The Story Behind "The Plastic Problem"

"The Plastic Problem," out 11/9 in the East Bay Express, is perhaps the most complex cover story I've ever written, and therefore the most challenging sell. But it's also a very important one. The story behind the story is that it grew from a planned 1,000-word Eco Watch story on El Cerrito's new drop-off recycling center that could accept everything. My editor and I started wondering, Well, how can they accept everything when Berkeley still won't take most plastics? And where is it going?

That question led me down a long path toward my ultimate conclusion that Berkeley's anti-plastic stance is no longer useful, and that it has been surpassed as a responsible waste handler by its neighbors Oakland and El Cerrito. The reason for this is manifold: 1) Berkeley's message that we shouldn't buy plastics isn't getting through, as its residents trashed 30 percent more plastic in 2008 than they did in 2000; 2) The vast majority of the increasing numbers of plastic containers, packaging, tubs, and bags being generated in Berkeley is heading straight to local landfills; and 3) Berkeley's Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF, where the sorting and processing of recyclables takes place, is unequipped to handle any more plastics than the limited number it currently does, and Berkeley lacks the money in its refuse fund to make the significant investments in its MRF that would be required to expand its plastic recycling capacity.

The bottom line is that the city that introduced curbside recycling to the US has in recent years fallen well behind the curve. Read the full story here.
"The Plastic Problem"
By Nate Seltenrich
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.

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