The heaping bales of plastic, paper, glass and unidentifiable bits at Berkeley’s recycling center on Gilman Street represent a city committed to recycling. But, like municipalities across the country, the city is also caught up in a cycle of consumption that has recently come under an international spotlight.

The New York Times reported last year that China is refusing to accept dirty or low-quality recyclables from the United States, cutting down on roughly 60% of materials it used to accept worldwide. While China’s decision has adversely impacted the recycling market  in Berkeley and globally, local recycling experts agree the entire system has been due for an overhaul since the United States began pumping out plastics in the mid 1950s.

Consumers carry part of the burden to produce clean recyclables and make thoughtful choices while shopping — avoiding excess packaging, bringing their own containers, refusing low-quality plastics and avoiding “wish-cycling,” or recycling low-quality items in the hope that they’re processed abroad.

John Hanscom points to bales of #1 PET plastics, which are recycled domestically. Other than clean PET, all plastics from Berkeley are recycled overseas. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

Upstream, manufacturers must focus on creating high-quality, reusable materials that reduce the overall mass that heads to recycling plants, landfills and compost, and transparently share recycling guidelines for their products.

To better understand Berkeley’s recycling practices and challenges, Berkeleyside spoke to several experts: John Hanscom and Jeff Bellchamber of Berkeley Recycling/Community Recycling Center, the nonprofit that processes Berkeley’s recycling;  Heidi Obermeit, the city’s Recycling Program Manager; and James Hosley of the Ecology Center, which collects residential curbside recycling.

Our guide covers 10 commonly asked questions about recycling in Berkeley:

1. How clean does my recycling have to be to actually get recycled?

Plastic, glass and all other containers need to be rinsed, cleaned out and dried — virtually free of residual food or liquid  — to be processed by Berkeley Recycling. Any contamination could degrade the quality of the entire stock, since bales sit together for months while they’re being transported overseas, where they’ll eventually be turned into other materials. Leftover water or contaminants could cause mold and decay. Any paper items that have food or oil stains (e.g., a pizza box) should be composted because they will start breaking down during the transportation and storage process.

Rigid plastics
Bales of rigid plastics at Berkeley Recycling. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

2. What materials should be composted, instead of recycled?

According to the Alameda County’s waste characterization study from last year, less than 7% of all waste in single-family curbside carts is recyclable, but more than 30% is compostable. This includes food scraps, food soiled paper and plant debris.

Butter boxes that have a thin layer of plastic, and the paper around butter and pizza boxes, are examples of paper that can be composted. To go one step above, Hosley suggests cutting out the grease-stained portions of pizza boxes and recycling the clean cardboard. According to Hosley, about 95% of milk and juice cartons are paper with a thin layer of plastic, and should be composted, but it’s not always easy to determine a container’s materials.

“It’s very difficult to understand all these things and it’s a real shame, but manufacturers aren’t taking responsibility,” Hosley said, adding that most items have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. “They often place a recycling symbol on something that can’t actually be recycled.”

For example, Tetra Pak containers commonly used for juices, milk and drinks cannot be recycled at all, and must be sent to a landfill. Hosley said it’s best to clean food and drink out of any items that will be landfilled so they don’t produce methane. Methane isn’t produced in compost because there is oxygen available.

Hosley said the amount of compostable materials is going way up — and that’s a good thing — but the best choice is to avoid plastics and extra packaging altogether.

3. What is the size limit for rigid recyclables, both large and small?

Illustration: Supriya Yelimeli

Anything that goes in curbside recycling needs to fit in the curbside bin and be no larger than a five gallon bucket. Larger containers could block the sorting line’s conveyer belt and cause operational problems or require manual removal of the blockage, according to Obermeit. Large rigid plastics can be dropped off at Berkeley Recycling, where they will be baled directly.

Small items like coffee cup lids and bottle caps are not valuable in the current market, may not be captured on the sorting line, and commonly end up in a landfill. Metal caps don’t pose the same problem, because they get removed with a magnet during the sorting process. Items like aluminum foil are best collected over time and balled up, instead of recycling individual pieces. Small, broken pieces of glass should not be recycled. As a ground rule, Hosley said any loose items smaller than your fist are better suited for landfills, than recycling centers.

4. What about those triangles on packaging that indicate an item can be recycled? Are they accurate?

A triangle on the bottom of your plastic container doesn’t actually indicate that an item can be recycled. Depending on the type of symbol, it can mean that the material is created from recycled materials, or in the case of a number inside the triangle — the type of resin coating used on the plastic.

While they do not provide clear guidance for recycling, Hanscom said the numbers can help consumers determine which type of plastics to avoid while shopping. Plastics with a 1, 2 or 5 are more recyclable, and include soda and water bottles, detergent bottles and yogurt tubs. Number 3 plastics, or PVC materials, require separation from other plastics and are typically not recyclable in Berkeley. Number 4 plastics include many thin, film plastics which do not have a viable market, number 6 plastics are essentially Styrofoam and cannot be recycled, and the mixed “other” category, number 7, does not contain recyclable materials.

Constantly changing markets and oftentimes incorrect labels pose a challenge to residents who want to be responsible consumers. As a general rule, rigid plastics are more valuable than soft plastics, and it’s best to reuse items when it’s impossible to avoid them altogether.

Hanscom holds up a plastic lid that didn’t get captured in the sorting line due to its dimensions and flatness. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli
Hanscom holds up a plastic lid that didn’t get captured in the sorting line due to its dimensions and flatness. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

5. Can I recycle plastic bags and other plastic films?

The Ecology Center and Berkeley Recycling don’t accept film plastics for recycling. These materials (like plastic wrap, clear windows in envelopes and packaging, spice and condiment packets) are low quality and difficult to sell in the current market. Additionally, they tangle into sorting gears, cause mechanical problems and waste time, Hosley said.

Many grocery stores have stopped taking back plastic bags for recycling as well because low-quality plastic is very difficult to sell. Residents may still be able to find recycling centers at Target, Whole Foods, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Smart & Final and other outlets through this online directory, but it’s unclear if they’re actually being recycled, according to Hanscom. He said it’s better to cut down on these items and keep them, instead of “wish-cycling” and hoping they get processed in Asia.

Every effort should be made to reuse or share plastic bags with friends or neighbors who could use them for pet waste or other purposes. After reuse, they should be placed in municipal waste and sent to a landfill.

6. What about clamshell packaging (like strawberry containers)? Is it allowed in curbside recycling?

Clamshell packaging is allowed, but the typically low-grade plastics are often food-soiled, like clamshell containers from restaurants. The cleaner the clamshells, the better chance they will actually be recycled. Hanscom said they are very labor-intensive in recycling centers because clamshells are often made of different types of plastics, and need to be separated and sorted by hand.

7. What are some items that people forget to recycle or don’t recycle properly?

The glass sorting line at Berkeley Recycling. Small and broken pieces of glass are a hazard and will not be captured. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

Household batteries and fluorescent light bulbs are considered household hazardous waste (HHW) and must be recycled, but at the City of Berkeley’s Transfer Station (1201 Second St.), not in curbside recycling bins. Lithium batteries, especially, should never go in the curbside bins: they could combust or cause fires in the collection truck or at a sorting facility.

People often overlook clean paper products and packaging from bathrooms when recycling, Hanscom said. Don’t forget to include those boxes from toothpaste, cosmetics and other products.

The ground rule for recycling glass: If it was used as a container, it can be rinsed out and recycled (e.g., bottles for beer, wine, sauces.) Broken plates, cups, food and beverage service materials (e.g., a PYREX measuring cup) that had an ongoing use have different melting points and cannot be combined in the recycling process.

Wood and concrete cannot be recycled curbside and should be dropped off at the city’s Transfer Station to be recycled as construction and demolition material. Small, unpainted, untreated wood, can go into residential compost containers, which are picked up by the city. No stumps beyond one foot in diameter, plywood, paint adhesive or mixed materials are allowed in the green waste bins.

Scrap metal items like pots, pans and shelving are accepted at the city’s recycling center.

8. Are mixed-material plastics and papers recyclable?

Many mixed-material papers that cannot be manually separated into 100% paper, such as laminated wrapping paper with foil, microwave food containers, insulated paper containers, and any paper that is wax-coated (liked waxed-paper baking sheets), cannot be recycled. Paper materials are mixed with water and turned into a pulp in recycling facilities, but waxed paper and waxed cardboard do not break down this way.

Laminated sheets have to go into the garbage, as well as sticker backings, plastic-backed paper, tape and paper tape. Only clean, dry, non-mixed paper products can be recycled. Berkeley Recycling accepts mail with plastic windows, plastic attachments or photographs in curbside bins.

Mixed rigid plastics like laundry hampers, buckets, bus tubs and plastic chair can be dropped off at the transfer center. Berkeley Recycling cannot take plastics that integrated with other materials, like a metal frame chair with plastic armrest and backing. Residents can call Berkeley Recycling for questions on specific items.

9. Is it better to use paper than plastic?

After plastic bag bans across California and the introduction of paper bags in grocery stores, many have questioned whether using paper is significantly better than their plastic counterparts. Oregon recently published a study into the environmental implications of each type of product, finding drawbacks in both. Local experts said it’s better to avoid disposable materials altogether and focus on reusable and durable items. Berkeley became the first city in the country to ban single-use foodware in January, but the Berkeley Single-Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance will fully be in effect by 2020. It may produce positive results in reducing the overall amount of recyclables.

10. What is the recycling buyback program, and where can I access it?

A local impact of China’s decision has been the closure of buyback centers. Independent centers and grocery stores would previously purchase thin plastic bags and other items from residents because there was a viable recycling market to sell off the items in bulk, but this market has crumbled.

One of the few remaining buyback centers is located at Berkeley Recycling and is open six days a week. The program is subsidized through the California Redemption Value (CRV) program, which was designed to support people at the subsistence level. Individuals can bring CRV items (aluminum, glass and plastic bottles) and sell any CRVs smaller than 24 ounces for five cents and anything 24 ounces or greater for 10 cents. The center also has a donation box where it takes non-CRV plastics, like mouthwash bottles, which can also be placed in curbside bins.

Though many similar programs have shut down, Hanscom said Berkeley Recycling’s buyback is doing well and preparing to seek a renewed contract from the city.

Berkeley recycling resources

Berkeley Recycling/Community Recycling Center, 699 Gilman St., (510) 524-0113, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday. The buyback at the same address is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Website:

City of Berkeley’s Transfer Station, 1201 Second St. The transfer station also accepts appliances, garden materials, batteries, and others free or charge or for a fee. Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed Sunday, New Year’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.  Website:

Ecology Center, 2530 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-548-2220. The store and resource center is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Website: Check out this handy “path to zero waste” guide from the Ecology Center.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...