Plastics: Global Problems, Recycling, and Alternatives

LWVBAE Environmental Concerns Speakers Series logoA talk entitled Plastics: Global Problems, Recycling, and Alternatives was presented by Berkeley Ecology Center Director Martin Bourque October 14 for the LWVBAE Environmental Concerns Speakers Series at the Belmont Village in Albany.
Bourque said Americans are generating more plastic trash than ever and very little of it gets recycled. Plastics and its by-products are littering our cities, oceans, and waterways, contributing to health problems in humans and animals. According to Bourque, the American Chemistry Council estimates that the global plastic production trend will triple plastic production by 2050. The Council confirms that packaging is the largest market for plastic resins while demand for packaging is growing in both developed economies and in emerging markets as trends such as urbanization and rising wealth persist.
Bay Area historic solutions have been to dump plastic in the Bay, or to burn, reduce, reuse, recycle, and-or export it. Bourque said a three-year study of Bay micro-plastics produced a shocker: the biggest source is tires. He also addressed the need for alternative locations to dump bio-based plastics.

“We need to focus on reuse and reduce,” Bourque said.

Today, the Ecology Center’s plastic recycling concerns include the environment, labor, health, markets and down-cycling, a recycling practice that involves breaking an item down into its component elements or materials. The goal of downcycling is reducing waste and improving the efficiency of resource use.

“It’s really the non-bottle plastics that are significant concern,” Bourque said. He added that that food grade plastic is hard and cited whole chicken containers in black plastic trays, which are not recyclable. Dairy containers such as yogurt tubs and cottage cheese are okay, he said. The City of El Cerrito stopped taking film (bags and wrappers) because the “plastic gums everything up,” Bourque explained. The Ecology Center doesn’t take film.

The good news? California Senate Bill 54 (SB-54): Solid waste: packaging and products, which enacts the California Circular Economy and Pollution Reduction Act to achieve a 75% reduction in single-use packaging and priority single-use products, as defined, by 2030. Bourque said the bill made it through the senate and assembly but the authors pulled it for lack of votes. Yet Bourque remains optimistic. “Something will pass next year – we’ll see how big and how much… what comes out of the political machine,” he said. “Industry slowed it down and they ran out of time, a whole new version will come in January… Please support.”

According to CA-SB-54:
• Annual global production of plastic has reached 335 million tons and continues to rise. The United States alone discards 30 million tons each year. Global plastic production is projected to more than triple by 2050, accounting for 20 percent of all fossil fuel consumption.
• Without action, projections estimate that by 2050 the mass of plastic pollution in the ocean will exceed the mass of fish.
• Before 2017, the United States was sending 4,000 shipping containers a day full of American waste to China every year, including two-thirds of California’s recyclable materials. However, China has implemented the Green Fence, National Sword, and Blue Sky policies, severely restricting the amount of contaminated and poorly sorted plastics it would accept. This shift in China’s policy has resulted in the loss of markets for low-value plastic packaging that was previously considered recyclable. That material is now being landfilled or burned.

Such facts also were shared as the evening began with a video from The Story of Stuff Project, a movement that partners with the Ecology Center “to hold up bold, local solutions to the plastic pollution crisis.”

Martin Bourque is committed to sparking change within the environmental and social justice landscape and works at the intersection of community movement building, policy development and program implementation. Since 2000 he’s led the community-based Ecology Center that was incorporated on the first Earth Day 1970. Under his leadership the Center has become a high-impact engine for change with innovative efforts that include creating a farmers’ market industry group, pioneering electronic food stamp access and incentives at farmers’ markets statewide, and passing the nation’s first Soda Tax.

The Ecology Center recycling values are to create good jobs, reduce toxics, save natural resources, and prevent waste. The Ecology Center reports that it has operated the Berkeley’s Curbside Recycling Program since 1973, then launched as a demonstration project collecting newspapers. Recycling is a principal focus; under a City of Berkeley contract, they operate the weekly collection of cans, bottles, newsprint, mixed paper and cardboard. This curbside program has become a model for thousands of municipal recycling programs.

For more information,

LWVBAE Environmental Concerns Speaker Series is offered most 2nd Mondays of the Month September through May at Belmont Village, 1100 San Pablo Avenue, Albany, CA 7:30-9 p.m.
FREE parking garage available. OPEN to LWV members and the general public. Bring friends. Come early for tea and cookies. Let us know if you need a ride. For information contact Carol Stone (510) 549-0959,

There will be no Speaker Series December 2019.

–Report submitted by Gail Schickele

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