Berkeley to collect more plastics in curbside collections

Recycling truck-1

A wider variety of plastics will now be collected by Berkeley’s Ecology Center in its curbside collections. Photo: Tracey Taylor

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.

Berkeley schools’ recycling gets back on track (06.17.13)
Berkeley meets recycling goals, beats Piedmont (03.29.12)
Where does Berkeley’s green waste go? (06.23.11)

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  • Bill N

    Finally! I just got the mailer today and recycling is tomorrow!

  • BBnet3000

    About time. Previously, Berkeley could brag about having the first curbside recycling program in the US, with the caveat that it hasnt changed since it started in (i think) 1964.

  • Woolsey

    But is it a cost-effective benefit for the environment or society as a whole? For example, is the energy expended collecting,sorting, cleaning, heating, and reformulating the plastic significantly less than the energy expended to make new plastic containers? Then add in the other quantifiable and non-quantifiable costs: large trucks damaging pavement, time value of the participants, getting woken up earlier by the crashing cans, etc. In other words we need a life-cycle analysis to see if this makes sense. My bet is that just on energy use alone, the plastic collection system uses more fossil fuel than making new plastic items. On the other hand, it does make people feel good about themselves, so that’s a positive.

  • Bill N

    That’s a good question. El Cerrito has been doing this for several years and I wonder how it has worked for them. I’m sure this has been analysed somewhere and I look forward to some comment and reference about it here (in addition to one about preferring to just throwing it in the Bay and let it make little islands).

  • Chris in Berkeley

    The El Cerrito Recycling Center (Schmidt & Navellier in EC) is awesome and takes all sorts of plastics, cardboard, glass, styrofoam, books, batteries, milk cartons, aluminum, etc. Berkeley should have have something equally as good.

  • DisGuested

    Great, now they will be recycling all the irrelevant stuff my fellow tenants have been tossing in the recycling bins for years…

  • Apartment Building Manager

    About time, but too late and not enough. How about implementing a single-stream recycling program where everything goes into one bin with one collection day? For a city that prides itself on being green and having one of the first curbside recycling programs Berkeley sure is really far behind compared to other cities.

    I manage (12) Southside apartment buildings and none of my student tenants can figure out what to recyclable and what to place in the trash. It’s also ridiculous that we have to use (3) different recycling bins as “commercial” customers with (3) different collection days.

    -Mondays for Mixed Paper
    -Tuesdays for Cans/Bottles
    -Wednesdays/Fridays for Brown Paper + Cardboard

    I finally ditched the City altogether and started paying Recology East Bay to collect recyclables from the buildings. Sure, it’s no longer free for me but my tenants love how everything now goes into one giant recycling dumpster. All plastics (#1-#7) are also accepted by Recology!

  • San Jose has been doing one bin for all recyclables for years. It’s definitely time for Berkeley to leap forward several decades and join the rest of the Bay Area in 21st century recycling practices.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I hope that the Orleans and can thieves who scavenge from the bins don’t just create an even bigger mess now that there’ll be more plastic to sift through.

  • Tim

    Actually, there have been LCA’s and they show recycling to be effective at saving energy saving and reducing greenhouse gases. Think about all the energy and pollution avoided by not having to go extract petroleum, ship it to a factory, make virgin plastic, and then make that into a plastic item – only to send that to a landfill and have to do it all over again for the next plastic item. Also, the trucks are already out picking up recycling, so there are no added energy costs to to collection of these items as well (actually since we have trucks with 2 compartments in Berkeley, this makes it more efficient since the paper side typically is more full than the container side). And, they are already sorting these items out at the recycling facility – so the sorting should see no real increase in energy usage . Almost all other communities in the Bay Area already accept these items for recycling, so Berkeley has done a plenty of due diligence (probably too much) studying whether this was worth it.

  • Charles_Siegel

    The city should pass a law requiring landlords to give leaflets to new tenants explaining how recycling works.

    Each August, when a new wave of students comes in, the sidewalks fill with junk that the students think they are recycling. There are always some who think that, if they have bought computer equipment, and they leave the cardboard box filled with styrofoam at the curb, it will be picked up for recycling.

    I don’t blame the new students for this. They have just gotten to Berkeley and they have no way of knowing how our recycling works.

    But we should come up with a way of informing them how our recycling works.

  • The_Sharkey

    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.

    I don’t mean to attack Mr. Ormsby, but why would anyone do this?
    What’s the mindset behind knowing you’re doing something wrong and continuing to do so?
    My time is too valuable, I’ll let the little people sort it out?

  • The_Sharkey

    Convenient for users, but imagine the mess when the recycling poachers have to sort through EVERYTHING to get the cans and bottles they want.

    Plus that means higher expenses, since more employees have to be hired to sort the recyclables at the processing facility.

  • Woolsey

    Really? There have been LCA’s showing curbside plastic recycling is cost effective? Link please. The only LCA’s showing possible benefit that I am aware of pertain to on-site recycling at plastic product manufacturers. Check out the NREL Life Cycle Inventory Database. No one wants to really look into it – who wants to expose an “inconvenient truth” – we all know that recycling is good – it’s a matter of faith. My guess is we would find that curbside plastics recycling only exists because of very large subsidies, uses much more energy than it saves, and possibly seriously damages the environment (think dioxins) when the unusable plastics are burned in incinerators or just in piles in China (google the pictures). Fortunately, China recently banned the import of many types of recycled plastics so hopefully the horrible air pollution problems associated with burning “recycled” plastics will lessen.

    I realize people want to feel they are doing something–anything–to help the environment. Ride a bike, walk, …as much as possible avoid using your car. Put on a sweater like Carter recommended, instead of cranking up the heat.

  • EBGuy

    He was making a political statement.

    Just to be clear, you’ve never put a wide mouth plastic container in the blue bin?

  • The_Sharkey

    Putting numbered plastic you know won’t be accepted by the recylcing program (say #5, #6, and #7) into the bin is a political statement? How so? How is that making any more of a statement than someone who’s just ignorant?

    Does the width of the mouth of a container change the type of plastic it’s made from?

    I check the numbers on all plastic items that I put in the blue bin and make sure they meet the guidelines or else they go into the trash. Part of why I’ve wanted them to expand the numbers they accept is because I’ve been distressed at how much plastic ends up in the garbage can at my house.

  • EBGuy

    Does the width of the mouth of a container change the type of plastic it’s made from?

    Yes. This is the whole crux of the ECs ‘war on plastics’. Under the previous system, only “narrow neck” No.1 and No.2 was accepted. They especially didn’t like downcycling (and also collecting something for which there is no market). Looks like they are throwing in the towel (and I can’t blame them as most consumers think the chasing arrows mean a product can be recycled. ASTM labeling is moving to a ‘resin code’ within a triangle, no arrows).

    As noted in the article, for other plastics put in the bin, the EC was actually “sorting them out and selling them instead of sending them to the landfill”.

  • The_Sharkey

    I guess that depends on how you define “wide neck” I guess. I do what I can to follow the guidelines but they’re pretty vague.
    Plastic juice jugs, for instance, have “wide necks” I think (certainly wider than a normal water bottle), but clearly aren’t made of the same stuff as yogurt containers.

    It’s pretty sad that our local recycling center tells us to go to El Cerrito to recycle things they won’t take. When even our city services are pushing us to go to other cities instead of Berkeley we’re in a really sad state.

  • Biker 94703

    I suspect that wouldn’t help. Any student who cares about it already figures it out. The rest simply can’t be bothered.

  • Angrymerchant

    So when are they going start recycling batteries !!!

  • Apartment Building Manager

    County passed it recently with the mandatory recycling ordinance. Property owners have to give information upon move-in and move-out and every year about how to recycle. We made custom 8.5″x11″ laminated color posters for student tenants to put up next to their recycling caddies and put large signs by the parking garages where the bins are located. The posters themselves end up straight into the recycling bins a few days after tenants move-in (unsorted into the cans/bottles bin of course).

    Wish Berkeley could be more like Palo Alto – all electronics (entire computers, TVs, etc) are collected for free at curbside. All my tenants just dump them into the dumpster, recycling bins, or street even though we put up signs not to do so.

    In our office we joke that ‘reading and comprehension’ is not a requirement for admission to Cal. I’m a Cal alum – so no disrespect to any Cal students – they should know better!

  • David D.

    Finally, Berkeley has caught up to the 1990s! It’ll only be a matter of decades before my adopted hometown starts recycling everything that other cities have for years.

  • Apartment Building Manager

    prevents this problem by putting locks on their recycling
    dumpsters or storing the containers behind locked fences and gates.
    They wheel them out for no additional cost unlike the City (20% penalty
    charge for distance + $35/collection for key access)

  • guest

    In Berkeley, all electronics (entire computers, TVs, etc.) are collected for free, at curbside if you schedule an appointment. You just have to call first. Information can be found on the city web site.

  • Apartment Building Manager

    I called 311, the City customer service line. Unfortunately the rep said that buildings w/ 5 or more units or commercial customers do not qualify for the service so guess I’m out of luck.

    However, they did refer me to GreenCitizen on Shattuck @ University. They take all electronics for free but I have to drop it off.

    Thanks for suggesting it though, I still learned about a different service!

  • Biker 94703

    You can drop off batteries at the Ace Hardware. At least until they demo it to build student housing.