Campus & community, Research, Science & environment

Recycling isn’t what we thought it was. So, what now?

When China effectively banned the import of plastics in 2018, it left the U.S. in a waste crisis. But a team at UC Berkeley is working on a solution

Subscribe to Berkeley Voices.

See all Berkeley Voices episodes.

In 2018, China enacted a policy that effectively banned the import of most plastics and other materials. “That really, I think, was the Chinese government drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘Look, we don’t want to be seen as the world’s garbage dump anymore,'” said Kate O’Neill, a professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management and author of the 2019 book Waste.

The United States, which had been shipping some 700,000 tons of recyclable waste to China each year, faced a crisis. Since then, communities across the U.S. have curtailed collections or put an end to their recycling programs altogether. Waste has been piling up, leaving many wondering: What now?

At UC Berkeley, the Cal Zero Waste team has been hard at work answering this question. “We’re really talking about not just recycling, but reducing, reusing and composting,” said Lin King, manager of Cal Zero Waste. “Really, it comes down to what you purchase and that mentality of how you get to zero waste.”

two people and a child in Bangladesh sort through mountains of plastic bottles

People sort through plastic bottles in a recycling factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in August 2020. Although China effectively banned the import of plastic and other materials in 2018, the United States still sends its recyclable waste to other countries, including Bangladesh. (NurPhoto photo by Mamunur Rashid via AP)

Read a transcript of Berkeley Voices episode #88: “Recycling isn’t what we thought it was. So, what now?”

Intro: This is Berkeley Voices. I’m Anne Brice.

Narration: In January 2018, China enacted a policy called National Sword that effectively banned the import of most plastics and other materials.

Kate O’Neill: And it came with the title, “No More Foreign Garbage.” So, that, really, I think, was the Chinese government drawing a line in the sand to say, “Look, we don’t want to be seen as the world’s garbage dump.”

portrait of kate o'neill smiling

Kate O’Neill is a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management and author of the 2019 book Waste. (UC Berkeley photo)

Narration: Kate O’Neill is a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and she’s the author of the 2019 book Waste.

Kate O’Neill: Mind you, no one had really realized this was going on. So, it kind of highlighted it to the broader public and also galvanized a lot of action around where do we ship our plastics? Why are we shipping them to other countries and what are the motivations? And, I think, also for some of us to try and understand, well, what’s the motivation for importing this waste in China and other countries, as well?

Narration: For more than two decades, China had been processing almost half of the world’s recyclable waste. But contaminated materials were overwhelming the country’s processing facilities and causing yet another environmental disaster in the country.

Anne Brice: I am one of the people, I guess I just kind of assumed that we were recycling our own plastics and everything. I didn’t really have any idea. I remember watching Sesame Street when I was a little kid and seeing them recycle different plastics, I think it was milk jugs or something, and kind of, from then on, I just assumed that we were recycling our own stuff. Do you think that’s a common thing people thought?

Kate O’Neill: Absolutely. I mean, I had known for a while that the scrap was going to China. And I think it was pretty widely known that the quality scrap, like steel and iron and copper, was going to China because that’s where manufacturing for the world is based.

[Music: “The Face of the Thrush” by Blue Dot Sessions]

What I didn’t realize, what I really didn’t know, was the extent to which we had let recycling infrastructure go in this country. I mean, I always thought, “Well, not much of it is being recycled and part of my immediate response to finding out that China was doing this was, “OK, so it’s being used.” I didn’t necessarily think it was being adequately recycled at all in this country, but I just had not realized we had let that go entirely, in terms of building new infrastructure and upgrading and increasing capacity of the recycling infrastructure that we had.

[Music fades]

Narration: Here’s a brief history of recycling in the U.S. that helps explain how we got here:

The first national Earth Day was in 1970. It brought awareness to the importance of managing our increasing waste. Soon after, the first recycling mill was built in 1972, and curbside recycling started in 1974.

Throughout the ‘80s, people started to worry that we were running out of space in our landfills. So, we continued to create more recycling programs. By 1995, there were more than 10,000 recycling centers across the country and at least 4,000 curbside collection programs.

But there was a problem: Much of what we put into our bins — especially hard-to-recycle plastics — was still being thrown into a landfill.

And, at the same time, production of single-use plastics was exploding. Many grocery stores had begun using plastic bags, rather than paper, and single-use cups, lids and straws were everywhere.

man riding bike in China carrying cardboard

In 2018, China enacted National Sword, a policy that effectively banned the import of most plastics and other materials. (Photo by Arend via Flickr)

Meanwhile, in China, a paper recycling company called Nine Dragons opened in 1995, in response to the country’s demand for scrap paper and plastic to recycle into more products. Suddenly, there was a place where we could send our waste.

Kate O’Neill: And I think for many of the people who collect the recycling, it was a no-brainer to ship it overseas. I mean, it was cheap, cheaper than dealing with it here. They made money from it. That was very critical.

Narration: By 2016, the U.S. was exporting almost 700,000 tons of recyclable waste to China each year. Overall, China imported 7 million tons from around the world.

Kate O’Neill: Once China kind of stopped taking it, they really started losing a lot of money because what we pay to get rid of waste is not enough to really keep it all going. So, it really engendered quite a serious crisis.

Anne Brice: What were they doing with all the scrap and waste in China?

Kate O’Neill: There are a couple of different narratives going on. And one is that it was all just simply dumped and burned and harmed people. And I just, because I tend to look at the waste trade from a demand perspective, I think that’s not entirely true. Estimates I’ve seen were like roughly 30% of it was recycled and used, especially the good plastic, which compares to 9% here.

But the huge problem was the conditions under which it was being recycled and reused, which was relying considerably on informal labor and people who were not provided with any protective equipment. They were just kind of dealing with this huge wave of plastic scrap in their own little scrapyard, often where they lived, as well as the waste reprocessing and recycling. So that, to me, was the biggest part of the problem.

Narration: Picking through waste for items that can be reused or recycled or sold is a livelihood for some 20 million people around the world, says O’Neill.

Kate O’Neill: We very much associate waste picking with the huge landfills in the global South, and that is true, I think, for the most part. But informal waste work is visible almost everywhere we are. You can look around in cities like Berkeley, you see people picking up the recycling that people leave out on the curb — there’s a lot of that going on, collecting bottles for the redemption credit.

I think that, in many ways, waste picking is dangerous. It’s also a necessary occupation. And, somewhat ironically maybe, it’s one of the more lucrative informal occupations around the world. While there’s very little in the way of pay, people can pick up, they can recycle, they can sell what they find. It’s outdoor work, I guess, rather than being locked in a room like a sweatshop. It’s less backbreaking than agricultural work.

And so, I think that it’s a complex set of professions that many groups are trying to work with rather than to try and eradicate.

[Music: “Drifting Spade” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Narration: So, recycling in the U.S. hasn’t always been as bad as it is today. But it’s never been very good. And since China’s 2018 crackdown, communities across the U.S. have curtailed collections or put an end to their recycling programs altogether. Waste has been piling up, and it has left many wondering: What now?

At UC Berkeley, the Cal Zero Waste team has been hard at work answering this question.

[Music fades]

Lin King is the manager of Cal Zero Waste. He says we can’t recycle our way out of this waste problem. We simply don’t have the recycling capability to manage the overwhelming amount of garbage that we continue to produce. Instead, he says, it’ll take a sustained commitment by all of us to achieving zero waste.

Anne Brice: Can you describe what zero waste means? Like, what do we mean when we’re talking about something, the campus going zero waste, for instance?

portrait of lin king smiling

Lin King is the manager of Cal Zero Waste. (Photo by Haley King)

Lin King: Zero waste really encompasses the overall approach of how we get to zero waste, which means we’re not taking any of our materials to the landfill or burning. Those are the two main, specific zero waste goals. There are some in our industry that says, “Is there a measurement? Does zero really mean zero?” One of the definitions currently is saying that at least 90% or more means zero waste. But I personally think that zero waste should be zero.

Narration: Cal Zero Waste is part of the campus’s Facilities Services. It’s responsible for the collection of waste from across the campus, and it provides education and training about zero waste and sustainability. By 2020, the program had installed recycling, compost and landfill bins outside and inside of every building on campus.

King says that UC Berkeley is almost like a little city, with its own housing and dining facilities, so it’s a good place to model that zero waste is possible.

Already, about 80% of the material generated on campus is either recyclable or compostable. To make sure it’s actually recycled, says King, it’s important to only recycle materials that are listed on the outside of the bins — so that includes mixed paper, cardboard, cans, bottles. Or get in touch with the correct campus operations to recycle items like electronic waste and printer cartridges.

For the other 20% of material that isn’t recyclable or compostable, says King, it comes down to making sustainable purchasing choices and reimagining what it means to reuse and reduce.

Lin King: If it’s a landfill item, and you have a choice between purchasing one that’s recyclable and compostable versus the landfill, then you’ve got to make that choice of buying the right item to decrease the amount of materials that aren’t divertable. Really, it comes down to what you purchase and that mentality of how you get to zero waste.

Narration: So, an example is, instead of buying mushrooms wrapped in plastic at the grocery store, you bring your own produce bag and buy bulk mushrooms.

[Music: “Secret Pocketbook” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Cal Zero Waste’s original goal was to achieve zero waste by 2020. They were working on several new programs when the pandemic hit and stalled their efforts. So, the new campaign is Zero Waste 2020 and Beyond.

Anne Brice: Can you tell me, where is the most waste generated on campus?

Lin King: Plastic is one of our biggest problems. We’re, obviously, not able to wave a magic wand, and waste goes away. Each of these wonderful partners of ours (housing and dining and athletics, Rec Sports) are thinking of ways to say, “OK, how can we reduce, and how can we eliminate the amount of waste on campus?”

two cal dining employees serve salad

Cal Dining, a campus partner of Cal Zero Waste, now provides reusable utensils to all first-year students with a dining plan and will soon provide them to Cal athletes. (UC Berkeley photo by Elena Zhukova)

One of our, I would say, challenges that we’re working on actively today is our housing locations. Because, again, they are 24/7 on campus. It’s easy for me to say, “Everything has got to be reusable. Everything has to be compostable or recyclable.” But for housing, students and folks who are in our housing locations make their own decisions on what they buy, what comes out, what ends up being a waste item. And then, also to help us sort properly. Again, things that are not sorted properly are contaminated and we end up having to landfill it. So, that’s a big challenge of ours.

[Music fades]

Narration: So, how do we know that our choices are having an impact? This is where legislation is important, says King. We can and should make sustainably minded choices, but we also need effective systems and policies in place.

In August 2020, the University of California announced that all 10 campuses would phase out single-use plastics. This systemwide policy allows campuses to tailor how they implement the changes. Berkeley has already enacted a policy to eliminate all non-essential, single-use plastics by 2030.

And this month, Governor Newsom signed a bill called the Truth in Labeling for Recyclable Materials, which should help make sure that products that are labeled as recyclable are actually recyclable.

Lin King: A lot of things that people think that are recyclable with the little chasing arrows and the plastic number — the arrows don’t mean that it’s recyclable. It just indicates a type of plastic. Certainly, people don’t know. And I think that’s where it goes back to being better educated and also making sure that there’s not any what we call wish-cycling or greenwashing, where people see the chasing arrow and think it’s recyclable.

Narration: I have to admit, I am a wish-cycler, although I didn’t know there was a name for it until now. I see those little arrows on a yogurt container, and I’m like, “It’s fine. I’ll just try to recycle it.”

[Music: “Rooftop Rider” by Blue Dot Sessions]

But what happens, I now know, is that it gets put into a landfill, and almost certainly, so do all of my other recyclables in the same bin.

[Music fades]

Anne Brice: Lin, on campus I’ve seen compostable plastic foodware, like cups and utensils. But I’ve heard that the compost facilities they’re sent to can’t actually compost them, like it takes too long for them to break down. Can you talk a little about this — if it’s true and if you have any updates about it?

Lin King: With all this supply of organic material and food waste going, they have to turn the materials over faster. So now, these compostable utensils and materials aren’t breaking down fast enough.

They’re looking at how we minimize that or are there specifics? There are different brands of compostable utensils. I don’t want to call all the different ones out. There are ones that break down in, say, 120 days, and there are others that break down in 60 days. So, really, at this point, we’re working with our compost facilities and the companies that we’re buying our compostable utensils and compostable diningware from.

We’re really phasing out plastic-looking compostables, and we’re recommending fiber-based compostables. So, that are made out of paper. Paper products do break down versus the plastic-looking ones.

Narration: King says that it’s always best to bring your own reusables — utensils, a mug, a water bottle — so that you don’t have to grab a single-use item. Cal Dining now provides reusable utensils to all first-year students with a dining plan and will soon be providing the same kit to Cal athletes, after they requested it.

King says he hopes students will take these zero waste ideas with them after they move on from the campus.

Lin King: Our colleges and universities, I think, are the shaping grounds of future leaders of our world. We get folks from all over the world here. They may not even know about recycling or reducing. So, we’re here to hopefully, as part of the academic mission, we’re shaping their minds and their behavior. We want to make sure when they leave Berkeley that they’re sustainably minded, they’re zero waste-minded. That is what they’re going to take with them moving forward in their communities.

[Music: “Lemon and Melon” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Narration: This month, it is Zero Waste October at Berkeley. There have been several tabling events and contests, some of which extend past October. There’s one that I plan to do where they give you a sticker to put on a mug or a bottle and it tracks every time you refill it, and then donates water to a country in need.

With the holidays coming up, November and December are some of the most wasteful months of the year. King hopes that the campaign encourages the campus community to buy less stuff and instead pursue experiences.

And he wants everyone to know that zero waste, even though it might seem impossible, is actually achievable. That each person’s actions matter.

Outro: This is Berkeley Voices, a Berkeley News podcast. I’m Anne Brice.

To learn more about zero waste events and contests, visit the Cal Zero Waste website.

You can subscribe to Berkeley Voices and give us a rating wherever you listen to your podcasts. Look for new episodes every other Friday. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at

 Listen to other Berkeley Voices episodes: