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Back to the future: Returnable soda bottles & Berkeley’s 25 cent cup fee
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Strange as it might sound but the Berkeley City Council got this one right.

I’m referring to the 25-cent fee for a disposable cup in restaurants and coffee shops that goes into effect January 2020. If anything it may not have gone far enough and should be extended to convenience stores.

The key is that it is a fee, not a tax. The businesses are free to do whatever they want with the fee. Meanwhile the amount of trash being shipped to landfills is reduced.

There is no wealth transfer put in place like with special taxes such as those imposed on cigarettes and soda. Instead it is straight forward — if the consumer wants to save money, they bring their own reusable cup.

It goes to the heart of two truths that we like to deny. Most of us are not as pious at recycling as we like to claim we are and that recycling materials instead of reusing them takes a lot more energy and assumes that they are recycled instead of tossed in garbage.

The City of Manteca Solid Waste Division has become a convenient punching bag for people irked with their decision to ban what are now “bad recyclables” from blue carts. That is driven by our collective habits catching up with us. For years many of us have tossed pure garbage into blue carts contaminating the recycling stream. When recycling truck load dumps were too contaminated they were always landfilled. A degree of contamination always existed in what recyclables were shipped to countries eager to buy them by the ton in the Third World as well as China. Since their standards rose along with their standard of living, they are no longer willing to take our contaminated recyclables.

It doesn’t take much, as an example, to contaminate a ton of used paper with “wet garbage” — think leftovers, fruit peelings and such.

The long-term solution Manteca is exploring at taking organic household waste — food, paperboard (cereal boxes etc.) and paper — and create compost.

And while there is a good chance as many as 80 percent of us were recycling clean, it doesn’t take too many of us slightly off standard, or more than a handful of people wantonly intermixing garbage with recycling whose carts go into a truckload to completely render several top recyclable materials as useless.

Other cities are running into similar problems with contaminated recycling at the backend of the process where everything that is lumped together in one cart with garbage is sorted. Why the pain of the new recycling reality is magnified in places like Manteca is because they deployed systems based on the assumption all people would act responsibly.

The Berkeley ordinance was justified by two points you’d have a hard time discrediting. First few of those disposable cups — even if they were able to be recycled — avoided the landfill. Requiring cups that are recyclable as some say is the new trend that are made with plant-based materials has the same old shortcomings. Not only do they have to be disposed of in a drop-off designed for them instead of being tossed in garbage, but they must be recycled properly. Those plant-based papers that break down require heat and moisture along with oxygen and microorganisms to degrade. That won’t happen if they are tossed in garbage and sent to a landfill.

Then there is the high energy costs associated with a number of processes that convert recyclables back into reusable materials. Much like the fallacy that today’s electric cars use less non-green energy because they don’t directly use carbon-based fuel nicely ignores that almost all electricity used to power electric vehicles is generated at carbon-based power plants. While that may change one day, it is not likely to be the case for the recycling chain.

Our trash problem has evolved thanks to the lauded success stories of the “disruptive economy” which is really shorthand not as much for technological advances as it is for simply new business models.

Take soda as a example. The Consumer Recycling Institute notes back in 1947 refillable bottles accounted for 100 percent of soft-drink containers by volume. The figure was 86 percent for beer. That percentage dropped to 0.4 percent and 3.3 percent (think beer kegs) respectively by 1998.

It was a weekly ritual when you went to the store. Empty soda and beer bottles were returned in wooden containers and then cardboard six packs — and later in the 1960s sometimes eight or 10 pack — to grocery stores.

The disruptive entrepreneurs of 60 years ago ended up creating a lot more garbage and energy consumption for containers when they switched to tin and then aluminum cans, one use glass bottles, and plastic bottles.

It’s much like the e-commerce model that has created tons of material that consumers now must dispose of from corrugated shipping boxes — that are still recyclable — to pure garbage in the form of shipping peanuts and bubble wrap.

And no matter how offensive it was in the heyday of free plastic grocery bags when people would toss just a few items in each bag and leave the store with 20 bags of purchased items, it was a downright frugal practice compared to getting one or two small items shipped from an e-commerce business.

Berkeley’s leaders — to their credit — refrained from imposing a tax penalty on people using disposable cups and then gushing how that tax will help fight some social ill du jour. Instead it makes it a decision for consumers to make purely on their pocketbook and their degree of engagement. Just like with reusable shopping bags, you have a choice. You can either bring your own or else you can pay for a bag or cup.

It’s ironic, in a way, that the old model of re-useable soda bottles is now being emulated by a number of companies experimenting with ways to reduce long-term costs as well as their garbage footprint.

Haagen-Dazs is experimenting with reusable steel ice cream containers, Proctor & Gamble with Pantene shampoo in a reusable aluminum container, and Quaker granola in a reusable metal container among others.

Such strategies are being deployed in test markets via e-commerce with the items delivered using a reusable tote. There is also a pickup service once the containers are empty. They do have deposit charges attached. Costs go down for shipping with more items ordered with one delivery firm working with companies — TerraCycle — that allows consumers to subscribe to it to handle replenishing items sold in reusable containers by delivering, returning, and cleaning them.

Gee, sounds an awful lot like that old economy mainstay that grocery stores used to call delivery boys.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.