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Essentially, it doesn't matter whether something's put into a bin marked paper, cans and bottles, or trash — with few exceptions, it's all going to Richmond's solid waste transfer center. In Richmond, some, but certainly not all, recyclables are recovered, but the longer they sit unsorted, the less efficient and the more labor-intensive it is to pull them out, and the more likely it is that they'll become too contaminated to recycle. What's more, there's no composting of food waste — by weight, one of the largest components of municipal waste; it all goes to the landfill.
All together, as Elliot Goldstein, a third-year student and second-term student body senator, put it, "the lived reality is not on par with what one would think with regards to the greenest school in the country." Or, in Chapot's words: "If they're the greenest university, it makes you wonder what other guys are doing."
According to Lin King, UC Berkeley's director of recycling and refuse, the university's system of mixing recyclables with garbage is unfortunate but necessary, given the typical state of a recycling bin on campus, which is almost invariably too contaminated with food waste and nonrecyclables to be viable. Some of that contamination is probably due to carelessness on the part of students, staff, and visitors — but many contend that signage on campus bins is often unreadable, and that there are too few containers, so people fill up the recycling bins with trash. Indeed, many cans on campus are old, and have been designed so that the materials distinctions are difficult to read — especially when they're overflowing, as is often the case. Several people interviewed for this story also argued that the university needs to increase its commitment to educating students about what, exactly, is recyclable.
Regardless, none of the flaws in this approach is lost on students: "It's really wasteful," Goldstein said. "A lot of people think they're doing the right thing and recycling, but they're not."
Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington, whose district includes Telegraph Avenue and much of the area surrounding campus, said that misleading students and city residents about where their cans and bottles are going is a particularly insidious thought in Berkeley.
"There are many Berkeley people — students, faculty, residents — who are pretty diligent about recycling," he said. Berkeley pioneered curbside and public recycling, after all, and it's perhaps one of the few places in the nation where residents will carry an empty soda can or old newspaper around until they find the appropriate bin. For that reason, Worthington said, "if they're being tricked into thinking they're recycling but they're not, that's really disgusting."
Also disgusting, though on a visual rather than intellectual level: the trash itself, which fills up and spills out of cans on a daily basis in the areas around Sproul, Wheeler, and Dwinelle halls— and that's just the stuff that's actually been thrown away. Go to campus any evening and you'll see food and other waste littering the plazas and greens; gardeners also say they routinely find torn articles of clothing, broken glass, handmade drug paraphernalia, human excrement, and all kinds of other bizarre debris, especially after a long weekend.
Because of dramatic budget cuts, the university has few resources to deal with all this. Since 2006, according to Shaff, the three grounds units — pest management, gardening and landscaping, and recycling and refuse — have seen a 15 percent decrease in staffing, despite the fact that during the same period, the number of students on campus has grown slightly. This 15 percent decrease is less than other departments within facilities services, Shaff noted, precisely because of the importance of the job. But even so, Chapot said the staffing shortage within his department has been severe: While the university used to employ four gardeners per quadrant for a total of sixteen campus-wide, he estimates that because of layoffs, unfilled vacancies, and injuries, a third to a quarter of the gardening staff is gone. "Basically, we're lucky if we have three in a sector, and some have two," he said.
Which isn't many, when you consider that they're serving a campus of more than ten square miles and tens of thousands of daily visitors. (According to Chapot, Stanford, which serves far fewer students, boasts a grounds staff at least twice as large as that of Cal.) It takes a lot to sustain a residential campus of forty thousand students and untold faculty and staff, plus their collective appetite for food, coffee, and frozen yogurt.
Over the past several decades, the university has slowly been adding eateries on campus, partly as a revenue-enhancing mechanism and partly to meet increasing demand. All told, there are now seven restaurants, four dining halls, at least three cafes, and countless auxiliary snack bars, vending machines, and convenience stores on campus — not to mention the hundreds of businesses lining the commercial districts that border the grounds on three sides. Though many of these restaurants, bars, and cafes have employees to clean up trash inside and in front of their storefronts, the majority of take-out food is eaten on one of the university's grassy knolls, and then the containers are thrown away on campus. In short, Berkeley's grounds staff is stuck in a Sisyphean battle where the best anyone can hope for is to not fall behind.