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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The city earns enough from refuse fees and its deal with RockTenn to ensure funding of a state-of-the-art new recycling drop-off and materials exchange facility that's now under construction. Payments on a loan for the $3.5 million project due for completion next year will be covered entirely by budgeted department revenues. If nothing else, that should grab Berkeley's attention.

With Berkeley's contract with California Conservation Centers expiring in 2015, the city will soon get a chance to revisit its position. It looks to be taking the opportunity seriously. Over the next three years, city leaders will engage in a wide-ranging strategic planning process to decide what to do about Berkeley's beleaguered refuse fund, and plenty of sacred cows could be on the table, said spokeswoman Mary Kay Clunies-Ross. In order to save money, the city has already floated the idea of ending its long-standing contract for curbside collection with the Ecology Center when it expires in 2019.

"There are costs and benefits to doing things in different ways, which is why you see different models in different cities," said Clunies-Ross. "We need to look at those and see how some of those changes may or may not help us get to the zero-waste goal. ... It's going to be a long public conversation."

If Berkeley so chooses, all plastics used in containers, bags, and consumer packaging can be recyclable in some form. Often this means returning them to China in empty shipping containers for down-cycling to low-grade products like railroad ties, benches, and trash receptacles. Some PET plastics including common water and soda bottles, however, may be reborn as clamshell food containers, blister packaging, and composite fabrics.

The system has its shortcomings, explained Patty Moore, a recycling expert and president of Moore Recycling Associates. First off, China keeps most of what we send it, using our recycled plastics to feed its own demand for raw materials. When plastics are mixed quick and dirty, melted down, and reconstituted into low-grade materials, irregularities result that are often deemed unacceptable on the US market. Most of the plastic products we buy from China are actually made of virgin plastic.

Economically speaking, Moore sees a fundamental flaw with this imbalance. "We're sending a raw material resource overseas," she said. "Why should we be giving them that lower-cost feedstock when we could be using it here?"

Sacramento-area recycling consultant Gary Liss agrees, particularly in those cases where the US does buy back products manufactured with recycled plastic. "We're shipping our raw materials overseas to have the value added for them to become products that we buy after manufacturing," he said. "We're basically acting like a third-world country."

There are environmental issues, too. Most of the bales of mixed plastics US processors sell to China contain more than just plastic. For a variety of reasons, other materials often find their way into the mix: scraps of metal, wood, and other refuse. Moore has discovered on multiple visits to Chinese recycling operations that these materials are lucky to make it to a local landfill; more often, they end up polluting nearby rivers. And that's on top of stray plastics that likewise end up as litter.

But there's an even more pressing problem, one that could eventually spell doom for US recyclers: As China continues to grow and consume more of its own plastic, it has less of a need for our scraps. Moore estimates that two-thirds of the country's recycled plastic originates within its borders, a proportion that is bound to increase. Someday, China may no longer have a need for our used plastics, and cities across the US may be left with little option but to landfill all of their plastic.

Since our nation's demand for plastic is unlikely to fade any time soon, the only way out, Moore and Liss believe, is to develop a domestic infrastructure for plastic recycling. This requires significant investments in a network of facilities that can sort, clean, and pelletize materials, and then use them to manufacture new products. To be worthwhile, it will also require strict environmental protections — local, state, and federal agencies are currently cracking down on four San Leandro plastic manufacturers responsible for spilling hundreds of thousands of bite-size plastic pellets into the bay, for example.

Although Moore and Liss' vision remains a long way off, one thing is certain: It won't happen without an efficient sorting and bundling infrastructure at the MRF level that can provide local recyclers with a reliable stream of plastics. Oakland and El Cerrito have embraced this, while facilities like Berkeley's remain decades behind the curve.

Dowdakin, for one, suspects that change may yet be on the way. "They've fought the good fight," she said. "But eventually they just have to recycle it."

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