The Recycling Business is Picking Up

A conversation with Dave Williamson, the operations manager of the Berkeley Recycling Center, who says he’s seeing more recycling than ever on Berkeley curbs, despite the poachers.
Dave Williamson: We saw about a 12% increase starting in May; we added a whole new collection route. We’ve gone from seven vehicles a day to eight. I think people are just putting out more paper, which is counter-intuitive, since there tends to be less advertising, less junk mail in a recession. And there’s a different demographic moving into Berkeley, people with several newspaper subscriptions, who buy through catalogs, who consume more. But more people are participating who’ve been living in Berkeley for a long time. They’re better recyclers, and that’s good news.
Terrain: What about the stuff you lose to poachers?
DW: There are two types of poachers: without a vehicle — the guys with the shopping carts — and with one. A pickup truck can carry 1,500 pounds of newspaper, and they can usually do four loads; that’s three tons — all the newsprint we collect on a given route in a day. We’ve seen weights for one route, in particular, go down 50% because of poaching. I calculated that one of the poachers we were after was making about $40,000 a year.
That material does get recycled. The problem is, people feel as though the stuff is just going to attract poachers. These guys come in the middle of the night, make noise, spill things over the ground to find a bag to fill with aluminum cans.
My chief concern is how it affects the attitude of the citizens who want to recycle. I’ve talked to people who say they don’t put anything out because the Ecology Center doesn’t get it.  My other problem with poaching is that that’s what people want to talk about. They don’t want to talk about the  environmental impact of virgin paper use, they don’t want to talk about what is recyclable and what actually isn’t recyclable, they don’t want to talk about producer responsibility.
Terrain: Speaking of non-recyclables, are you collecting all kinds of plastics?
DW: The #3 bottles, polyvinyl chloride [PVC], we really don’t want to pick them up. It’s an extremely toxic plastic to produce, it’s toxic to make into another container, or to incinerate; it’s also a contaminant. What comes in it? Cobb Mountain Water, some olive oil and cooking oil, mainly food products … not that much in packaging.
[With PVC,] there’s all these howevers. Polyvinyl chloride is “recyclable;” however, post-consumer there are no markets for it You can make something; however, you’ve got to put more new polyvinyl chloride in it, and it doesn’t last as long. No one takes post-consumer polyvinyl chloride — I can pick it up, but I can’t sell it — except for a really degraded product, usually some cheap form of plastic lumber.
If you collect all the bottles, you greenwash all the bottles. If we collect PVC bottles, then people can say they’re recyclable — and that’s exactly what the American Plastics Council wants you to do.
Terrain: If they aren’t recyclable, what do you with them?
DW: The American Plastics Council says collect all the bottles and ship ’em to China mixed and let them sort it out. And what we’re saying is you’re exporting garbage. China doesn’t have state of the art incinerators, they don’t have landfills. What we’re saying is we have to deal with our own garbage here.

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