A worldwide first: Berkeley steps up to the plastic-waste challenge

Stepping up to the global challenge of trying to keep plastic waste from clogging waterways, coastlines and landfills, UC Berkeley is the first university in the world to embrace the Plastic Disclosure Project.

The project aims to use the concept of a plastic footprint — like a carbon footprint — as a way of stimulating change in the way the world deals with an important but problematic resource. It was co-founded by Berkeley alum Doug Woodring, who swam for the Golden Bears and graduated in 1988.

Kayak in North Pacific Gyre

A boy picks through trash in Jakarta’s main river, collecting plastic straws that he can sell in the local plastics market.(Plastic Disclosure Project photo)

Berkeley’s effort will be managed by Campus Recycling and Refuse Services, in partnership with the Office of Sustainability. CRRS recently won funding from The Green Initiative Fund (TGIF) grant program. First, a campus audit will pinpoint and quantify sources of plastic waste, from water bottles to bread bags to disposable lab ware, and come up with a plastic footprint, according to Lin King, manager of Berkeley’s recycling and refuse services.

Then student interns will track where the plastic goes after it’s tossed or put into a recycling bin — most often, into a landfill, onto a boat for recycling overseas or into streams and oceans. The gathering and disclosure of the information is intended to drive both a broader awareness of the problem and a search for solutions that are cost-effective and environment-sparing, King says.

“We have a pretty big plastics problem,” says King, who is responsible for helping the campus meet its goal of zero waste by 2020. Seventy-five percent of the campus’s trash is recyclable or compostable, King says. The rest is mainly non-recyclable plastic.

In taking up the effort, Berkeley is the first university to join an international initiative — the Plastic Disclosure Project — that is asking companies and other institutions to measure their plastic waste and develop ways to use that information to their advantage while also helping the environment.

Plastic pipette racks in a bin

Plastic pipette racks are being collected for recycling outside a Berkeley lab, but bring in little from recyclers.

The project was inspired by a 2009 trip to a swirling mass of floating debris in the northern Pacific Ocean called the North Pacific Gyre. Bigger than Greenland, the waterborne junk pile is made almost entirely from discarded plastic, according to project leader Woodring, who is also co-founder of the California- and Hong Kong-based Ocean Recovery Alliance, which started the PDP. Among other problems caused, plastic debris threatens more than 270 animal and bird species, Woodring says.

“The PDP has the potential to create an international mindset-change in the way we think of plastic as a material,” says Woodring, who has worked in business and technology in Asia and won a United Nations Green Hero award as a leader of the 2009 gyre expedition.

The project, which has the backing of the Clinton Global Initiative, aims to wield public disclosure of plastic use by companies and institutions as a way of stimulating new approaches to recycling, reuse and reduction of consumption. PDP does not suggest that plastic not be used, Woodring says, but that it be used more efficiently, like carbon, water and other materials that are limited or can harm the environment.

Berkeley’s participation involves a convergence of two strands of the campus’s sustainability efforts. King was working on winning TGIF funding for waste audits and a zero-waste research center; at the same time, a student involved in sustainability efforts, then-senior Liz Chan, reported having heard Woodring describe the PDP to the nonprofit she worked for last summer in Shanghai. Later, Woodring came to campus.

“I saw the possibilities for Cal,” says Chan. “I knew that Cal would be extremely receptive to adapting the PDP model to our campus, and sure enough, the Office of Sustainability was very open to the idea as long as we found funding for the project.”

The PDP proved to be a natural fit for the zero waste efforts. In May, TGIF provided two grants totaling more than $36,000 to fund waste audits, including plastic, and the research center, to seek out solutions for plastic and other kinds of waste. Lin hopes to get the audit up and running this summer and results done by the end of fall semester.

Lin King

Campus Recycling and Refuse Services manager Lin King. (Cathy Cockrell/NewsCenter photo)

The plastic project dovetails with student efforts to ban plastic water bottles on campus, King says. But bottles are just part of the problem.

“One of the bigger issues for me is Styrofoam,” he says. “I know the City of Berkeley has outlawed it for restaurants, but a lot of our computers and lab materials come packed in it.”

Many labs also use disposable plastic ware in situations where glass or other reusable materials might have been used in the past, King says. The belief has been that plastic is cheaper, he says, but a recent Harvard study proved otherwise. Two biology labs that switched from plastic bottles to glass for filtering media for tissue culture saved $9,500 in the first seven months — and prevented 2,600 plastic containers from going into the waste stream, according to a Harvard news article.

The audit will pinpoint and quantify the problem, and that will allow the campus to be the first to make full disclosure of its plastic use and to involve faculty, staff and students in devising strategies for dealing with it, says Chan, an environmental economics and policy major who has now graduated but is remaining in an advisory role.

The worldwide PDP will serve as a platform for publicizing efforts by the campus, along with other corporate and academic “disclosers.” A sample can be viewed here. http://www.plasticdisclosure.org/disclosers.html

“The solution is that there is someone downstream who says ‘I can take this plastic and make plastic jugs out of it,’ ” says King. “I think it’s a good idea for us to be one of the first involved.”