Can Berkeley Become the First City to Recycle 100 Percent of Its Garbage?

The California community that pioneered recycling is looking for new ways to achieve its zero-waste goal.

(Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Chris Clarke is a veteran environmental journalist and science writer who focuses on wildlife and renewable energy. He lives in the Mojave Desert.

Berkeley, the California city that pioneered the modern recycling movement, set itself an ambitious goal a few years back: Stop sending trash to landfills by 2020. But even in one of the nation’s most environmentally self-conscious communities, that’s proving a tough task.

That’s the message from a recent report from the city auditor’s office. With five years to go, it found Berkeley is in danger of falling short of its zero-waste target even though the city of 115,000 has already slashed the volume of recyclable garbage sent to landfills by 75 percent. That challenge, and how the city responds to it, offers lessons for residents of other communities around the United States that are attempting to cut pollution and minimize their carbon footprint by achieving zero waste.

If any community should be able to recycle its trash away, it’s Berkeley. The city on San Francisco Bay started the United States' first curbside recycling program in 1973 and now offers pickup of food waste in addition to the recyclables and garden trimmings most other towns pick up these days.

Even here, people still toss cans in the trash or sort their recyclables improperly, which can cause whole batches of recycled materials to be rejected and end up in landfills.

That’s partly because the city gets about 14,000 new residents each fall, as incoming freshmen arrive at the University of California's Berkeley campus from around the world. It can take time for those new Berkeleyans to learn how to recycle their trash properly.

“In the past, Berkeley took a leadership role in waste reduction,” says Ann-Marie Hogan, the city auditor and author of the zero-waste report. “Now, more and more cities are following suit, and it’s time for us to take a leadership role again.”

Without broader public awareness of trash issues, she said, the city will be stuck at its 75 percent landfill diversion rate. 

“There have to be changes in consumer behavior,” said Hogan. “If you throw a newspaper in the newsprint recycling bin with the plastic bag still on it, for instance, that goes to the landfill. And there are choices you can easily make while shopping that will reduce the amount of unrecyclable trash you generate.”

Hogan says the city will need to use both carrot and stick to change people’s behavior by enacting incentives to reduce, reuse, and recycle, and disincentives aimed at curbing more wasteful habits.

Berkeley is no stranger to incentive programs. In past decades, the city and its residential curbside recycling contractor, the Ecology Center, held a series of “Cash for Trash” lotteries to encourage recycling. (Disclosure: I worked at the company from 1990 to 1997.)

Crews would select a residence at random, examine the contents of its garbage can on collection day, and award a cash prize to the residents if the can held nothing that could have been recycled. Residents’ participation in the recycling program jumped dramatically.

Educating Berkeley residents about recycling at home is crucial, said Ecology Center Executive Director Martin Bourque, but it’s only part of the picture.

“If we’re going to get to zero waste,” said Bourque, “we’ve got to divert more of Berkeley’s commercial and industrial waste too, as well as boosting composting rates.”

A ban on businesses discarding compostable matter in regular trash that took effect July 1 is likely to help, he said.

Bourque is also concerned about a waste stream that may never get to the landfill in the first place: single-use plastic take-out containers and other items that often end up in nearby San Francisco Bay.

“Berkeley has banned Styrofoam take-out containers, as well as single-use plastic bags, and we’re working now to extend that to things like lids and straws,” Bourque said. “They may not account for a lot of tonnage, but it’s vital to keep them from blowing into the bay.”

Whether the trash in question ends up in a landfill or lining a beach, it’s going to take work to coax Berkeley to eliminate it entirely.

One idea: scale back trash pickup to every two weeks while maintaining weekly curbside recycling and food waste pickup. That would encourage residents to recycle more rather than let potentially recyclable garbage pile up in their kitchens and garages.

Biweekly trash pickup would save the department an estimated $500,000 a year, which could be spent on public outreach and education about recycling.

It would also seriously boost the city’s compost pickup program, because residents would almost certainly choose to put out their decomposing leftovers in the organic waste bin rather than keep them in the house for an extra week as they waited for trash day.

Sometimes a moldy carrot makes an excellent stick.

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