How Should Municipal Waste Programs Handle Plastics?

How should municipal waste programs handle plastics? Those materials — spanning a range of products and properties — are leading to a range of responses by local waste authorities across the United States. One of the more aggressive cities in attempting to reduce plastic waste is Berkeley, California, subject of a recent profile in the East Bay Express.

“Everybody thinks that all plastics are recyclable,” said Community Conservation Centers general manager Jeff Belchamber during a recent tour of the site. That’s no coincidence; the plastics industry has slyly pushed this notion for years. It’s a deception that has proven nearly impossible to overcome — a boon to plastic sales and waste alike.

Yet Berkeley has arrived where it is today largely by choice. The city may lack the capacity to handle any more than the limited plastics it currently accepts, but it also doesn’t seem to want change. Instead, it has opted to wage war against the plastics industry, encouraging residents to shun the material whenever possible and generally fighting the notion that plastics are anything but problematic. But it’s a fight that, in many respects, Berkeley has lost, with plastics becoming more ubiquitous with each passing year, both on grocery-store shelves and in local landfills.

A number of other cities in the East Bay and throughout the state have fared better against the plastic onslaught. Oakland and El Cerrito, for example, accept all types of plastic in curbside bins through partnerships with two of North America’s largest solid-waste companies, Waste Management and RockTenn. These giant corporations take advantage of economies of scale to make plastic recycling a more profitable endeavor.

But theirs isn’t a perfect solution either, as much of the material is bundled as “mixed plastic” and shipped to China for hand-sorting — a system that exacts both economic and environmental costs. The approach also involves a very un-Berkeley-like notion: contracting with large corporations instead of local nonprofits.

Still, by acknowledging that they can’t fight the giant plastics wave alone, Oakland and El Cerrito, and other cities like them, have taken a step toward what some recycling experts consider the ultimate goal: developing a robust plastic-recycling infrastructure right here in the United States.

The business of municipal waste management is examined in several Roosevelt courses, including SUST 240 Waste Fall 2012 and SUST 210 The Sustainable Future (offered online and downtown Spring 2012). For more information on these or any other of our courses, visit our Sustainability Studies website, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email

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