How the Bay Area Is Using Water, Power and Landfill Space During the Pandemic

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A Recology worker collecting curbside waste.
A Recology worker collecting curbside waste. (Courtesy of Recology)

The Bay Area is starting to return to normal with vaccine distribution continuing at a good pace and Gov. Gavin Newsom announcing that California could fully open up its economy by June 15, 2021. But, the past year has impacted every area of life, including how we consume resources.

Bay Curious listener Kelly Runyon was curious how the pandemic impacted how people in the Bay Area use water, electricity and landfill space. And, his question won a voting round, so it’s clear many people are interested in the answer.

Resource use has fluctuated over the past year as counties have opened up more businesses or closed them down again. But in the most general sense, consumption shifted from commercial to residential use. We’ll look at water, electricity and landfill use one by one.

Water Use

Commercial and tourism hubs like San Francisco saw the biggest decreases in water use. That’s because thousands of non-residents flow into San Francisco to work and play every day. They all use water when they’re in the city, but since hotels, restaurants and big office buildings have been largely shut down or are operating at a reduced capacity, there’s been a lot less water use in the city.

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Residential water use in San Francisco is up 5%, and commercial water use is down 38%. That means overall the city used 8% less water, says Will Reisman, press secretary for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which provides the city's water. It might seem like the drop should be bigger, given the gap between those two numbers, but Reisman says there are far more residences than businesses, which offset the decrease.

In other parts of the Bay Area, the water picture looks different. More residential counties, like Marin and parts of the East Bay, saw fairly steady water usage from before the pandemic to now. Trends there are driven more by the seasons — people water their yards more in the summer — and whether there’s a drought or not.

The SFPUC provides wholesale water to several other communities on the peninsula, so Reisman had a little more insight into water usage there, where he says trends were not uniform. In Burlingame and Palo Alto, usage was down, but in Hillsborough and Redwood City usage was up.

Electricity Use

San Francisco MUNI buses sit parked at an SF Municipal Railway yard during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on April 06, 2020 in San Francisco, California. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) announced that they are cutting service to a majority of their 89 bus lines in the City of San Francisco as ridership plummets due to the coronavirus shelter in place.
San Francisco Muni buses sit parked at a San Francisco Municipal Railway yard during the coronavirus pandemic on April 6, 2020 in San Francisco. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency announced that they are cutting service to a majority of their 89 bus lines in the city of San Francisco as ridership plummets due to the coronavirus shelter in place. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images))

The SFPUC provides power to most municipal buildings in the city, as well as big power users like Muni and San Francisco International Airport. Reisman says they saw a decrease of 17% overall, which makes sense because Muni has cut back service, many city workers have been working from home and SFO hasn’t been nearly as busy. Reisman did note, however, the decrease wasn’t uniform; there were upticks in power used for sewage treatment, public hospitals and street lights.

He also had some insight into the shift in residential and commercial usage patterns because of the CleanPowerSF program, which provides renewable energy to about 380,000 San Francisco residents and businesses. He says there they saw predictable shifts: Residential use went up 7% and commercial use went down 18%. That means, overall, CleanPowerSF customers used 8% less electricity.

“We were, I think, a little surprised that the commercial usage wasn't down more,” Reisman said. “But I think you understand that some of these big buildings have to keep the lights on to an extent.”

He also thinks it points to the resilience of many San Francisco businesses. Even under difficult circumstances, restaurants and other businesses were operating, and thus using power.

PG&E is another big power provider in the Bay Area. They also saw declines in consumption, although they wouldn’t break the numbers out by city or region. A PG&E spokesperson said from March 2020 through the end of the year, power usage was down 2% across all 5.1 million PG&E accounts.

Trash and Landfill Space

"For the first six months of the pandemic, it was about a 10% total reduction in the amount of waste that was being disposed in California landfills," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste.

He says households are producing more waste, but commercial waste streams make up between 40% and 45% of California’s waste. Due to the shutdowns, businesses produced far less waste during the first six months of 2020, leading to the overall decline.

Recology, San Francisco’s curbside waste contractor, confirmed this trend. When they compared the last quarter of 2019 to the same period in 2020, they found that commercial waste was down 33%, while residential waste was only up 2%. That means for that quarter, Recology sent 14% less trash to the landfill. That’s about six huge 18-wheeler truck loads.

Recology also noted that recyclables collected on mostly residential routes were up, and they’re proud to have continued their recycling and composting programs during the pandemic when other cities suspended these services.

The increase in recycling could be due, in part, to what Murray calls "the Amazon effect." Online shopping was popular before the pandemic, but it only went up as people stayed home. That means more cardboard boxes, flexible plastic containers that cannot be recycled and a fairly inefficient delivery system. He hopes retailers like Amazon will start using materials that can be more easily recycled. But, he thinks it’s important consumers know the impact they’re having, too.

"This whole pandemic does represent a window into what might be if we were actually to change behavior and change systems so that we reduced our consumption," Murray said.