Tales From the Bin

The Untold Journey of a Water Bottle

You guzzle a plastic bottle of water before class, toss it in the recycling bin, and never think about it again. You assume that your plastic bottle is magically re-incarnated as another plastic bottle, but this is far from the truth. What is the fate of your plastic bottle? Where does it go? These are questions that few people ponder, because what is out of sight is out of mind. This is the benefit and the drawback of municipal waste collection. Let’s follow your empty water bottle on its journey across the city, and beyond, to see if we can find answers to your questions.

Your water bottle will first make a journey to a facility operated by Community Conservation Centers, or CCC, at Second and Gilman Streets. Michael Ware, Supervising Manager for the CCC, gave a tour of the facility to The BCC Voice. Standing in the parking lot, I watched as people arrived on foot and by bicycle, hauling huge garbage bags full of bottles and cans. Others arrived in rusty pickup trucks filled with cardboard and other recyclables. Ware is an amicable gentleman and greeted several of the people by name, directing them into parking spaces and answering questions, while simultaneously giving me a run-down of the entire operation. According to Ware, the buyback program generates income for some of Berkeley’s homeless population, who collect recyclables from the city streets and sell them at Berkeley Recycling.

Perhaps one of these collectors found your bottle in a blue bin on the sidewalk. They tossed it in a shopping carriage piled high with bottles and wheeled it three miles west, fishing through other bins along the way. When they arrived at Berkeley Recycling, they loaded it onto a large scale with other #1 PET bottles. The scale keeps a tally of the weight of their load as plastic bottles whizz up a conveyor belt to bins behind. The reward for their labor? $1.28 per pound. California has charged a CRV, or California Redemption Value, since 1986 as an incentive to recycle. Because of this law, your water bottle stands a better chance at reincarnation in California than many other states.

If nobody fished your bottle out of the recycling bin, a driver who works for the Berkeley Department of Public Works picked it up and tossed it into the back of a collection truck with hundreds of other bottles. After zigzagging its way across town, that truck pulls into the CCC and deposits your water bottle in front of the Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF. Here it joins a mountain of plastic, aluminum and glass (and some landfill waste, as well) waiting to be sorted.

Forklift
A forklift driver unloads unsorted recyclables outside the MRF

From there, an employee operating a front loader scoops up your water bottle and drops it onto a long conveyor belt. The conveyor belt carries it inside the MRF, where employees sort all of the city’s curbside recycling by hand. That’s right – by hand. “Berkeley likes [manual sorting] because it creates jobs,” said Ware. According to him, the CCC employs 27 people.

After its journey across the conveyor belt, the sorter responsible for separating #1 plastic plucks out your water bottle and tosses it into a chute, where a mechanism crushes it and diverts it into a large metal bin. The day that I visited, “Reggie” was operating the forklift. He was wearing blue mirrored sunglasses, thick blue rubber gloves and a big smile. He has worked at the CCC since he graduated from high school 13 years ago. He used the forklift to shake the bins periodically, so that they could fit as much plastic in as possible. Above him, a line of employees pulled out plastic bags, food-encrusted plastic tubs, and other non-recyclable items and placed them in trash cans destined for the landfill. These “contaminants,” as they are called, compromise the CCC’s ability to sell the actual recyclables at market if they are not removed.

“Berkeley is one of the cleanest in California,” said Ware, referring to the quality of sorting at the MRF. This means that Berkeley is able to obtain a higher market value for their recyclables than many other municipalities. This is important, since the CCC is a nonprofit. So, your bottle will likely fare better in Berkeley than if it were disposed of in another city or town. Whew.

Next, a forklift operator picks up your bottle along with the rest of the bin and carries it into the massive warehouse next door. Here, an employee loads it into the baler along with other PET bottles from the buyback program. The baler compresses your water bottle, along with hundreds of others, into a giant cube known as a bale. The bale pops out the other end, bound tightly with plastic cords.

Bales
Bales emerge from the baler inside the MRF

Looking around the room, I was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of plastic and paper that the city consumes. According to the CCC’s website, Berkeley’s MRF processes 1,650 tons of recycling per month. Without baling, recyclables could not be loaded, transported and sold – nor would the CCC have the capacity to store them.

Here your water bottle, now a fraction of its previous volume, awaits a tractor trailer that will pick it up and take it to the Port of Oakland, according to Ware. I wondered what the next stop on its itinerary would be.

After the tour, Ware introduced me to Daniel Maher, the Recycling Program Director for the Ecology Center. He was doing work on one of the city’s collection trucks when I approached him, his hands covered in oil. I asked Maher about a project the Ecology Center had done, where they placed GPS tracking devices inside some of the bales to study where they go after they leave the Berkeley CCC.

According to Maher, after your water bottle leaves the CCC, it travels to a facility owned by Titus MRF Services in Southern California. Titus, the company that manufactured the equipment used at the Berkeley MRF, utilizes some of the recyclables the CCC sends for machinery demos, he explained. Because Berkeley’s baler is designed for fiber – that is, paper goods – the plastic bales must be further compressed at the Titus facility before they can be sold at market. This posed a bit of a problem when tracking the bales, since some of the GPS units were crushed during re-baling.

Some of them made it, though.

“Literally all of the plastic is going to Asia,” said Maher. That’s right, your plastic bottle hops onto a cargo ship and takes a trans-Pacific cruise to somewhere in Asia. Maher said that GPS tracking showed bales of plastic from Berkeley went to countries such as China, Malaysia and India. California exports about a third of the recyclable material it collects, according to the CalRecycle website. In 2017, 55 percent of the 14.6 million tons of recyclable exports that were shipped from California were sent to China.

Once your plastic bottle arrives in Asia, it travels to a plant where it is processed into plastic pellets or flakes. Your dismembered bottle is then sold to a manufacturer who melts it down and turns it into another plastic product such as fleece – and, occasionally, but rarely, more bottles. Maher noted, however, that the more times plastic is recycled, the lower the quality becomes until it can no longer be recycled. Additionally, plastics are usually “downcycled,” or turned into a product of lower quality and functionality. That fleece blanket your bottle may have turned into, for example, can’t be discarded in the blue bin. So, although your bottle may be reincarnated, its lifespan is still limited.

Your plastic bottle may soon take a different journey, however, due to the implementation of Chinese policies such as Green Fence and National Sword, which impose stricter standards on the importation of scrap material into the country. Earlier this year, China announced a plan to ban the importation of all recyclables into the country by 2020. Chinese restrictions have resulted in a sharp rise in the export of recyclables to Southeast Asian countries, according to the publisher Resource Recycling. In response, countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are initiating similar policies.

I asked Maher if he could offer any advice to people who would like to be more conscientious recyclers.

“We need to try to change individual behavior,” he said.

He said that although legislation is effective, industry trade groups such as the American Chemistry Council, which represents the plastic industry, often shape public policy. He pointed to single-use plastics as an environmental problem and said that if bulk dispensers of water were more widely available, people would consume less plastic. And not all plastic faces the same fate as your #1 PET plastic bottle, either. “Three through seven are essentially junk plastic,” he said, noting that there is very little demand for these plastics, so they are difficult to sell at market. He encouraged people to think twice before they pick up food in “clamshells” – thin plastic containers. These are far less likely to get recycled than your water bottle.

As I stood with Ware watching the stream of plastic bottles traveling from the scales, he said, “It’s very ironic, burning all of that fossil fuel to ship plastic across the ocean.”

For more information on the Community Conservation Centers, visit them at:
669 Gilman St.
Berkeley, CA
(510) 524-0113

Or visit them online:
berkeleyrecycling.org

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