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?

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Since plastic is so lightweight, this figure underestimates how much plastic is actually being landfilled. "By that measure, plastics don't loom as large as paper grades or food scraps, which are wet and heavy, or construction and demolition debris," said Source Reduction and Recycling Director Tom Padia.

But calculated by volume, he estimated, plastics represent approximately twice as much, or nearly a quarter of the total waste from all residential, commercial, and industrial sources in the county. "They are replacing paper and wood and other materials in products in packaging, and they have been for many years," Padia said. "I don't think you can ignore them, because they are growing, and by volume they loom ever larger."

Nationwide, the trend holds true. According to the American Chemistry Council, in 1975, 5.6 billion pounds of plastics were sold for packaging alone, and another 2.9 billion pounds for consumer and institutional products. By 2010, those numbers had climbed to 25 billion and 14.8 billion, respectively, reflecting an indefatigable upward trend in the intervening years.

Most of this plastic ends up in landfills — where, unable to break down, it's likely to persist for many hundreds of years. US Environmental Protection Agency figures show that the plastics in our nation's refuse stream have become increasingly prevalent since first appearing in the late 1950s, with recycling rates hardly keeping pace. In 1960, the country landfilled 780 million pounds of plastic from commercial and residential sources. That figure subsequently rose to 5.8 billion in 1970, 33.5 billion in 1990, and 55.4 billion in 2009.

In 1980, the first year in which plastics recycling appeared on the EPA's audit radar, only 0.3 percent of the total tonnage generated was recovered through recycling programs. In 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, the percentage grew to 7.1. But that still means that 93 percent of all plastics generated in the country went straight to a landfill, a significantly higher percentage than for any other material tracked by the agency.

Yet plastics aren't the largest problem facing waste-management specialists — not yet, at least. Nationwide, biodegradable materials including food scraps and food-soiled paper still represent nearly half of the total waste stream by weight. Redirecting them to large-scale composting operations, as many jurisdictions are now set up to do — in San Francisco, it's required — will not only free up a large amount of space in our landfills, but also help curb global warming by reducing methane gas emissions from decomposing biodegradables in open-air landfills.

With the continuing ramp-up in production and consumption, plastics can't be far behind on the priority list — especially when accounting for dangers posed to human health, waterways, and wildlife. What's more, for any city striving toward zero waste — that is, an end to landfilling any solid waste at all, as Berkeley has ambitiously set out to do by 2020 — campaigning against plastic use alone likely will never be enough. Recycling must play a role.

Berkeley, however, may still take some convincing. Its materials recovery facility wasn't originally designed to handle any plastics at all, and the city had a hard enough time warming residents to the idea of recycling plastic bottles back in 2000. Considerable public debate accompanied the decision, said Ecology Center Executive Director Martin Bourque, making Berkeley one of the last progressive cities in the country to accept the bottles for recycling.

At the time, recycled plastic markets in China were mostly unreliable. Today, consistent markets exist for all plastics numbered one through seven. But that hasn't done much to change Berkeley's attitude, which has been cultivated in large part by the Ecology Center over the last forty years.

The basic argument underpinning its anti-plastic stance is clear enough: Raw materials needed to produce most plastics are derived from non-renewable petroleum and natural gas. Recent studies also have determined that many plastic products are toxic, and in some cases carcinogenic. Their production, use, and disposal pose complex implications for human health, wildlife, land use, and the broader environment. When fish consume tiny plastics floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, toxins ripple through the food chain — all the way up to humans.

Plastic recycling — even the notion that it's a possibility — tends to incentivize plastic use. Consumers like to feel good about their purchases and, particularly around the Bay Area, their roles as recyclers. So the idea that all the plastic bottles, containers, tubs, and packaging we're buying are being kept out of the landfill and regenerated as new plastics is motivation to keep buying more. After all, plastic products are usually cheaper, faster, and easier than the alternatives.

This feedback loop is precisely what Berkeley has been trying to avoid. "The goal is to waste less, it's not to create more waste that we can recycle," Bourque said. "Conceptually, it's a good way to get to zero waste, but it presents its own sort of problems. Once you say 'We can recycle any plastic,' then the door is kind of wide open to plastic plates, plastic forks, knives, and spoons, and I bet the overall generation goes up as opposed to going down."

Rather than support recycling on the back end, Berkeley has fought to cut plastics off at the pass. In 1988, it became the first city in the country to ban polystyrene in take-out food containers. The city's work on the issue eventually swayed McDonald's and other national fast-food chains to stop using Styrofoam, and provided a model for more than one hundred cities across the country, including Oakland, to enact similar laws.

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