Opinion: Keep calm and keep your recycling clean

Berkeley residents may be wondering what recent media reports detailing how China will no longer accept America’s dirty recyclables mean for their city. Here’s the answer.

Recent New York Times and other news reporting has detailed how China will no longer accept America’s dirty recyclables. Cities across the west coast are scrambling for solutions as the recycling market crashes. Many recyclers are amassing huge stockpiles that threaten to put them in violation of health-and-safety permits, while others are paying high prices to recycle or landfill their mixed paper bales.

In Berkeley, none of that is happening. Our recycling is better than that.

The Ecology Center started the nation’s first curbside recycling program in 1973, and have stayed true to our original environmental and social justice values. In the 1980s, we fought off efforts to build a garbage incinerator that would have poisoned our community. In the 1990s, we fought to save the bottle reuse system that eventually became the nation’s most successful beverage container deposit system. In the 2000s we fought “single-stream” recycling – the practice of mixing all recyclables together in the same cart for convenience; instead, we kept our recyclables separated and clean. In this decade, we continue to fight the plastic industry’s false claims that all plastics are recyclable, and are working to reduce disposable plastics across our city.

So what’s the problem?

As recycling became mainstream, large corporate garbage companies took over recycling across the country, focusing on volume, mechanization, and scale instead of cleanliness, quality, and value of the recyclables. Since they mostly earn their profits from operating landfills and charging to collect recycling rather than from selling it, the quality of recycling has never been a top priority. This worked so long as China’s massive appetite for the world’s exported recycled scrap continued. But on May 5, 2018, China stopped importing dirty recyclables altogether, driven by the same environmental concerns as their industrialized trade partners. They are now implementing strict new standards that are nearly impossible for corporate recyclers to meet.

What does this mean for us? Thanks to Berkeley’s longstanding focus on quality and having a public program operated by two environmental nonprofit organizations (the Ecology Center collects and Community Conservation Center), we are way ahead of the curve. Because of Berkeley’s two-stream recycling program – in which residents separate paper from containers – our materials are very clean.  As a result, we can still move most recyclables, and are getting prices much higher than our neighbors.

But China’s new standards have created a massive international market crisis for mixed recyclables that is flooding other Asian markets and driving prices below zero. In the last year, we have seen prices for mixed paper (the backbone of recycling) drop over $100/ton. Some local recyclers are paying as much as $50/ton to get rid of it. Others can not move it at any price. Sending anything to the landfill in Alameda County costs upwards of $60/ton. This adds up to millions of dollars very quickly, so there are no easy answers, and many recyclers are seeking financial help from their ratepayers and City Councils.

Now more than ever, the quality of our recycling in the City of Berkeley is particularly important. With a contamination rate well below 5%, Community Conservation Center can sort Berkeley’s collected recyclables into some of the nation’s cleanest scrap products. Neighboring cities with single-stream programs have contamination rates as high as 40%. Even with the most expensive and sophisticated sorting equipment, they cannot meet the new quality standards. Thanks to residents’ efforts, Berkeley is still bringing in about $5/ton for mixed paper while others are paying to get rid of it.

While this means we can keep our materials moving, the recycling market crash is still breaking the bank.

We hope City Council will continue to support some of the best recycling programs in the nation. Council is considering an item on the City Council’s agenda on June 12 to help cover the true cost of recycling and keep Berkeley recycling. Community Conservation Center is seeking an extension of their contract that would apply some of the City’s refuse revenue to offset this market downturn and keep CCC from collapsing under the weight of the market crisis. In the last two years, over 1,000 recycling centers across the state have gone under. We cannot afford to let this happen here; the alternatives are even more costly and would send Berkeley’s recycling to more questionable destinations.

Community members can also help by doing an even better job of making sure to only put truly recyclable materials in your cart – not your garden hose, diapers, dog poop, or DVDs. Empty and rinse your jars and food containers. Keep plastic bags, plastic film, and any items under 2 inches in diameter (think leggos, lids, and straws) out of the blue carts. While we are still collecting all plastic containers, only the bottles have reliable markets, and we are increasingly concerned about plastics tubs, clamshells, cups, and trays. Check our website for what is currently included in our program, and only place those items in your recycling bin. Anything you can do to keep it clean and dry will help us out.

Additionally, we want to remind everyone that “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is a hierarchy. Recycling is the last choice, not the first. Save money by buying durable, reusable things. Our classes and EcoStore can help outfit you for a plastic-free, reuse-centric lifestyle. Join us for events and activities during Plastic-Free July.

Finally, the Ecology Center is working with City Council to help reduce contaminants in our recycling program through a groundbreaking foodware reduction ordinance. This “Disposable-Free Dining” ordinance would reduce the food contamination and single-use disposable plastics that are a huge part of the recycling problem. The Zero Waste Commission is currently accepting public comment on this proposal, which could become a model for other cities.

Thanks Berkeley for doing a great job recycling and for supporting local nonprofit recycling. Please keep calm and keep recycling clean!

Martin Bourque is Executive Director of the Ecology Center.