Hazardous Waste in Berkeley

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Hazardous Waste in Berkeley
L A Wood, Berkeley Voice, July 29, 1993

Most Berkeleyans would answer yes to this question. But it has been only within the last decade that Berkeley has undertaken the job of identifying the environmental problems associated with hazardous waste. Initial investigations of hazardous materials pollution were directed toward business and industry. This process, encouraged by mandated state and federal legislation, has led to mandatory disclosure of hazardous materials used by Berkeley businesses. Our budding biotech industry also has helped to fuel this ongoing legislative effort while boosting citizen awareness.

In the last several years, the regulatory focus has shifted to include residential use of hazardous materials. We now know that residential house-hold chemicals make up a substantial contribution to our hazardous waste stream. In fact, it is estimated that Berkeley residents dispose of over 500 tons of hazardous waste each year. There is added cause for alarm when use considers that an even greater volume of hazardous materials is stored in our homes, awaiting disposal.

A list of hazardous household materials includes latex and oil-based paints, used oil, batteries, solvents, paint thinners, acids, antifreeze, auto materials, asbestos, polishes, cleaners, garden chemicals, preservatives, and other chemicals. Most are flammable.

Hazardous household waste is quickly becoming Berkeley's greatest environmental dilemma. Over three years ago, in response to this growing crisis, Berkeley agreed to participate in an Alameda County Household Hazardous Program. The primary objective of this program is waste collection. When fully implemented, this program's collection process will prioritize hazardous waste materials. Collection will favor waste material reuse or recycling over its eventual placement in the appropriate landfill.

Landfill fees, not Alameda County's general fund, provide the program's funding. These revenues are to be used in the construction of three household hazardous waste facilities. The three sites are to operate on a rotating basis, week to week.

Currently, there are only two sites under development and both are still closed. The proposed third facility is designed to be in Oakland. This site would be nearest to Berkeley. As yet, no property has been purchased. The EIR has not been initiated nor has any public hearing taken place involving the affected Oakland neighborhoods.

Recently Alameda County Hazardous Waste Program Chief Dick Pantages provided an update to Oakland's Environmental Affairs Commission about the status of the third site. He explained how the program's numerous problemshave delayed the opening of all the facilities. It was suggested that without any additional problems the Oakland facility might be made operational in a year.

Though the long-range benefits of the Alameda County Household Hazardous Program are undeniable, the program poses a number of problems for Berkeley residents. Currently, Alameda County has no active hazardous waste collection. Our reliance on the county program and its public education efforts pertaining to hazardous waste have left Berkeley without any active household hazardous collection.

Even when all the collection sites are complete, Berkeley residents will be forced to somehow transport household hazardous wastes safely for long distances. In addition, the county's modest educational efforts will also have to breach this distance.

The question Berkeley residents should be answering is what can be done now to reduce the amount of household hazardous waste. Certainly one answer is source reduction. This simply means that if we restrict hazardous products, then waste reduction will follow. Source reduction places limits on the purchase of potentially hazardous waste products,encourages the use of less environmentally harmful alternatives, and promotes the removal of the many unnecessary hazardous products available to residents.

Discussions of the hazardous waste dilemma by Berkeley's Community Environmental Advisory Commission parallels those of Oakland's environmental commission. The CEAC has begun to explore several ideas in order to create a more active hazardous household waste program in Berkeley. These ideas have included a possible pilot program for returning used paint containers as well as point of sale information strategies.

The fact remains that there is no local residential household hazardous waste collection in Berkeley, with the exception of the newly opened, used motor oil drop-off. Municipal collection is expensive and most cities are reluctant to accept the indemnity. (As of 2009, still no pickup Berkeley )

Last year, Oakland held a residential collection day. Nearly 2,500 Oakland residents appeared with hazardous wasteeven though appointments had been made with less than a thousand. The event was forced to close and many residents were turned away with their hazardous waste.

As our city begins to seek interim measures to manage this growing crisis, the issue of an annual Berkeley hazardous waste collection day arises. Most resistance to a local collection event is founded on high disposal costs. Disposal costs for the City of Oakland have averaged just under $100 per car. In the past, Alameda County has utilized other county's facilities, paying an average of nearly $350 for county residents. Though the costs are high, the price paid for doing nothing is even greater.

Another suggested pilot program in Berkeley would involve creating a special hazardous waste collection fund. The fund would support a yearly hazardous waste collection day within the city limits and would provide point of purchase education through citizen participation. This program would link a local grocery store chain and its current 5-cents-per-bag redemption program to a shopper-based contribution scheme.

In this scheme, the grocery store would function as the conduit for shoppers wishing to contribute to a collection fund. Some support has been shown for this idea by Berkeley's business community. It has even been proposed that Alameda County could provide some funding for Berkeley until the county-wide program is fully operational.

Finally, it is time to acknowledge that residential household hazardous waste is piling up in Berkeley. It is also time to change our city's hazardous waste strategies. Our short-term plan should not be one of wait and see, especially when the Alameda County program is proving to be so uncertain. We must do something for Berkeley now, if only a nickel at a time. So the next time you are approached and asked the question, is there hazardous waste in Berkeley, reply in the affirmative, knowing the real answer is source reduction.

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