disposing of trash, freeing money up for other municipal needs. Malden, for example, reduced its trash tonnage by 50 percent in its first year. More typical, says Nash, is a 25 percent to 40 percent reduction.

Yet Boston’s leadership remains reluctant to adopt these successful models, perhaps fearing the political fall-out. Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas Menino, says the administration doesn’t want to add a new fee for city residents. “While I know recycling advocates believe in it, with the economy in the shape it’s in, a lot of people would see it as a punitive move,” she says.

Joyce’s comment illustrates the huge divide between San Francisco and Boston as far as the importance of environmental sustainability. While the mayor’s office here assumes Bostonians would resent a mandate, residents of San Fran­cisco see their policies as a declaration of civic identity.

“Here, everybody recycles. It’s just the way you do things,” says San Franciscan Kristen Haviland. She adds that while people drawn to live in San Francisco are often environmentally-conscious from the get-go, the blend of mandate, social expectations, and recycling containers everywhere you look means people act on those values more than they might elsewhere. “My sister, who lives in New York City, is a well-educated, environmentally-conscious person, but she throws everything in the trash,” says Haviland with a laugh. “She says, ‘It’s hard to do it here, so I don’t do it. The city doesn’t make it easy.’ But I get frustrated because I think she has no excuse.”

Haviland, 35, says she wasn’t always this way. When she lived in Philadelphia in her twenties, she recycled only those cans and bottles that carried a deposit. Now, she says, “If I can’t find a bin to recycle a soda can, I’ll carry it home.”