The Plastic Problem 

Berkeley pioneered curbside recycling but is now buried in plastic after failing to convince residents to stop buying it. Do its neighbors have a solution?


The Berkeley Recycling Center, where city trucks unload curbside recycling, residents discard used batteries and fluorescent bulbs, and freelance recyclers redeem cans for cash, seems a microcosm of utopian Berkeley society. Seven days a week visitors come and go as they please, granted relative autonomy in doing the earth a good turn, never chaperoned or micromanaged by the powers that be, who are housed in a two-room portable office only a hundred feet away.

Collection trucks owned by the nonprofit Ecology Center rumble through the small lot, emptying their loads onto what's known as the tipping floor. Others move recyclables in and out of the adjacent materials recovery facility, an open-face structure operated by fellow nonprofit Community Conservation Centers. Here, in a transparent and low-tech process, the contents of the city's recycling bins travel along conveyor belts where they're picked off the line, largely by hand, and bundled for sale to commodities buyers.

But there's a sour note playing amidst this roaring ode to recycling: plastic. It's everywhere. A slumping pile ten feet tall of materials that came from Berkeley's curbside recycling bins is comprised primarily of plastic. Within the materials recovery facility, known in industry parlance as a MRF (pronounced "merf"), plastic crowds the conveyors: water bottles, milk jugs, yogurt cartons, packaging of myriad shapes, sizes, and colors.

Most troubling of all are the contents of a nearby shipping container holding landfill-bound detritus that Berkeley can't recycle. Inside, with few exceptions, is a plastic soup: single-use bags, flower pots, detergent jugs, frozen-dinner trays, prescription bottles. The list is endless. Only number-one and -two bottles and jugs; plastic beverage containers with California redemption values; and, during a six-month trial, number-five plastic tubs, get recycled here. All other plastics that Berkeley residents drop in their bins with the best of intentions — and there's a lot of it — go straight to the landfill.

"Everybody thinks that all plastics are recyclable," said Community Conservation Centers general manager Jeff Belchamber during a recent tour of the site. That's no coincidence; the plastics industry has slyly pushed this notion for years. It's a deception that has proven nearly impossible to overcome — a boon to plastic sales and waste alike.

Yet Berkeley has arrived where it is today largely by choice. The city may lack the capacity to handle any more than the limited plastics it currently accepts, but it also doesn't seem to want change. Instead, it has opted to wage war against the plastics industry, encouraging residents to shun the material whenever possible and generally fighting the notion that plastics are anything but problematic. But it's a fight that, in many respects, Berkeley has lost, with plastics becoming more ubiquitous with each passing year, both on grocery-store shelves and in local landfills.

A number of other cities in the East Bay and throughout the state have fared better against the plastic onslaught. Oakland and El Cerrito, for example, accept all types of plastic in curbside bins through partnerships with two of North America's largest solid-waste companies, Waste Management and RockTenn. These giant corporations take advantage of economies of scale to make plastic recycling a more profitable endeavor.

But theirs isn't a perfect solution either, as much of the material is bundled as "mixed plastic" and shipped to China for hand-sorting — a system that exacts both economic and environmental costs. The approach also involves a very un-Berkeley-like notion: contracting with large corporations instead of local nonprofits.

Still, by acknowledging that they can't fight the giant plastics wave alone, Oakland and El Cerrito, and other cities like them, have taken a step toward what some recycling experts consider the ultimate goal: developing a robust plastic-recycling infrastructure right here in the United States.

Meanwhile, the city that pioneered curbside recycling in the US is still throwing most of its plastic away.

For more than a decade, Berkeley's approach to plastics has hinged on urging residents to cut down on use rather than expanding the amount the city recycles. But waste statistics show that the effort hasn't worked. The disposal of plastics in Berkeley has skyrocketed in recent years, even as the city's total waste has shrunk. According to a waste characterization study commissioned by Alameda County agency, plastic in Berkeley's waste stream — that is, headed for the landfill — increased approximately 31 percent by weight between 2000 and 2008, while the city's overall waste decreased 2 percent.

No other Alameda County jurisdiction showed such a marked increase in plastic trash over that period. In fact, with the exception of the City of Alameda, every other city actually saw a decline.

So what's happening? Berkeley residents appear to be buying more products packaged in plastic than ever before, and many are attempting to recycle the stuff by putting it in their curbside recycling bins, apparently without realizing that their city actually trucks most of it to the landfill. Residents of other local cities may be buying the same amount, but much of those plastics aren't going to the landfill because they're instead sent to China for recycling.

In Berkeley, plastics represented approximately 10 percent of the total tonnage of landfilled waste in 2008, behind paper, construction debris, and organics. Due to varying proportions of other materials (Berkeley trashes less paper than its neighbors, for example), this number was more in line with averages countywide, where plastics likewise represented just under 10 percent of the waste stream by weight.

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