Should Berkeley Collect more Plastics for Recycling? Perspective from the Ecology Center and CCC

Last November, Nate Seltenrich wrote an article in the East Bay Express that delved into Berkeley’s resistance to collecting more plastics for recycling. He wrote, “… 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.” To see response from Ecology Center’s Martin Bourque and Sara McKusick of the Community Conservation Centers, read on.

By Martin Bourque, Executive Director, Berkeley Ecology Center

There is a saying in the resource recovery industry that goes something like: “If you collect enough of anything, someone will buy it”. That has certainly proved true for mixed rigid 3 to 7 plastics increasing collected though municipal recycling programs. As the plastics industry campaign to get cities to “collect all plastics” makes headway, there is an increasingly consistent feedstock flowing – across the Pacific. For many years there were no consistent markets for these post consumer plastics but that is changing.

Following up on the widely referenced Report of the Berkeley Plastic Task Force of 1996, the Berkeley Ecology Center recently partnered with the WuHu Ecology Center in China to visit a plastics processing facility that lives on the discards of the Western US. In essence we found that with relatively low labor costs they are able to manually sort and reprocess, with simple low tech methods, many categories of plastics into flake and pellet for domestic Chinese markets. Their water, air, and solid emissions controls would certainly not pass muster in the US, but did have some basic controls and waste water recycling. While we were left with many questions, clearly 3 to 7 plastics processing is alive and well in China.

So as markets increase, the legitimate question “Should Berkeley collect and process additional plastics?” is continually being reevaluated. It is important to note that this is not a matter of answering the simple question that many cities and haulers ask “Can we get rid of it?” There are numerous costs and benefits to adding new materials and considering operational, environmental, and economic issues is just a good start.

Swimming upstream against the flood waters of consumer plastics by refusing to collect and process them is a legitimate part of the discussion, but in the end it really comes down to more practical concerns. Clearly the addition of plastics does not pay for itself at this point, and we recently watched as the City of Albany approved Waste Management’s addition of rigid plastics – along with a 45% rate increase. This certainly begs the question of “How much does it really cost?”

Historically CalRecycle has created incentives for plastics collection and processing by subsidizing these materials, but recent breakdowns in the CRV payments structure and state budget highlight why this cannot be the sole basis of such a collection model. For several years Berkeley has been involved in exploring California based plastics recycling efforts that can not only get rid of the stuff, but create jobs, economic development, and infrastructure here, with high labor and environmental standards. We hope this approach will dawn a new day, getting back to the roots of why we pioneered curbside collection nearly 40 years ago.

Currently, it seems clear that Berkeley is not prepared to increase rates to its customers, and while most other Cities brace for a new round of rate increases, Berkeley is holding flat. This means new collection programs of any kind are probably off the table for some time. As the City of Berkeley works though developing its new Zero Waste Strategic Plan, the issue of collecting and processing more plastic types will certainly be a part of the conversation, to be evaluated like everything else in a cost benefit analysis.

Sara MacKusick, Executive Director, Community Conservation Centers

Collection IS NOT recycling. Most plastic picked up in recycling collections is not “recycled,” that is, re-manufactured into a similar or new product, such as making a new glass bottle from a used glass bottle.

CRV plastic bottles are collected by everyone because a hefty California redemption value is paid to the collector. Even this plastic is not recycled but re-used for products such as children’s’ toys, rigid plastic buckets or tubs, wearing apparel, plastic lumber, carpeting, etc. which will be sent to the landfill when worn out or broken.

While many cities claim to recycle all plastics it is doubtful they actually succeed. Most collected plastic ends up in the landfill because:
– most plastic, other than CRV bottles, remains in residual trash after sorting,
– usually, little or no effort is made to pick non-CRV plastics from the mix,
– the plastic that is separated from collected recyclables is typically mixed together, and this mix has minimal, if any, market value,
– most mixed plastic is shipped to China where a significant portion ends up in their landfill, or worse.

CalRecycle estimates that the rate of plastic recycling in California is less than five percent of the 3.8 million tons of plastic in the waste stream. But even that five percent probably represents plastic that has been landfilled or shipped halfway around the world. Collecting, sorting and shipping plastic is extremely expensive, so why spend money to collect if it’s only going to end up in the local landfill or a landfill in China?

Not only is the plastics’ industry polluting our planet with ever-increasing plastic production, they simultaneously have deluded the public into thinking all plastic is recycled by printing the revolving arrows, #1 through #7, on plastic products. Those seven plastic grades are meaningless, because even plastics within a grade cannot be recycled together because of different additives to make the plastic rigid, or flexible, or clear, or pigmented or….

But since people believe plastic is recycled, they don’t hesitate to buy it and plastic usage continues to proliferate. This, in turn, leads to a public outcry to include plastics in local and municipal recycling programs. Responding to public pressure, many jurisdictions have added more or all plastic to their recycling collections. This response is not good public policy and simply costs the rate-payer more money as they “pretend” to recycle plastic.

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