Cost of Chinese recycling refusal to hit local residents


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After China announced it would no longer accept recyclable materials from the U.S., the city of Berkeley went from receiving revenue from its recycling center to paying millions of dollars to keep it afloat. The city is now looking at how a vastly different recycling landscape may increase rates for trash and recycling collection.

City Council members explored the proposed rate increases to city waste, recycling and compost services at a special council meeting Tuesday.

Soon, the cost of collapsed foreign recycling markets may result in increased rates for Berkeley’s trash collection service. Alongside plans for a brand new recycling center and other factors, the cost of recycling for the city is set to increase at a time when meeting its goal of zero waste still seems far-off.

“I can tell you that nationwide … recycling centers have been closing down,” said Councilmember Susan Wengraf. “We’re very fortunate in Berkeley to have the Ecology Center, but I’m very concerned about how long we can sustain them because they’re not getting revenue.”

Currently, residents are charged according to the size of trash can they use, with recycling and compost considered complimentary. That means, however, that less waste translates to less revenue for a public works department trying to tackle many emerging budgetary obligations.

According to the proposed changes, both recycling and compost would be added to monthly rates with increases across the board — with the most common residential customer seeing a $7 increase. While there still has not been a vote on rate changes, Tuesday’s meeting was an opportunity to spell out what challenges the city’s refuse collection service faces.

“My big concern is the long-term sustainability of our program and refuse fund in light of these market factors,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín. “If more of our waste is going to be reduced and we are seeing an increase of people downsizing their cans, how are we going to make that sustainable?”

The city anticipates costs upwards of $900,000 in order to comply with heightening legislative sustainability hurdles, including the Single Use Foodware Ordinance. Passed in February, the ordinance bans single-use plastics in Berkeley businesses by eliminating noncompostable plastics, such as takeout containers and wrappers. Other state laws require that more organic waste be diverted from landfills.

Another challenge facing refuse and recycling infrastructure is the anticipated replacement of the city’s waste transfer station and recycling center at Second and Gilman streets. Deferred maintenance has led to issues with stormwater runoff at the facility, according to Martin Bourque, executive director for the Ecology Center the nonprofit that runs Berkeley’s recycling collection center. Despite the aging facility, which pioneered curbside recycling, Berkeley’s secondary materials are high quality and still garner demand without Chinese markets. Still, Bourque says many rigid plastics are going to the landfill

“For years recycling was the cheapest because you sell the material and generate some revenue. It was way cheaper than garbage. Now, it’s rivaling it,” said Bourque. “The processing used to be paid for by the revenue from recyclables, and that was generally true for most cities, but with the market crash it’s no longer the case. … and so if that city wants that material processed it had to pay for it.”


Brandon Yung is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.