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Recycling in city expands

William Inman
Thursday September 07, 2000

Dave Williamson couldn’t repeat the two words enough – “manufacturers’ responsibility.” 

That’s why the operations manager for the Ecology Center said that the center, on contract with the city to pick up curbside recyclables, didn’t want to collect plastics in the early ’90s. 

“The reason why this material wasn’t picked up was a pragmatic one,” Williamson said. “The plastics industry has not done its part to make revisions and buy it back and recycle it.” 

In February, the City Council ordered the Ecology Center to begin collecting No. 1 PET and No. 2 HDPE plastics curbside, and Sept. 1 the center began picking up plastic bottles and jugs. 

Now, anything with a neck smaller than its base and is labeled by a No.1 or a No. 2 surrounded by the chasing arrows, can be tossed into the recycling bin with aluminum and glass. 

The Ecology Center has been picking up recyclables for 25 years in Berkeley. It conducted a curbside plastics program in 1996 in two sections of the city to test the waters.  

“It worked out,” he said. “We found we could do it in a cost-effective manner.” 

But after the Plastics Task Force formed in 1995 – a group of Berkelyeans who worked in conjunction with the Ecology Center – they found that much of the plastic collected by cities ends up in landfills all over the world anyway. So the City Council voted in 1996 not to move ahead with a plastics pick-up program. 

When the notion came back to the council in February, the old arguments resurfaced. Councilmember Kriss Worthington said that it’s sort of misleading to tell the public that plastic is, in reality, being recycled. 

“We need to put more pressure on the plastic industry to increase the capacity for using these products,” said Worthington, who in February voted to amend the agenda item to include council pressure on the plastic industry to come up with technology that would actually turn plastic bottles back into plastic bottles. 

The plastics that Berkeley recycles will not be converted to containers again, but will be made into secondary products such as grocery bags, carpets and plastic lumber. 

Better than going into the landfill, yes, but most of these secondary materials are non-recyclable, Williamson said. 

The problem is standardization.  

“Despite the numbers on the bottles, there is a chemical variance,” he said. “You can’t mix the two together.” 

He added that it’s very difficult to get recycled plastic back into a bottle, and most U.S. manufacturers have resisted pressure to use anything other than virgin plastics. 

“The only thing that will solve it is legislation,” he said. 

He said that the Ecology Center is wholeheartedly supporting SB1110, a bill working its way through the Senate that requires manufacturers to include 35 percent of recycled content in its plastic packaging. 

He added that the Food and Drug Administration has approved around 55 different processes that would recycle plastics back into food containers, but “It’s a matter of price,” he said. 

Williamson said that the No. 1 plastic that the city collects is being sold to a company that will make it into rugs, and the No. 2 plastics are being sold to a company that makes garbage bags. 

Some of the No. 2 plastics is being sold to a company that sells it directly back to the Proctor and Gamble Co. for reuse. 

The Ecology Center has added two new trucks with additional capacity for the 130 annual tons of plastic they anticipate. Williamson said the city recycles 7,000 tons of material a year. 

He also said that the state has initiated redemption fees for some No.1 and No. 2 plastics, and the city should be able reap some of the benefits.  

The Ecology Center asks that residents step on the containers to reduce the space they use. 

For more information, call the Ecology Center at 527-5555.