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Pathways to recycling at Berkeley

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MARCH 13, 2023

As I sipped a hot coffee on the patio of the Free Speech Movement Café, I noticed an interesting sign on the top of the cup’s lid — “compostable.” When I was done with my coffee, I g0t up to throw the cup and lid into the compost bin, but my mind was turning. It’s great that compostable products are being used by so many students in campus dining halls and cafes. But where do they actually go when we’re done with them?

Products like a compostable lid are considered to be part of the bioeconomy — a system where products are made from bio-based materials and can be returned to the Earth after use. 

For instance, the coffee lid is made from a material called polylactic acid (PLA) made from plant-based resources such as bamboo. Its compostable nature means it can be returned to the soil in specific environmental conditions. Composting is just one type of biodegradation, which refers to a generalized process of natural breakdown. 

At Berkeley, we have separate compost bins and signs that inform our choices. Additionally, Cal Zero Waste partners with Cal Dining to compost food waste that is unable to be donated. Currently, 54% of campus waste avoids the landfill through recycling and compost programs. The UC Berkeley Facilities Services website states that campus food waste is transported to the ​​West Contra Costa Landfill in Richmond where it is composted. However, some composting facilities such as the West Contra Costa Landfill do not have the capacity to process products with plastic lining such as my coffee cup lid. Thus, they end up sending these items to the landfill. 

Recycling at UC Berkeley has potential to grow. Promoting a circular system for food growth and waste could lessen campus’ environmental impact. For example, Berkeley Student Farms, or BSF, works on issues of food equity and sustainable agriculture, which are all tied to making the bioeconomy sustainable and accessible. If there’s a future where some of the food served on campus is sourced locally or grown on campus, then the university’s food system could become semi-self sustaining.

Another example of a circular system on campus is reusing clothes. ReUSE Berkeley is Cal’s on-campus thrift store. They host clothing exchanges and store hours where students can find reused clothing, preventing these items from heading to the landfill and giving them a second life.

Although my coffee cup lid is advertised as compostable, it might end up in the landfill anyways. Solutions to this issue could be a bring-your-own-mug to on campus cafes and dining halls. Diverting bioplastic waste to composting facilities with the capacity to handle them could be another option. Finally, perhaps we could build a circular recycling system where used products experience many life cycles on Berkeley’s campus. Through the collaboration of environmentalists, researchers and student initiatives, the challenge of campus waste can be solved with innovating ways of reuse and recycling. 

Contact Sia Agarwal at 


MARCH 13, 2023