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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Berkeley is currently considering adding a ban on all single-use bags. The idea was first proposed in 2009, but subsequently put on hold under threat of lawsuit from the plastics industry. The Alameda County Waste Management Authority, however, is developing a programmatic environmental impact report that should be available in December, providing cities legal support in pursuing their own ordinances.

Berkeley also is active in the California Product Stewardship Council, which advocates for state legislation requiring manufacturers to accept responsibility for reducing waste along their products' entire life-cycles. "Those are the directions that we should really be heading," Bourque said, "not 'How can we recycle all this plastic packaging that's coming down our throats?' Rather than recycling more, use less."

The approach is noble but has its limitations. For one thing, the 2008 audit of Berkeley's waste stream reveals that plastic use is increasing significantly throughout the city, not decreasing. And the amount of unrecyclable plastic still cycling through Berkeley's MRF five days a week suggests that many residents — including 38,000 new Cal students a year — are not hearing the Ecology Center's message about what plastic it can and can't accept.

Furthermore, although San Francisco has enacted one of the nation's toughest bans on single-use plastic bags, an August 2011 survey by Save the Bay identified plastic bags as the largest culprit still clogging local waterways — including San Francisco's own Mission Creek, rated one of the bay's most polluted and plastic-bag-choked waterways.

Yet even if Berkeley were to suddenly commit to changing course, there's an even larger roadblock impeding it. Processing more plastics will require major upgrades — if not a complete overhaul — to Berkeley's small and outdated MRF, and that requires millions of dollars that Berkeley doesn't have.

With the small volume of materials that the MRF processes (about 15,000 tons per year, versus 90,000 at Waste Management's Davis Street Transfer Station in San Leandro), it doesn't make financial sense to spend $5 to $10 million on an upgrade, said site manager Belchamber. "You need huge volumes to make it work, and a close processor," he said. "Right now we don't feel that's the best place to put all of our resources."

Berkeley's refuse fund, which covers the cost of collecting and processing solid waste, has been running a deficit since 2007. The city is more likely to reduce services at this point — such as by moving to one-person trucks, a cost-cutting measure being considered this month — than it is to add them.

"You have to take the whole picture, and for Berkeley that equation hasn't penciled out yet," Bourque said. In truth, it may never. Much more likely is that under the existing arrangement, Berkeley and Community Conservation Centers will not be able to afford the costly capital improvements to the MRF, as well as the new workers, that will be required to process, sort, and bundle a wider range of plastics.

Yet there may be a way for Berkeley to cash in without setting off anti-corporate alarms across the city. Only half of Oakland sends its recyclables to Houston-based juggernaut Waste Management. North and West Oakland are instead served by an Oakland-based, minority-owned business called California Waste Solutions. The company is not massive by any stretch, but it does collect enough materials from contracts in both Oakland and San Jose to make plastic recycling financially viable.

When Oakland (which, like Berkeley, has a zero-waste goal set for 2020) moved to single-stream recycling in 2005, California Waste Solutions was able to make major modifications to its Oakland MRF, allowing it to process and sort all types of plastics. "They're in a really old building, but the equipment is more modern," said Becky Dowdakin, Oakland's solid waste and recycling program supervisor and a former recycling program manager for the City of Berkeley.

Another model is represented by El Cerrito, which has a recycling infrastructure nearly as old as Berkeley's. Like Oakland, it has opted to simplify recycling services through a single-stream system that accepts all types of plastic, from block Styrofoam to hard and film plastics. But instead of handing contracts for both collection and processing to the same companies, El Cerrito collects curbside recyclables with city-owned trucks and delivers them to an Oakland MRF operated by Georgia-based RockTenn, a $9 billion corporation with 39 similar facilities across the country.

The arrangement relieves the City of El Cerrito and its residents of having to worry about what is and isn't recyclable, said environmental analyst Garth Schultz, who manages the city's drop-off facility. "We need to think about the bigger things," he said. "Just put it in the bin." RockTenn won't disclose to El Cerrito where exactly its material goes, Schultz said, but he suggests that the company has a financial incentive to recycle as much as possible.

El Cerrito's contract with RockTenn also pays economic dividends. Unlike Berkeley, the city runs a self-sufficient operation that, like any business, must hit its budget every year. This entails higher refuse fees for El Cerrito residents ($38.10 for a small trash bin versus Berkeley's existing $28.34), but Berkeley is likely to raise its rates given its ongoing budget shortfall — plus, there's a significant upside.

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