By Camille Baptista
The Ecology Center announced today that it will now collect more types of plastic items, expanding its curbside collection and processing to handle things like dairy tubs, tupperware, vitamin bottles, plastic cups and trays.
“It’s sort of been a long time coming,” said Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, which has managed Berkeley’s recycling for 40 years.
Currently, the center’s weekly curbside pickup accepts only those plastic products indicated with a No. 1 or No. 2 triangle, and, among those, only narrow-neck designs like disposable water bottles and milk jugs. Bourque said this is because containers with different designs, like yogurt cups, have different chemical compositions and must be processed separately.
“The plastics that we’re adding are plastics that some people put in anyway, so we’ve been sorting them out and selling them instead of sending them to the landfill,” he said.
Wide-neck No. 1 and No. 2 containers will now be accepted in the blue curbside carts, along with some No. 4 and No. 5 items. Read the center’s tips for reducing plastic consumption, which includes an explanation of the numbering system.
There are still certain plastic items that the center will not collect. These include styrofoam items, coffee lids, and plastic utensils. (Small plastic items should go in the normal trash. Styrofoam can be taken to the El Cerrito recycling center.)
According to a press release issued today by the Ecology Center, “The recycling arrows stamped on plastic products lead many people to believe that all plastic products are recyclable and being recycled, but that’s not the case.”
Berkeley resident Larry Ormsby said the expansion was “a feel-good” concept for that reason — he often doesn’t know which items are accepted, and puts all numbered items into his plastics bin.
“I know we put things in there that don’t belong sometimes,” he said.
Market demand only exists for certain recyclable plastics, and other types go directly to landfills. The center has consistently collected No. 1 and No. 2 because, according to Bourque, “they have end uses that we’re quite familiar with.” No. 1 plastics go into making fibers for carpet and clothing and are sometimes remade into plastic bottles, while No. 2 plastics are remade into many kinds of durable plastic and plastic lumber.
Jim Rosenau, an artist who works with found objects, said he supports the idea of expanding recycling as long as there is in fact a market for those recyclables.
“If it’s really getting recycled, I’m thrilled,” he said.
Although Berkeley residents have pushed for increased plastics recycling for years, the Ecology Center has had to weigh the costs of processing and the market demand for recyclables before expanding.
After collecting and sorting plastic items, the center typically sells plastics to firms in China for recycling. Part of the reason the center had to delay expanding the types of items it collects is China’s new “green fence” law, which bars some recycled plastics from being bought and imported there. This has decreased the amount of plastic the Ecology Center can sell. However, the center has decided to move forward with the expansion because recycling is in such high demand in Berkeley.
“The reality is that the material does have value, and somebody’s going to want it,” Bourque said, referring to the plastics they collect and sell. “I’m sure that other markets will come online, whether it’s domestic or foreign.”
Although it will now accept a higher volume of recyclable plastic, the Ecology Center is campaigning to encourage an overall decrease in the amount of plastic people buy and consume in Berkeley. In addition to providing tips and fact sheets on the Ecology Center website, the organization pushes manufacturers and food companies to choose more sustainable packaging.
“They don’t have to take any responsibility for the environmental or health impacts,” Bourque said, explaining that plastic packaging has been on a steep rise in recent years because it is lightweight and easy to mold into different shapes.
According to the Ecology Center and the Environmental Protection Agency, only 8 percent of plastics consumed in the United States are recycled. Plastic is more difficult to recycle than glass or metal — those items that can be recycled are typically only recycled once before being sent to the landfill.
“Our message is help Berkeley prevent plastic pollution,” Bourque said, explaining that for now, increasing the amount of plastics they collect and try to recycle is “part of that picture.”
Editor’s note: A correction was made after this story was first published regarding the recycling of small plastic items and styrofoam.
Camille Baptista is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. She studies creative writing and human rights at Barnard in New York City, where she writes for the Columbia Daily Spectator.