Plastic Free July Week 4 – RECYCLE

This is week four: RECYCLE in our series of weekly blog posts about Plastic Free July.

Unfortunately, the current options for recycling plastic in the United States are more limited than in the past. For this reason, the previous three options for dealing with plastic, ie, REFUSE, REDUCE, and REUSE, are better than actually putting your plastic items into a recycling bin, since only a few plastic items can be reliably recycled.

How did we get here?

For years, the United States depended on China to recycle the plastic that recycling centers collected. However, in 2018, China stopped taking our plastic, because 30% of this material was non-recyclable, was contaminated with other items that made recycling difficult, was never recycled, and ended up polluting China’s land and oceans. When China stopped taking our plastic, the United States turned to other countries, many of which also implemented bans on this imported plastic waste as it became clear that it was not possible to actually recycle the material. It is estimated that 20-70% of the plastic intended for recycling overseas is unusable and is discarded, which ends up polluting those countries’ land and water. 

Trash mountains
When China rejected U.S. recycling materials, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries were quick to follow suit.

When China imposed this ban on our plastic waste, as well as some types of cardboard, glass and paper, the recycling industry in the US was “upended”. In the past, recycling programs generated income from selling recyclable materials. However, as a result of the import bans from other countries for our plastic waste, the current economics for most recyclable materials require cities to pay to dispose of them. This includes El Cerrito.

El Cerrito’s Recycling Programs

El Cerrito operates a curbside recycling collection program (where recycled materials are commingled and separated by a processor outside of El Cerrito) as well as a Recycling + Environmental Resource Center (where recycled materials are separately collected by category and marketed directly to processors). Because of the new recycling policies from China, the demand for recycled materials is significantly reduced, making the economics of processing recyclables go from a net revenue generating activity to a net expense for the city. The materials collected from both of these programs are now generating little or no revenue, and recycling processors are now charging to accept materials. 

On June 18, 2019, the city council approved a contract with Napa Recycling and Waste Services (NRWS) to accept the commingled recyclable materials collected from the City’s curbside recycling program, based on their analysis that NRWS provided the best value for the materials collected, which include many plastic containers. The materials are sold by NRWS to processors in the US as well as Malaysia and Mexico. Although NRWS is able to process the recyclable materials from El Cerrito, they are charging the city to do so. 

If you do need to recycle plastic, either at the El Cerrito recycling center, or in your curbside recycling bin, here are some tips:

    • Make sure the plastic is clean and dry. Dirty recyclable items in the recycle bin will contaminate the other material, making all of the material impossible to recycle.

El Cerrito Recycling Center
In response to Covid-19, there are additional restrictions on accepted materials

  • Curbside Recycling Bin
    • Plastic Materials accepted – Empty, Clean and Dry
      • Bottles & jugs: all CRV containers; all numbers & colors; rinsed & empty, leave caps on
      • Rigid non-bottle plastics, such as: Tubs & containers (e.g. yogurt, margarine); Buckets, pails & crates; Clamshell trays & deli containers (please rinse and dry); Laundry baskets
      • Check this link to get the most up to date information
    • Plastic Materials NOT accepted
      • Styrofoam or other polystyrene (#6 EPS plastic), PVC (#3 plastic), plastic bags or plastic film / wrap / flexible packaging, plastic straws, plastic utensils, and other small (under 2″ x 2″) plastic items.
      • Check this link to get the most up to date information

Other recommendations:

  • If you can’t avoid a disposable container, consider non-plastic materials that CAN be recycled
    • Buy products in either glass or aluminum, which are high value recyclable materials, rather than plastic
  • Use / request compostable foodware items (such as single use take-out containers) 
    • If the foodware is made of a paper product, such as paper plates, paper napkins, paper cups, and paper bags, it can be put in the city’s Green Waste curbside bin even when soiled with food. (Separating food from plastic containers and cleaning them is an extra barrier to the successful recycling of these materials, whereas compostable items can be soiled with food .)
    • See this link for complete details about what can be put into the Green Waste Bin

Background & Resources:

Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How do We Fix It?

An excellent article from Columbia University’s Earth Institute’s blog “State of the Planet, dated March 13, 2020, which explains the history of plastic recycling in the United States. Much of the background information presented above is from this article

June 16, 2020 El Cerrito City Council Meeting

A link to the June 16, 2020 Resolution to execute an agreement with El Cerrito’s new recycling partner, Napa Recycling and Waste Services, which discusses where they send their material to be recycled

December 17, 2019 El Cerrito City Council Meeting

Agenda Item No 6.A

Proposed East Bay Sanitary Garbage & Green Waste Collection and Post-Collection Rates and Integrated Waste Management Fees — Effective January 1, 2020

“… the Chinese government has placed increasingly tight restrictions and bans on the amount and type of recycled material Chinese manufacturers can accept. These restrictions have caused dramatic and volatile changes in the market for recycled materials. As a result, single-stream curbside recyclables have been commanding little or no revenue, and in many communities a surcharge which is comparable to a disposal fee. Since FY 2016-17, the City’s Recycling Program has seen a loss of more than $240,000 in recycling revenue and new recyclables processing and transport costs projected to be approximately $324,000 in FY 2019-20 and FY 2020-21. These negative trends in the recycling markets are universally expected to worsen into future years.”

Robin Mitchell for the Environmental Justice Committee

Plastic Free July – Week 3 RE-USE

Plastic Free July – Week 3 RE-USE

This is week 3: RE-USE in our series of weekly blog posts about Plastic Free July. You’ve done a good job of refusing and reducing your plastic intake. It’s time to turn attention to the question, “What to do with the plastic that comes into our lives?”  

In recent years, customers have let their grocery stores and farmers market sellers know that we want no or less plastic with our food. More dry foods have been available in bulk bins, less produce was packaged in plastic bags, and customers were encouraged to bring their own cloth shopping bags.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the important pandemic Health Orders is that more of our food is being packaged in plastic.  

So how do we keep being “Plastic Free Warriors,” in the Time of COVID-19?  We offer a few suggestions. 


Clear plastic cups with domed lids are great for germinating seeds and getting them to the stage when the plants can be transplanted into a large pot or soil bed. These arugula seedlings started from seed in some G&B Harvest Supreme soil in June in a washed Starbucks drink cup. When the seedlings almost reach the top of the dome, they will be transplanted.

Clean clamshell containers serve as mini-greenhouses for new seedlings. Using a utility knife or sharp scissors, remove the lid of the container. Turn the lower part bottom side up and place over tiny leaves that just germinated. This creates a warm, humid environment that can support seedling growth. 

This container used to hold granola.

Yogurt containers can be converted into “tubes” for deep watering your tomatoes.

All of these containers can be used over and over.


Because we are doing more take out from local eateries, the food often comes in plastic containers. They can be washed and re-used many times to store food, like this leftover miso soup.

Plastic clamshell containers make great veggies and fruit gift packs from my garden to neighbors and close-by family and friends.


Instead of ordering goods that are packed in styrofoam, plastic bubble wrap, plastic “pillows” or peanuts, find vendors willing to use recycled materials, such as these paper packing solutions.


If you’ve ever dreamed of attending the Kentucky Derby and wearing a fascinator for which it has become famous, you can make one of your own with plastic items you can find in your kitchen!  We made ours from paper plates, plastic forks, spoons, knives, straws, and colorful plastic bags that the neighbor’s newspapers came in. Our “Plastinators” were created for our campaign to ban plastic foodware in El Cerrito.


Or how about making an art statement about plastic pollution and oceans, like this jellyfish that was used to make people more aware of the impact plastic has on our oceans.

Combined with  our REFUSE practice, we can ask a cafe or restaurant where we get take out not to put our food in plastic bags, and offer to put it in our own bag, bin, or basket. If they aren’t able to do that, we can still refuse the plastic bag and take the containers of food to our cars to pack there, just as we are doing at the grocery stores.  RE-USING plastic safely is one way to keep it out of the landfill for some time at least.  The added bonus of refusing and re-using is that less energy is used to produce reusable materials. Hopefully it also means fewer people will be exposed to toxic plastic chemicals in factories.

While these steps help us control the amount of plastic coming into our lives, plastic is ubiquitous–from toothbrushes to barrettes to shoelace tips and tool handles. Before the post WWII plastics revolution, people managed to live life without plastics. We  imagine a plastic-free world, and eagerly watch and support innovators like John Hollis of Berkeley with his FlatUpCup who is working to create that healthier new world. 

In the News–the latest on plastic:

Kroeger targets 2025 to eliminate plastic bag use 

KFC Canada switches to bamboo food containers by the end of this year, saving 55 tons of plastic trash annually.

Avery Dennison, makers of labels and other office supplies, has earned certification for BPA-free and FSC-certified thermal labels that can be composted.


Barbara Chan, for the Environmental Justice Committee


Plastic Free July – Week 2 REDUCE

This is week two: REDUCE, in our series of weekly blog posts about Plastic Free July. If you can’t refuse all plastic products or packaging (very few of us can since plastic is so ubiquitous in our modern life), the next best thing you can do as a consumer, is to reduce the amount of plastic you accept into your life. How can you do this? Here are some ideas:

  • As with the focus on refuse last week, ask yourself “Do I really need this or do I just want it?”
  • Bring your own bags when you go shopping. This will reduce the need for new bags, including plastic bags, which despite recent bag bans, are still available at some stores.
  • Borrow instead of buy if you need something. This is obviously more difficult in light of the ongoing pandemic while the Berkeley and Richmond tool libraries are closed. However, you can still borrow from friends and neighbors.
  • Look for and purchase clothing made from 100% natural fibers like cotton, linen, or wool vs. polyester, acrylic, or spandex. According to Adam Minter in his book, Secondhand, about the global reuse market (more on reuse next week!), when our clothing reaches the point that it can no longer be worn as a garment, the rag industry makes further use of it by turning it into rags. However, clothing made of synthetic materials makes rags of lower quality – they aren’t as absorbent which is generally desirable quality in a rag. On top of this, clothing made of synthetic materials sheds microfibers in the laundry, which end up going down the drain to pollute the ocean. There are products, such as this Guppy Friend microfiber catching bag, that can help with this issue, however, reducing the amount of synthetic clothing you purchase to begin with is a better solution.
  • Another way to reduce plastic, especially plastic packaging, is to purchase products that are packaged in plastic-fee materials whenever possible. In the Bay Area, we’re lucky to have, a local shop based in Albany that provides refill services for home and body products!

Some neighbors share a lawn mower; this one is zero emissions!

Of course, there is only so much we can do as consumers to reduce our plastic consumption when so many products, including essential products, are made from plastic and/or packaged in plastic, such as medication. While it feels good for each of us to contribute in our own small way by reducing the plastic in our lives, we also need manufacturers and retailers to do their part. Greenpeace has an ongoing campaign to tell Target to ditch plastic packaging. You can send a message to Target about this here. Ordinary citizens like us signed onto a campaign to persuade Trader Joe’s to stop packaging produce in plastic clamshells and the stores have removed a lot of plastic packaging for produce. As a result of a petition that we presented in July 2019  to El Cerrito Natural Grocery, in November last year, they stopped selling plastic water bottles that are less than a gallon. You could write to your favorite businesses and urge them to stop using plastic.

Plastic Free July – Week 1

Plastic Free July has crept up on us! Haven’t heard about Plastic Free July? Find out more, here. Why live plastic-free? To improve human health and the health of the Planet. Plastic is made from petroleum extractions and does not biodegrade; it pollutes land, water, and air. Mirobits of plastic can be found in deep ocean canyons and in icebergs. It’s in every plastic beverage bottle you drink.

Once a week this month we will cover the 4 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, ReUse, and Recycle, and include tips for avoiding plastic packaging during the pandemic, which has likely impacted almost everyone’s purchasing habits.

To help us decide what to Refuse, we kept a log of our household’s plastic usage for a month. It’s pretty easy to do: just note the date, the quantity, and type of plastic item(s) that comes into your home. We did ours on a spreadsheet that tallied up the daily totals between 2 people. The first screen shot shows one person’s log for a week.The next screen shot shows the sum of two people’s log by the day and a graph of the numbers.

Another way to keep track is to keep a bucket or basket where you collect all the plastic items that you discard/recycle throughout the month. This gives a good visual representation. At the end of the month, you’ll know a lot more about where you need to focus to change your habits and reduce your plastic consumption.

So what does refusing plastic mean? Ideally this would mean refusing to purchase anything that is packaged in plastic, or made from plastic. Since plastic packaging is generally single-use, and much of it is not recyclable, it is considered one of the worst environmental offenders when it comes to plastic. With Shelter in Place and more home deliveries, more plastic has come into some people’s homes than usual.

Food shopping is an area in which it’s hard to refuse/avoid single-use plastic packaging. When shopping at farmer’s markets, you can bring your own reusable bags or baskets and ask vendors to explore non-plastic packaging options. For example, berries can be packaged in cardboard containers vs. the typical green plastic cartons. Sambrailo Packaging in Watsonville makes cardboard packaging for fruit.

Because grocery stores are currently not allowing shoppers to bring their own bags into the store due to the pandemic, you can put your groceries, unbagged, in your shopping cart and transfer them from the cart to bags at your car or bike, instead of having them bagged in plastic bags at the checkout counter.

If you’re shopping for food online, as many of us are doing during Shelter in Place, you know that this poses its own set of problems with plastic packaging. Look for vendors that use recyclable packaging materials. Fragile items are often packaged with styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap, but what did people do before these items existed? An “old fashioned” and much more sustainable approach was to wrap the fragile item in paper, padded with crumpled or shredded paper, place it within a cardboard box, and then place the box within a larger cardboard box with additional crumpled or shredded paper stuffed in between the two boxes.

It will take time to change your habits and find alternative sources for items that are not packaged in plastic. It may seem overwhelming at times. One approach is to focus on one area of your life at a time, such as “food” or “toiletries” or even “clothing.” It took one member of our group 1.5 years to reduce her household’s plastic consumption by 70%. Just do your best and keep trying!

Here are some great resources for reducing plastic in your life:

Beth Terry, formerly from the Bay Area, has an informative blog and comprehensive book dedicated to living plastic free. The recent film, The Story of Plastic, “takes a sweeping look at the man-made crisis of plastic pollution and the worldwide effect it has on the health of our planet and the people who inhabit it.” Berkeley’s Ecology Center is a wonderful local resource.

Rebecca Anaya for the Environmental Justice Committee



URGENT ACTION REQUESTED for June 16 City Council Meeting




Item 7B on the June 16 El Cerrito City Council Agenda is about revenue, expenditures and costs.

COVID-19 and Climate Change

The COVID-19 pandemic has brutally revealed the connection between individual and public health, the economy, and the health of our environment. People of color are most impacted by the coronavirus, polluted water, dirty air, and contaminated soil. Around the world, people demonstrated that they could change their behavior instantly when their health was threatened by an invisible force of microscopic size.

Unlike the coronavirus, the Climate Emergency is a visible, palpable threat: rising seas are already affecting coastal communities that in turn will impact the salinity of bays, estuaries, rivers and creeks. Temperatures are the hottest this year since they have been recorded. Deforestation is causing widespread damage to air, water, and soil quality.

The  Climate Emergency has already started—higher temperatures and another drought year spell trouble for everyone, especially unhoused people and people without access to AC or who are living in places with few windows and cross-breezes. In El Cerrito, our  library and community center have been our cooling centers. Their closure means no place for people to cool down on super hot days.

One benefit of the shelter in place health order has been clearer skies which means easier breathability for people with respiratory ailments and allergies. More wildlife has come out to delight us—birds, bees, butterflies, and more.

UNFORTUNATELY, IT TOOK DESTROYING OUR ECONOMY TO GET PEOPLE TO CHANGE BECAUSE WE WERE NOT PREPARED. El Cerrito did not plan for such an emergency.  We have no alternative power system for the City; we haven’t invested in green business initiatives that could save our small businesses and do good by the environment; we have no alternatives for cooling centers, and clean drinking water; we have no plan for how to feed people should food scarcity occur throughout the community; and we have no local health center.

Despite all this, the City Manager in her June 9 City Council Budget Study Session directive wrote, “ENVIRONMENTAL CONSIDERATIONS This section is not applicable to this agenda item.”  The Consultant hired by the City Manager further put in his PowerPoint presentation, “Foster environmental sustainability citywide” at LOW priority in the short term (6 months).”  In the mid-term he put it at MID priority, and only in 5 YEARS did he assign HIGH priority.

El Cerrito and the world do not have 5 years to start thinking about environmental sustainability. The progress we have made in recent years can easily backslide for lack of attention.

The City has a Climate Action Plan that was supposed to be reviewed this year. With the fiscal cliff our city is working to alleviate, this is the best time to re-imagine our city—not just slash expenses, but how we treat our environment for improved public health, social equity, healthier jobs and a healthier economy.  Here are 4 things that can move us quicker into integrating

-the integration of climate action in all operations by including it in every city government job description

-the City Council Sub-committee on Climate Action report to be released immediately for public discussion and action

-the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 50% by the year 2030

-the city to allow El Cerrito resident volunteers to work with city staff to activate GHG reductions, greening of local businesses, and educating the community

If you believe the City should include climate change actions in its 2020-21 budget as a priority, please email comments by Monday, June 15 to the City Clerk at

Subject heading must state “Public Comments – Agenda Item #7B” in order to be included in the City Council members’ packets.

Let’s advocate for Community Emergency Responsiveness Training (CERT) for Society!