Meet our Members: Ecology Center Berkeley

The Ecology Center: Turning the recycling crisis into an opportunity for Zero Waste

On April 22nd, 1970, communities across the United States celebrated the first Earth Day. This national event– the largest mass demonstration in the country until the Women’s March of 2017–sprung from a growing political movement responsible for some of the biggest environmental wins in the U.S. to date: the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, and many other victories. On that spring day in Berkeley, CA, the Ecology Center was born.

According to Martin Bourque, the organization’s Executive Director, “The Ecology Center was founded on the premise that every community should have a place where people can gather to advocate for solutions that have immediate community benefit as well as address global environmental justice issues.”

At the time, the public consciousness towards the environment and humans’ place in it was shifting dramatically. In December 1972, two years after the Ecology Center’s founding, Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt took the first photo of Ethe earth from space, famously called “The Blue Marble.” For the first time in the history of humanity, people were able to understand how finite and fragile the planet is, and the interconnectedness of everyone and everything on it.

The Ecology Center was also founded at around the same time as the nation’s recycling movement. As Bourque explains, “We pioneered curbside recycling with pure environmental values of reducing waste and preventing pollution.” When the Ecology Center became the recycling hauler for the city of Berkeley, their goal was to ensure that precious natural resources were conserved and that recycling always met the principles of social and environmental justice.  

Although the Ecology Center has remained faithful towards its goals, the industry itself has changed drastically since it gained traction 50 years prior. In the 1980’s major brands like Coca-Cola started shifting from glass to plastic bottles, co-opting recycling to enable the creation of plastic throwaway products and packaging. Industry groups like the American Chemistry Council fought against state reuse legislation and bottle deposit schemes, insisting that plastic recycling was a sufficient way for cities to deal with ever-increasing amounts of plastic packaging that were difficult, if not impossible to recycle.

While other haulers and recyclers succumbed to this false industry narrative that all plastics were recyclable, the Ecology Center stood its ground, telling the city that they could not collect plastics in good faith knowing that they had no markets to sell to. The recycling market had grown from mom-and-pop operations to a global industry. By the late 1990’s, most of the plastic recycling on the West Coast was being exported to China, where the real fate of those plastics–and its impacts on the communities where plastic scrap ended up– remained largely unknown. The Ecology Center’s citizen research looked deeply at plastic recycling through the 1996 Report of the Berkeley Plastic’s Task Force documenting the many fallacies and problems with so called plastics recycling. When forced to collect non-bottle mixed plastic packaging, the Ecology Center worked with GAIA’s help to enlist the WuHu Ecology Center in China to find and inspect a facility that was truly doing a good job of recycling those mixed plastics, King Fong. But that quickly ended when China rolled out its Green Fence policy. Bourque was particularly alarmed after seeing the documentary, “Plastic China,” which detailed the informal plastic recycling sector in the country. “Recyclers should have an oath first to do no harm,” says Bourque. “We’re here to prevent pollution, not be the source of it.”

Determined to ensure that Berkeley’s recycling wasn’t causing harm to communities or the environment, the Ecology Center set out on a mission to find exactly where Berkeley’s recycling was going. The brokers and middle men in the global recycling marker made it nearly impossible to track, causing the organization to install tracking devices on plastic bales headed for China to follow the long and arduous journey the plastic took to get recycled. They worked with GAIA to find colleagues in China and other countries who could help report back.

The results were alarming, to say the least. One tracker found plastics at a small, informal sector facility that had no pollution controls, was dumping contaminated water recycling into the local watershed, and open burning the plastic that couldn’t be recycled. When Bourque saw how Berkeley’s recycling–meant to be a net-positive for the environment–was contaminating the land, water and air of a foreign country, he knew that they needed to find another solution. As Bourque explains, “We’re supposed to be recycling, not exporting environmental problems to somebody else.”

When China closed its doors to recyclable imports to protects its borders from pollution stemming from the plastic waste trade, recyclers and cities across the country panicked– where would all their plastic recycling go now? In this moment of crisis, the Ecology Center and other local groups recognized this chance to radically transform the city’s approach to waste and recycling. As Bourque explains, “This collect/export model is not a good approach for recycling. Our primary role needs to be rethinking disposable packaging before we get to recycling.”

This commitment to preventing plastic and refusing status-quo disposable culture, led to the recent passage of Berkeley’s historic Disposable Free Dining Ordinance. Passed unanimously by the Berkeley City Council in February, it’s currently the most comprehensive piece of waste reduction legislation in the country, and includes a mandate for all dine-in service ware to be reusable, and slaps a charge on (all PFAS-free compostable) takeout containers and cups.

A major reason for the success of the ordinance, says Bourque, was a “dream team” of zero waste experts, community members and policy thought leaders who had been working for years on these issues in the Bay Area and beyond. Upstream, Clean Water Action, Rethink Disposable, GAIA, Story of Stuff, staff from the San Francisco Department of Environment, and so many others rolled up their sleeves to craft this groundbreaking ordinance and get it passed. In addition, support from many local food businesses, city staff in environmental health, economic development, and public works all helped get a unanimous vote of approval from the City Council.
Bourque hopes this will serve as a model for other cities and communities trying to pass new legislation. “Our goal is to be able to pilot these ideas here and then share them more broadly with other communities, to find ways to scale them up to make them commonplace practices.”

Thanks to dedicated GAIA members like the Ecology Center, waste reduction legislation is catching fire across the country, and inspiring other communities to follow in Berkeley’s footsteps. In this moment of reckoning for the global recycling industry, voices of sanity like the Ecology Center remind us of what our real priorities are: to preserve and protect the little blue marble that we all call home.