The Plastic Problem

My latest cover story for the Express addresses the ongoing challenge of handling the onslaught of plastics for cities both here in the East Bay and across the country. Berkeley pioneered curbside recycling forty years ago but is now buried in plastic after failing to convince residents to stop buying it. Do its neighbors have a solution?


The Berkeley Recycling Center, where city trucks unload curbside recycling, residents discard used batteries and fluorescent bulbs, and freelance recyclers redeem cans for cash, seems a microcosm of utopian Berkeley society. Seven days a week visitors come and go as they please, granted relative autonomy in doing the earth a good turn, never chaperoned or micromanaged by the powers that be, who are housed in a two-room portable office only a hundred feet away.

Collection trucks owned by the nonprofit Ecology Center rumble through the small lot, emptying their loads onto what's known as the tipping floor. Others move recyclables in and out of the adjacent materials recovery facility, an open-face structure operated by fellow nonprofit Community Conservation Centers. Here, in a transparent and low-tech process, the contents of the city's recycling bins travel along conveyor belts where they're picked off the line, largely by hand, and bundled for sale to commodities buyers.

But there's a sour note playing amidst this roaring ode to recycling: plastic. It's everywhere. A slumping pile ten feet tall of materials that came from Berkeley's curbside recycling bins is comprised primarily of plastic. Within the materials recovery facility, known in industry parlance as a MRF (pronounced "merf"), plastic crowds the conveyors: water bottles, milk jugs, yogurt cartons, packaging of myriad shapes, sizes, and colors.

Continue reading at ...