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.

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.

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.

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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