Special Report

Berkeley’s Composting System Has a Unique Community Impact

The city’s approach to tackling a zero-waste initiative through its composting service has put it ahead of the race to think “recycle.”

Berkeley’s composting service has been a unique facet of the city for over 30 years. Through its specialized programs, the service has benefited Berkeley’s businesses, residents, and the climate. The city’s ability to run the operation calls into question why cities like it have not done the same.

Climate change has been a long-standing global issue whose slow yet noticeable effects have been all but moderately attended to by jurisdictions. In 2016, California Governor Edmund Brown Jr. acknowledged organic waste as a contributor to global warming. Brown passed Senate Bill 1383 in an effort to reduce California’s emissions of these short-lived climate pollutants. According to CalRecycle, one of the bill’s targets was to reduce organic waste disposal 50 percent by 2020 and 75 percent by 2025. 

Berkeley was addressing the concept of recycling organic waste far before 2016. The city began industrial-scale composting in 1984 and accomplished such by 1990 when it started collecting residential yard waste — around the time Candice Wong started living in Berkeley. Wong and her family had tried making their own compost out of yard and food scraps in their backyard. “It’s not very efficient and you have to set up a whole system,” said Wong. She had to consistently water and turn the heap while attempting to stave off the smell and rodents that came with. The entire process would span months before a finished product would be ready for use. Eventually, Wong decided that the effort was not worth it. 

Heidi Obermeit, Berkeley’s recycling program manager and a director of its zero-waste commission, explained the lack of appeal associated with processing food waste. “Odor and vermin issues are common,” she said, “which is why many cities will just allow plant debris in their compost programs.” Nonetheless, Berkeley launched a commercial food waste collection program in 2000, which consisted of distributing bins to residents and businesses and later hiring coordination directors to educate businesses on the intricacies of compost dos and don’ts. Alongside the pre-existing yard waste collection, Berkeley had established a service that fully recycled organic waste.

When the commercial food collection started, around 150 tons of food and yard waste were being serviced by the city every month. Now, the city picks up around 1,800 tons per month from the residential and commercial sectors combined. The collected natural waste is taken to Recology’s processing facility in Vernalis, California, — an hour’s drive from Berkeley — as a solution to avoid the smell.

Wanda Redic worked in Berkeley for 14 years before moving to Oakland to become the city’s senior recycling specialist. Today, she works on implementing SB 1383 into Oakland’s programs. “Most cities have gotten away from providing that direct [hauling] service,” she said. Redic surmised that a possible deterrent could be the prospect of having to pay higher union wages, but overall, Redic says that adopting an organics collection service can simply be burdensome on a city. “It is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and costly,” she said.

After the collection of organics through the pick-up service, the waste then has to be transported to the processing facility. There, the scraps are plucked for contaminants so that the final product is safe for use. Oftentimes, glass and plastic make their way into the piles and cannot be processed. This component in the procedure is not to be shrugged off, since spoiled soil is not usable for farms or residents. Eventually, the costs for materials, staffing, transportation, and processing add up fast. 

During their increased time at home this year, Wong and her family started refurbishing their garden by planting vegetables and flowers, and utilized Berkeley’s free compost to fill their gardening beds. Wong said, “Adding soil sometimes is quite expensive, so having free residential compost is ideal.” Once the compost has been processed in Vernalis, Berkeley receives 10 percent back. That compost is distributed throughout the city, towards landscaping, the public, and school gardens.

Throughout her time at Martin Luther King Middle School, Tobi Haims, a sophomore at Berkeley High School (BHS), learned about the intricacies of composting from her gardening teacher, Jason Uribe. “Composting is kind of similar to recycling,” said Haims. “Everything has a purpose after it’s been used, and you can turn it into something else.”

Uribe often connects his teachings in the garden to the outside world. “When we think about social structures in place, like the school system, there’s always this misconception that there are people who are not privileged enough,” said Uribe. Much like composting, Uribe points out, everyone in society has value that can be uncovered given effort. “I love to be able to make that connection that nothing is ever a waste, it’s just a matter of how you see it and what you do with it,” he said.

CalRecycle claims that organics like food scraps, yard trimmings, paper, and cardboard comprise half of what Californians trash. Reducing organic waste, the agency says, will have the fastest impact on the climate crisis. “Berkeley understands that by moving this material out of the landfill, it is reducing methane emissions,” said Redic, “and those are things that create the climate change that we’re seeing in weather patterns.” Redic sees Berkeley at the forefront of change in the composting industry and says that its progress has put it ahead of today’s guidelines.

By prioritizing its inhabitants and the environment, Berkeley has paved the way for a different outlook on the utility of natural waste. “I’m really glad that we have a compost system,” said Haims. “You know that the food that you eat will eventually become dirt for someone’s garden.” Things like food waste and yard scraps have always been reusable. The question of motivation to implement a system that processes those liabilities has only recently been revealed through new legislation as a reaction to climate change. There are immense benefits to utilizing a composting system, and Berkeley’s has benefited the wellbeing of the city as it maintains its stance as one of the few cities in California to provide a natural waste recycling service to its occupants.

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