At UC Berkeley, recyclables end up in the landfill, outdoor plazas are drowning in litter, and gardeners spend their days collecting garbage. Welcome to the world's greenest university.

Hank Chapot is tired. Tired because it’s early — before 7 a.m. on a cold December morning, sunshine just beginning to scrape the inky sky. Tired because he knows how long the day ahead of him will be. And tired because this isn’t quite what he signed up for when he came on as a campus gardener in 2003. This early on a Monday morning, the 6,651 acres that make up the University of California at Berkeley’s extensive grounds are strewn with wadded-up burrito wrappers, empty frozen-yogurt containers, broken beer bottles, and various other detritus of modern American college life. By the time students start flooding Sproul Plaza for 9 a.m. classes, all this — recyclables, garbage, and food waste alike — will have been piled up and carted out by Chapot and his fellow groundskeepers to be sent to a trash-sorting plant. Much of it will end up in the landfill. By the time they finish, the next day’s load will have already begun to pile up, ready to be cleared all over again.

With a sturdy build and eyes the color of ocean water, Chapot looks younger than his 57 years. But at this point, he says, work is starting to wear him down. He has torn both of his rotator cuffs on the job; after two successful surgeries — both paid for by worker’s compensation — he’s still working, but experiences pain in his shoulders and lower back. Not to mention the emotional anguish of the job: A self-described “lifelong nature-lover” and founding member of California’s Green Party, Chapot got into gardening because it meant being an environmental steward. Now, he finds himself spending most of his work time picking up garbage while the university’s once-magnificent grounds become overgrown and neglected.

Perhaps worst of all, though, is the fact that most of the contents in all of the campus’ outdoor recycling containers are never actually recycled. Instead, they end up in landfill-bound dumpsters.

Indeed, every day, most of the recyclables put in campus recycling cans are then mixed with garbage before being trucked to a Richmond solid waste-management facility for sorting. According to university administrators, the campus lumps all the material together because the recyclables are already contaminated: Students, staff, and visitors tend to put trash in the recycling containers on campus. However, once the mix of garbage and recyclables reaches the Richmond facility, many of the recyclables are not sorted out, particularly paper, because they’re too dirty to actually be recycled. Instead they go in the landfill.

At the same time, all that trash on campus makes for a disgusting and seemingly growing surface trash problem — one which has been spurred by budget cuts and staff shortfalls, and which has something of a spiraling effect, as groundskeepers like Chapot, hired as experienced gardeners, are now forced to spend most of their time picking up trash while the campus grounds fall further into hazardous disrepair.

Cal’s recycling and trash problems represent a stark contrast to the campus’ reputation as a beacon of progressivism and a thought leader when it comes to environmental issues. Earlier this year, UC Berkeley was awarded the distinction of being the world’s greenest campus, based on a number of factors, in a list published in the International Business Review; it’s also routinely ranked among the nation’s most environmentally friendly colleges by authorities like the Sierra Club. In 2008, the university made headlines when it unveiled a plan to produce zero waste by 2020 (an undeniably ambitious goal, especially for anyone who’s seen Memorial Glade, Sproul Plaza, or Strawberry Creek after a long, warm weekend). And that same year, the university hired a pedigreed new director of sustainability — Lisa McNeilly, who came from The Nature Conservancy and was previously a special assistant to the White House Climate Change Task Force. Under McNeilly, Cal has received accolades, both national and international, for several high-profile new and older initiatives: solar panels on the student union building, composting in several of the residence halls and co-ops, certified organic salad bars, and locally-grown produce in the cafeterias.

But still, the university has no meaningful means of dealing with one of its biggest — or at least most visible — problems: the several tons of trash and recyclables that do and do not get stuffed into bins all over campus.

For Chapot, as an environmentalist, one of the most personally affecting aspects of the problem is simply the massive amounts of recyclable materials that end up at the dump. “That’s what really breaks my heart,” he said over tea at a cafe near his North Oakland home. “A lot of this is stuff that could be recycled, and it’s just going into the landfill.”

According to Christine Shaff, a spokeswoman for the university’s facilities services, the university has no over-arching policy for sending surface-level recycling — that is, the stuff that’s not put in bins inside academic or administrative buildings or dorms — to recycling centers. Instead, it relies on a small number of homeless and low-income scavengers who come onto campus to dig through recycling bins and take what they want. It’s an informal (and, for that reason, unreliable) system, one which depends on an ad-hoc and unpredictable group of people and which can easily be disrupted — in the short-term by factors like weather, and in the long-term by the changing market value of certain recyclables. Moreover, these collectors can’t gather everything.

Essentially, it doesn’t matter whether something’s put into a bin marked paper, cans and bottles, or trash — with few exceptions, it’s all going to Richmond’s solid waste transfer center. In Richmond, some, but certainly not all, recyclables are recovered, but the longer they sit unsorted, the less efficient and the more labor-intensive it is to pull them out, and the more likely it is that they’ll become too contaminated to recycle. What’s more, there’s no composting of food waste — by weight, one of the largest components of municipal waste; it all goes to the landfill.

All together, as Elliot Goldstein, a third-year student and second-term student body senator, put it, “the lived reality is not on par with what one would think with regards to the greenest school in the country.” Or, in Chapot’s words: “If they’re the greenest university, it makes you wonder what other guys are doing.”

According to Lin King, UC Berkeley’s director of recycling and refuse, the university’s system of mixing recyclables with garbage is unfortunate but necessary, given the typical state of a recycling bin on campus, which is almost invariably too contaminated with food waste and nonrecyclables to be viable. Some of that contamination is probably due to carelessness on the part of students, staff, and visitors — but many contend that signage on campus bins is often unreadable, and that there are too few containers, so people fill up the recycling bins with trash. Indeed, many cans on campus are old, and have been designed so that the materials distinctions are difficult to read — especially when they’re overflowing, as is often the case. Several people interviewed for this story also argued that the university needs to increase its commitment to educating students about what, exactly, is recyclable.

Regardless, none of the flaws in this approach is lost on students: “It’s really wasteful,” Goldstein said. “A lot of people think they’re doing the right thing and recycling, but they’re not.”

Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington, whose district includes Telegraph Avenue and much of the area surrounding campus, said that misleading students and city residents about where their cans and bottles are going is a particularly insidious thought in Berkeley.

“There are many Berkeley people — students, faculty, residents — who are pretty diligent about recycling,” he said. Berkeley pioneered curbside and public recycling, after all, and it’s perhaps one of the few places in the nation where residents will carry an empty soda can or old newspaper around until they find the appropriate bin. For that reason, Worthington said, “if they’re being tricked into thinking they’re recycling but they’re not, that’s really disgusting.”

Also disgusting, though on a visual rather than intellectual level: the trash itself, which fills up and spills out of cans on a daily basis in the areas around Sproul, Wheeler, and Dwinelle halls— and that’s just the stuff that’s actually been thrown away. Go to campus any evening and you’ll see food and other waste littering the plazas and greens; gardeners also say they routinely find torn articles of clothing, broken glass, handmade drug paraphernalia, human excrement, and all kinds of other bizarre debris, especially after a long weekend.

Because of dramatic budget cuts, the university has few resources to deal with all this. Since 2006, according to Shaff, the three grounds units — pest management, gardening and landscaping, and recycling and refuse — have seen a 15 percent decrease in staffing, despite the fact that during the same period, the number of students on campus has grown slightly. This 15 percent decrease is less than other departments within facilities services, Shaff noted, precisely because of the importance of the job. But even so, Chapot said the staffing shortage within his department has been severe: While the university used to employ four gardeners per quadrant for a total of sixteen campus-wide, he estimates that because of layoffs, unfilled vacancies, and injuries, a third to a quarter of the gardening staff is gone. “Basically, we’re lucky if we have three in a sector, and some have two,” he said.

Which isn’t many, when you consider that they’re serving a campus of more than ten square miles and tens of thousands of daily visitors. (According to Chapot, Stanford, which serves far fewer students, boasts a grounds staff at least twice as large as that of Cal.) It takes a lot to sustain a residential campus of forty thousand students and untold faculty and staff, plus their collective appetite for food, coffee, and frozen yogurt.

Over the past several decades, the university has slowly been adding eateries on campus, partly as a revenue-enhancing mechanism and partly to meet increasing demand. All told, there are now seven restaurants, four dining halls, at least three cafes, and countless auxiliary snack bars, vending machines, and convenience stores on campus — not to mention the hundreds of businesses lining the commercial districts that border the grounds on three sides. Though many of these restaurants, bars, and cafes have employees to clean up trash inside and in front of their storefronts, the majority of take-out food is eaten on one of the university’s grassy knolls, and then the containers are thrown away on campus. In short, Berkeley’s grounds staff is stuck in a Sisyphean battle where the best anyone can hope for is to not fall behind.

Worthington, for one, is sympathetic to the plight of Chapot and his fellow gardeners — especially after he saw firsthand how bad the problem is when the gardener took him through campus one morning. “He wants to be proud of the job that he does,” the councilman said of Chapot. “But it’s hard to be proud when you’re dealing with an impossible situation. It’s hard to be proud when it’s structured for failure.”

Shaff, too, understands the pressures her department’s staff is under. Where the university used to have weekend trash shifts and twice-daily Sproul cleanups, budget cuts have ended both programs. “The amount of work hasn’t changed,” she said, “there are just fewer people to do it” — a remarkably candid statement in a profession that’s typically based on spin. “So the workload does land on the shoulders of the remaining people.”

Literally. At 57, Chapot is among the oldest gardeners on campus, but even guys a decade or two younger are having health problems: Of the five groundskeepers interviewed for this story, all experience occasional to constant pain throughout their shoulders, neck, and back. The youngest, an athletically built man in his early thirties who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution from his higher-ups, said he often feels pain in his shoulders and worries about what will happen to his body when he gets older. Another, a fifteen-year veteran of the department, experiences regular soreness in his shoulders, which he works through. In sum, Chapot said he knows of several rotator cuff injuries among the staff, as well as more severe problems. “Just yesterday, I talked to one of my gardeners and he said, ‘I’m falling apart.’ They’re driving us to the limit.”

To be sure, gardening and groundskeeping have always been, by nature, physically demanding jobs. But some employees say the recent changes have put an extra physical strain on them. And in Chapot’s view, the university is merely doing short-term damage control without making an effort to address the long-term, systemic health problems presented by a sped-up work schedule and smaller staff. “When something goes snap or pop or you tear a ligament or your lower back goes out, they’ll pay for it [through worker’s comp] — but they’re not doing anything to relieve us of the burden and go back to the workload we were hired at. They keep going, ‘This is the new normal.’ “

At the same time, it’s not just the volume but also the substance of work that’s contributing to on-the-job injuries. “We used to do about two hours heavy labor, then two or three medium labor, then two light — you know, sometimes you’re pulling weeds, other times you’re trimming hedges, other times you’re emptying trash,” Chapot said. “Now, it’s nothing but repetitive lifting of trash containers. It’s killing us physically. I could garden until I’m a hundred years old, but being a laborer is not something people who are aging” — even aging well, like him —”can handle.”

Not least because the university’s cans themselves appear to have been designed without ergonomics in mind. The worst offenders — the rectangular, camel-colored cement containers that dot Sproul Plaza — are designed so that the only way to empty them is for staffers to lean over and pull them up and out vertically several feet off the ground, in a motion that severely strains the shoulders — especially if, as is often the case, the can is heaping with trash, or is heavy with rainwater or spilled beverages. Chapot said he filed an Occupational Safety and Health claim about the bins; to this day, many haven’t been replaced. He was told it was because of cutbacks.

The irony is that all this — the pressure, the injuries, the stress — is far from what Chapot and his fellow gardeners thought they were getting themselves into when they were hired. According to Chapot, his job description states that as a gardener, he’s to spend about 25 percent of his time doing what’s called “beat policing” — that is, emptying surface-level trash cans and picking up ground trash in his sector: the southeast part of campus, including Sproul Plaza and Edwards Stadium. Chapot has a degree in plant biology from San Francisco State University and previously ran a private gardening business, so he came to the university because it presented a way to do what he loves without the stress of running a small business. And when he started on campus, Chapot said he typically did an hour or two of garbage pick-up, sometimes only three days a week. But now, that’s become four to six hours every day.

“Every three months or so, our bosses come by and scold us: ‘Don’t take long lunches, don’t duck out ten minutes early.’ So I raised my hand and I said, ‘Last year, when I was injured, the university held me very strictly to the job description. So why can’t I do the same thing and hold the university to the job description and stop throwing trash out after two hours [each day]?’ He said, ‘Oh, we’re gonna rewrite the job description.'”

To be fair, some gardeners said they don’t mind the shifting responsibilities of the job, and two actually said they like trash pick-up more than landscaping, as a matter of personal preference. But they all agreed that this is not what they signed on for. One of Chapot’s co-workers, who has more than two decades of landscaping experience and has been at UC Berkeley for many years, said he’s enjoying the job less and less as trash collection becomes a higher and higher priority. “It’s difficult,” he said. “I love doing landscaping. But now I’m not doing so much of what I really want to do or what I was hired to do.”

As campus gardeners are forced to do the work of garbage collectors, the university’s grounds are growing increasingly neglected. According to Chapot, if he and his fellow gardeners are lucky, they’ll be able to squeeze in some pruning, weeding, or tree maintenance after lunch or at the end of the day, but still, he said, “we’re falling behind on everything.”

Other gardeners said there are weeds growing all over campus — and if those go to seed without being pulled, they’ll continue to grow for years to come. Lawns which were previously edged on a two-week schedule are now trimmed once a month, so walking paths are narrowing, and according to Shaff, while there used to be two full-time lawnmowers, now there is one. The campus is blighted by overgrown hedges, and the grounds’ once-beautiful rhododendrons and camellias are slowly disappearing. “We’re trying like hell to keep our sector gardened,” Chapot said. “And as soon as there’s a gardener available, they get sent to other sectors, because they can’t keep up.”

Grounds maintenance may sound like a superficial concern, but it’s got real consequences: As the University of California’s flagship campus, Berkeley is home to many rare and native plants — plants which require devoted attention and specialized care. Taking care of those — like trimming the iconic sycamores in front of the Campanile in an intensive process called pollarding that takes a large majority of the grounds staff weeks to finish — necessarily means falling behind elsewhere on campus.

And moreover, on a campus as wooded as Cal’s — and in a city with a not-insignificant crime problem — any overgrowth on campus glades can mean an increase in muggings and other assaults. According to John Suezaki, a sergeant in the university police department’s crime prevention unit, forested areas like the eucalyptus grove on the west side of campus have historically been home to a lot of crime; though the maintenance staff recently engaged a large-scale trimming operation to improve what Suezaki and the police department call “natural surveillance” — i.e., visibility — he expressed some concern that because of cutbacks, their work may be hard to maintain. Eucalyptus are notoriously fast-maturing trees, and it’s conceivable that a time may come again soon when their growth outstrips staff capabilities. “The concern is just maintenance staff being able to keep up with the upkeep,” Suezaki said, though he did note that the university invests a lot of resources into crime prevention through environmental design, and that the grounds staff “do a really good job, considering what they have.”

Part of the problem, too, is the sticky boundary between town and gown. In the case of Sproul Plaza, much of the trash comes from off campus — from the cafes, sandwich shops, and, especially, the Yogurtland, that line Bancroft Way. Those businesses pay taxes to the city, but the university is stuck dealing with the debris, especially because Bancroft Way has comparatively few trash receptacles.

Worthington knows this. Though the university and the city are separate jurisdictions, the councilman is used to fielding complaints about trash along Telegraph and Bancroft, as well as on campus. In his mind, this is a high-priority problem. “The current situation is not beautiful, and it’s not cost-effective, and it’s not ecologically sound. It’s expensive, and it’s messy.”

Technically, the university governs the north side of Bancroft running along campus, and Worthington and the city manage the other side — which can make maintenance of that stretch of street, arguably one of the most litter-filled in the whole city, difficult. “It’s one of those borderline jurisdiction issues,” Worthington said. “But we don’t want it to get lost.”

The city has increased the number of receptacles lining Bancroft, but if you ask Worthington, it’s not that simple. “We don’t just want to say, ‘Let’s double the number of trash receptacles’ — I don’t think that would be a good answer. To me it’s not just a trash problem.” In his mind, the solution for both sides of Bancroft is the same, and it’s multi-pronged: more diligent sorting (both on the citizen’s side and the university’s side of the equation), updated containers with clear signage and enough capacity to properly contain all the trash thrown into them, and less consumption in general. Regardless, he said, “I think we have an opportunity here to jump into this and address it — which I think we can do in a relatively simple and relatively cheap way. In spite of the budget cuts, there are some simple opportunities here.”

The first of these would, logically, involve coordination between the city and the university. Both Worthington and Shaff underscored their respective party’s commitment to communication, but to this day, Worthington said, the city and the university have yet to address the issue effectively. “We’ll have one-minute, two-minute conversations here and there, and there were several times when people said they were trying to deal with it,” he said. “We were told that the university was going to have a meeting between the head of recycling and some people from the city. If they did have that meeting, it didn’t work.”

There are several ways to look at Cal’s trash troubles. In the cynical view, the university’s commitment to environmentalism is shallow, and campus greening efforts are simply reaching for what Chapot calls “the low-hanging fruit”: high-profile but relatively achievable goals that earn the school its green street cred without requiring much sacrifice on the part of administrators.

According to some, it’s only because of agitation from students that many of the university’s environmental initiatives have taken shape. It was undergraduates who lobbied heavily for the university to start phasing out plastic water bottles earlier this year; it was a student group called the Compost Alliance that worked to bring composting to dorms and co-ops this year; and it was students who have taken on the task of sorting recycling in dormitories. “I do think that we” — meaning students — “oftentimes take the lead,” said Andy Albright, a third-year student body senator who’s been involved in various environmental initiatives on campus. Goldstein agreed: “A lot of work is student-initiated here. Students are the main agent of change on campus.”

Berkeley is home to scores of environmentally-oriented student groups and it has a culture of involvement, both of which have buoyed campus green initiatives over the years. But the capacity for long-term, high-level, student-led change is small on a college campus, where, by definition, activism must be limited to extracurricular hours and leaders cycle through every four years or so. Just as depending on scavengers to sort cans and bottles is an untenable solution to surface recycling problems, so, too, may be relying on students to spearhead new environmental projects. At one of the nation’s largest universities and amid a massive budget shortfall, there’s only so much a group of twenty-year-olds can do to create systemic change, Goldstein said. “Berkeley is such a complex institution that making changes on a campus-wide level require a lot of coordinated efforts,” he said (and he would know; he was one of the student leaders of the water bottle-ban initiative). “It’s very decentralized.”

And Albright also wonders whether the university is formally depending on students to get the hard work done. “I do question how committed the university is to this,” he said, “and whether it’s just students pushing for it.”

On the other hand, there’s an argument to be made that no matter how noble or ambitious its intentions, the university is hog-tied into making tough choices by an unprecedented budget crisis. At this point, we’ve all read screaming headlines about the massive cuts the University of California has sustained in recent years, but the numbers bear repeating: System-wide, the university has lost hundreds millions of dollars in state funding in the last several years. This year alone, UC Berkeley was forced to slash $81 million from its budget. In that light, maybe the university is doing all it can. That’s what King, McNeilly, and Shaff maintain. “Until the state budget gets better, we don’t have many options,” King said, with the resignation of someone who’s spent a long time working in the public education system. And Albright, for one, views it as a trade-off: “We do receive a great public education — but at the same time our facilities aren’t the greatest. In a way, it’s just part of our learning experience.”

Nonetheless, there is hope in sight, and it’s coming on many fronts. Early next year, the university expects to roll out installation of what King describes as “much better” cans in public plazas, with color-coded bins for paper, can and bottle recycling, and trash (no plans for compost or educational programming quite yet). At the same time, gardeners said they’ve heard rumblings of a new full-time hire coming through soon. In August, a new contract with Pepsi for exclusive rights to campus vending machines was negotiated to include a ten-year, $15,000-a-year subsidy for sustainable programming. Starting in January, a well-respected, well-connected, and longtime City of Berkeley administrator — Julie Sinai, who’s been Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates’ chief of staff for nine years — will take on a new job as director of local government and community relations for the university, which Worthington and Shaff both believe will smooth over campus-city relations. And all over campus, there’s student and staff interest in and energy for sustainability initiatives.

As for Chapot, he’s realistically optimistic. “Who knows, maybe there is hope,” he said. Several yards behind him, an empty frozen yogurt cup whipped across the plaza like a tumbleweed, ultimately coming to rest on top of a bush.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that the university installed solar panels on its student union building after 2008. The solar panels were in fact installed in 2003.


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