Greg Apa, Berkeley’s solid waste and recycling manager, in front of a mountain of recyclable plastic at the city’s transfer station which is slated to be rebuilt to meet future demands. Photo: Tony Hicks

Waste management certainly isn’t what it used to be.

When Berkeley built its current transfer station, near Second and Gilman streets, Ronald Reagan was president, plastic was considered garbage and compost sounded like something straight out of a dystopian novel.

Which is why Berkeley is holding two public meetings this week to get input on how the city should move into the future with a new transfer station for recycling, trash, compost and other salvageable materials. (The meetings are on Wednesday, 6-9 p.m. and Saturday, 1-4 p.m. See details.)

“The facility has aged,” said Greg Apa, the city’s solid waste and recycling manager, as he gave this reporter a tour of the transfer station Monday. “In 1981 and ’82, it was supposed to be a burn plant, with PG&E converting (waste) into energy. Landfill and incineration is the worst thing you can do with it.”

A burn plant wasn’t going to fly in environmentally friendly Berkeley, which Apa said was one of the first cities in the United States to implement curbside recycling. It’s still one of the few cities in the Bay Area that handles its own garbage and recycling, instead of contracting with larger regional companies.

The idea is to scale back what the city sends to a landfill near the Altamont Pass, beyond Livermore. There’s been a re-emphasis on the United States handling its own waste management, after years of shipping it overseas. Until a year ago, 62% of U.S. recycling was processed in China, according to Apa.

“Now it’s been re-allocated to re-investment in the U.S., especially with paper and cardboard,” he said. “They’re slowly rebuilding U.S. capacity.”

The city also has an eye on the future, depending on what other materials could become recyclable. Improvements in processing methods at a new station would likely lower costs as well.

Berkeley’s transfer station currently processes 147,000 tons of material from city residents and businesses every year. It was designed for less than a third of that amount.

“There are numerous concerns about the infrastructure that exists now, so it’s time,” said Martin Bourque, the Executive Director of the Ecology Center, which handles Berkeley’s curbside recycling. “We’ve been advocating for a rebuild since 2004. We want to re-invest in it and get to a future where we can think about zero waste”

The city’s population grown, but technology has changed what gets recycled rather than jammed into trash cans. Not only does the city separate garbage from recyclables from compost, it also sorts plastics into compatible types. (Apa pointed out that the petroleum industry manufactures about 20,000 different types of plastic material.)

Transfer stations must keep up not only with what can be recycled now, but also in the future. Bourque expects to see much more recyclable construction waste, like wood and concrete, not entering landfills.

“The waste stream of today is not the waste stream we’re going to see over the next 20 or 30 years,” he said.

Berkeley currently sends about 68,000 tons of material to the landfill. In 2011, the city set a goal of diverting 90% of its material for re-use and recycling (it’s now at about 72%). Increasing that number will require re-configuring the eight-acre waste management site to be used more efficiently.

“We would do it in phases,” Apa said, comparing the re-building of the transfer station while it’s still being used to the construction of the new Bay Bridge. “You can do it. It’s how you do the sequence.”

Instead of “single-stream” recycling, which only requires separation of recyclables and trash (and compost), Berkeley uses a “dual-stream” system, which separates the recyclable glass, plastic, aluminum, paper and cardboard.

“Everything goes into different cans,” Apa said. “It keeps things cleaner.”

This means less sorting and cleaning at the transfer station. And less space devoted to landfills usually means more open space. Before 1982, Berkeley used what’s now Cesar Chavez Park for landfill.

Ideally, public input would result in the city having two options by July 2019. The Zero Waste Commission would have its say, followed by the City Council. Environmental review could take up to three years, followed by up to another three years of final engineering and construction. The new facility would likely be solar-powered.

Wednesday’s public workshop takes place from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis St. A second session will be held from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Live Oak Community Center, at 1301 Shattuck Ave. See full details on City of Berkeley website.

Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...