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