Students at John Muir Elementary sort for composting and recycling. Photo: Green Schools Initiative
Students at John Muir Elementary sort for composting and recycling, but more Berkeley residents need to recycle in order for the city to meet its 2020 zero waste goal. Photo: Green Schools Initiative

A recent audit of several City of Berkeley departments has revealed that the city is in jeopardy of not meeting its zero waste goal by 2020.

The resolution to divert all waste from landfills was adopted by Berkeley City Council in 2005. According to the city auditor report, the city met the requirement by Alameda County to divert 75 percent of readily recyclable materials from landfills in 2010, and it has doubled its waste diversion rate since 1995. But the audit reveals several setbacks, and potential solutions, to achieving the 100 percent goal.

City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan said getting more Berkeley residents on board with waste reduction will be key to meeting the objectives.

Berkeley's recycling of green waster -- here being dumped at a Central Valley sorting site -- has helped it achieve a high waste diversion score. All photos: Sean Gin
Berkeley’s recycling of green waste, here being dumped at a Central Valley sorting site, has helped it achieve a waste diversion rate of around 74 percent. Photo: Sean Gin
Berkeley’s recycling of green waste, here being dumped at a Central Valley sorting site, has helped it achieve a waste diversion rate of around 74 percent. Photo: Sean Gin

The auditor’s report offers several recommendations to bolster the city’s progress, and emphasizes the need to create a strategic plan.

The Department of Public Works has already made progress in achieving zero waste, but needs a plan that more clearly identifies short-term goals, who is responsible for these goals, the resources needed to take achieve these goals and how to determine if these goals have been met, the report states.

The report does not provide an explicit timeframe for when such a plan should be developed, but Hogan said that the existence of an overall objective — zero waste by 2020 — will facilitate the process of creating one.

“It’s simpler to do a strategic plan for something where you already know what the goal is. Once you know where you want to go, you can concentrate on how you are going to get there and how you are going to be accountable and transparent about your progress,” Hogan said.

To achieve zero waste, however, each goal must be customized to the city’s specific needs. According to the report, the city can be most effective by tailoring education, outreach, compliance and enforcement policies to areas with the most room for improvement. This includes targeting certain materials to increase their waste diversion rates.

The report singled out education as one of the most effective instruments in increasing these rates. Campaigns informing residents of the benefits of recycling and composting can significantly reduce unsustainable waste disposal habits, the report said. And, while many people are already on board with waste reduction, Hogan said there are many who have yet to join the movement.

“There are a lot of people in Berkeley who aren’t recycling yet, and studies in other cities have shown that you get to a certain point of getting people on board with recycling and then it will level off a bit. To reach people who aren’t true believers, you need to do more outreach,” Hogan said.

Hogan mentioned better labeling, brochures, presentations and email campaigns as potential forms of outreach. If necessary, the city could also provide incentives for citizens to engage in more sustainable practices, either in the form of penalties or prizes.

The city auditor says there are a lot of people in Berkeley who aren’t recycling yet. Photo: Tracey Taylor
The city auditor says there are a lot of people in Berkeley who aren’t recycling yet. Photo: Tracey Taylor

But none of these initiatives are cheap. A national zero waste summit referenced in the audit suggests that a minimum of three dollars per person be spent on education to push waste diversion rates from 70 percent to 100 percent. The city currently has a diversion rate of around 74 percent, and the report recommends that the city should investigate whether more funds for education are needed.

Currently, the potential cost of education and the cost of implementing other Public Works initiatives — like rebuilding the dilapidated transfer station and materials recovery facility — would likely exceed funding allocated to Public Works, which is already operating with a deficit.

Thanks to a change in the way residents are charged for waste services, Public Works will have a balanced budget by 2016, according to the report. But council may need to levy additional fees to fund all of the zero waste efforts.

Other efforts recommended by the report include biweekly garbage pickup, and greater collaboration with the Department of Information Technology to improve responses to customer complaints and collect more detailed data.

According to Hogan, the auditor’s office began looking into the city’s zero waste goal after a request from Public Works director Andrew Clough. He wanted to know if data collected by Public Works could be used to better manage operations.

In October 2013, the audit office began collecting information from Public Works, the City Manager, and the Department of Information Technology, Hogan said. Over the next six months, Hogan and her colleagues investigated, researched, and came up with preliminary findings. They then received feedback from the audited departments. A finalized report was submitted to the City Clerk’s agenda review system in June. The City Council will review the audit on July 8.

Hogan hopes the Council will implement her office’s recommendations.

“We’re hoping that this report will help Berkeley make it to the next step,” Hogan said. “[The city] has a lot to be proud of in terms of what they’ve done in achieving their zero-waste goal, and this will be a roadmap for how they can accelerate that progress.”

Berkeley to increase garbage collection fees by 25% (02.27.14)
Residential garbage fees could rise 25% in Berkeley (12.05.13)
New waste bin pick-up plans: Impossible in Berkeley? (11.30.12)
Berkeley meets recycling goals, beats Piedmont (03.29.12)
Where does Berkeley’s green waste go? (06.23.11)
Berkeley’s new recycling carts: how it’s going so far (10.27.10)

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