July 7, 2015

Berkeley moves to stop balloons from polluting the Bay

Photo by Brenda Anderson on Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Brenda Anderson on Flickr Creative Commons

While balloons may seem like harmless fun, when they are released into the air they can cause serious problems for our environment. Recognizing the threats balloons pose to the Bay Area’s wildlife and marine habitats, the City of Berkeley has studied and debated balloon regulation for years—and 2015 could be the year that the city finally reins in the environmental impacts of helium-filled balloon release.

After being released into the air, balloons often end up in waterways, where they can be consumed by fish and other marine wildlife, causing harm and death. For bayside communities like Berkeley, this possibility is of particular concern. Balloons made of aluminized Mylar also have conductive properties and have been known to cause power shortages upon contact with power lines, posing a hazard for utility workers. Birds, meanwhile, can become entangled in the strings attached to balloons.

The State of California has partially addressed the issue by passing a law requiring that helium-filled foil balloons carry a warning label and be anchored with a weight when sold. California law also prohibits the release of helium-filled balloons made of electrically-conductive material like Mylar at specified events. However, no state law regulates latex balloons.

In 2008, recognizing the threat that releasing helium-filled balloons poses to the environment, the Berkeley City Council referred the issue to the City’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission (CEAC). The Council requested that the Commission explore a public education campaign and restrictions on sales of helium-filled balloons. In November 2009, the CEAC returned to the City Council with recommendations to: 1) declare the release of balloons to be an environmental and physical hazard, 2) prohibit the release of balloons at special events permitted by the City, and 3) initiate a public education campaign regarding the hazards of balloon release.

An industry group of latex and Mylar balloon producers called The Balloon Council vigorously opposed the City’s modest proposal and engaged in an intense lobbying campaign to thwart it. Unfortunately, their efforts were successful in creating enough confusion and concern that the Council voted to table the issue for future consideration. The Balloon Council has also successfully blocked attempts at the state level to legislatively address release of helium-filled latex balloons.

This past October, Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin re-introduced the issue of regulating the release of helium-filled balloons in Berkeley. In December, the City Council once again referred the issue of regulating balloon releases to the CEAC. The CEAC is expected to present the Council with proposals on how to address the environmental impact of balloon releases early this year.

The Sierra Club—whose Northern Alameda County Group voted to support the concept of balloon regulation—will be following this issue as it works its way through the commission process and will continue to advocate for measures to mitigate the harmful effects of balloon litter in our Bay. For more information or to get involved, email Northern Alameda County Group Executive Committee member Luis Amezcua at lamezcua27@gmail.com.

— Luis Amezcua

Oakland’s Zero Waste win threatened by misleading corporate campaign

Waste FlyerOn August 13, Oakland’s City Council made a courageous decision to adopt a recycling and composting contract that incorporates green and forward-looking elements including:

  • source separation of trash, recycling, and compostable materials for all Oaklanders;
  • use of a local EBMUD facility for anaerobic digestion of Oakland’s food waste and conversion to clean energy;
  • collaboration with Civicorps, a local organization that provides training and job placement to underprivileged youth;
  • augmented bulky waste pick up to prevent illegal dumping;
  • decent wages for recycling workers, many of whom work and live in Oakland; and
  • building a multimillion dollar state-of-the-art recycling facility on Oakland’s Army Base.

California Waste Solutions (CWS), which was awarded the contract, was the only company that agreed to implement these and other benefits for Oakland residents at consumer rates lower than their main competitor, Waste Management. Currently, Oakland City Councilmembers and City Staff are working closely with CWS to ensure that the transition to the new contract happens smoothly and timely.

Unfortunately, Waste Management—which lost the bid due to their proposed higher rates and unwillingness to incorporate many of the contract’s green elements—is now gathering petitions to force a costly special election for Oakland taxpayers in an attempt to overrule the City Council decision. Don’t be fooled by these petitions, which are using inaccurate and false information. If you have questions, you can call or email your councilmembers, Mayor and/or City Administrator to receive accurate information. Don’t fall for an expensive scam.

Together, we can build an Oakland that keeps local money local, treats all Oaklanders fairly, and builds its economy on green, collaborative, and sustainable values.

Last chance to speak up for composting in Oakland

Zero Waste Oakland is implementing a new “Zero Waste” system that will go into effect next summer. As the City Council prepares to approve its franchise agreements for Oakland’s waste-hauling and recycling services, now is the time to make sure that the contract includes pick-up of a separate bin for compost and food waste at multi-family homes in Oakland. This bin should be provided automatically to all households and apartments at no extra cost.

Recycling and composting programs work best if everyone participates. That’s why all households and businesses in neighboring Alameda and San Francisco have access to comprehensive recycling and composting services.

Oakland must also protect recycling workers—the men and women who perform the dirty and often dangerous job of processing our waste—by ensuring that the new franchise agreements provide wages comparable to what recycling workers in Fremont, San Jose, and San Francisco currently earn (or are scheduled to earn).


Recycling and composting programs work best if everyone participates—the same is true for our political process! How you can help:

  • Come to the special Oakland City Council meeting at 5:30 pm on Wednesday, July 30, at 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, City Council Chambers, 3rd Floor, and speak in support of the mandatory third bin for all Oaklanders.
  • Sign the online petition in support of the mandatory green organics bin for multifamily residential buildings.

Oakland Council reaffirms composting policy

On March 18 the Oakland City Council adopted a resolution to implement new Waste Collection Franchise Policies.

This resolution requires bidders on the city’s waste-hauling contract and city staff to present viable options for mandatory source-separated composting services to all Oakland residents, including those in multi-family units. It also calls for family-supporting wages and bene­fits for recycling workers. These are ends that the Sierra Club Northern Alameda County Group has been actively working towards.


We  still do not know when the final waste-hauling contract will come back to the Council for a vote. At that time it will be important to make sure that full implementation of citywide compost service is included for all residences. So far the city has merely asked for a cost estimate; food-scrap collection service at no extra charge will only become a reality if city residents insist on it.

To make sure that you receive our alert when it is time to contact the Council again, go to http://action.sierraclub.org/site/PageNavigator/CHP_SFBay_SignUpThen sign up for “Updates and alerts from the SF Bay Chapter”.

Oakland in ferment over compost policy

220x220_zero-wasteSoon, likely before the next Yodeler appears, the Oakland City Council will decide on a 10 – 20-year waste-hauling contract, in particular on whether to provide a third bin for compost to all multi-unit buildings. This decision will be an important element in the city’s efforts to limit climate change.

According to StopWaste’s 2008 Waste Characterization Study, around 43 – 53% of the waste from residential units in Alameda County is compostable organic matter. If not managed properly, compostables release a substantial amount of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a powerful climate-disrupting gas, with 20 times the short-term impact of CO2. Not only is composting one of the most effective ways to control methane release, but it also helps to save on scarce landfill space.

We fear that Oakland’s leadership is wavering on providing a third bin for compost to multifamily units–which represent a growing proportion, now 40%, of Oakland’s residents.

Without a third bin people throw compostables in the trash. This mix of food scraps and rubbish will go to a Multi-Reuse Facility (not yet built) to be separated via screens and then by recycling workers. At best this method produces low-grade contaminated compost with limited uses. Another key contract concern is to improve the wages for Oakland’s recycling workers, who are doing our dirty work (see the article on page 7 about the big raise for Fremont recycling workers). Today most Oakland recyclers do not even make living wages (starting wage is $12.75/hour), and they work under hazardous conditions to sort the trash we throw out. It’s time to be conscious of what we throw away and whom it affects.

Composting in multi-unit buildings can be challenging and will take time and effort to implement. San Francisco set an example by launching a successful citywide third-bin composting program with an intensive educational campaign, empowering residents to be responsible for their waste and environmental footprint. Now, only five years later, San Francisco has participation by hundreds of thousands of residents.

Climate change is the defining issue of our time and permeates every layer of our day-to-day lives. A huge part of moving towards Zero Waste is helping people to become conscious of their waste. In-home composting does this better than having low-paid recycling workers sort our trash for us. Everyone deserves the equal opportunity to take responsibility for their environmental footprint, and this education is essential to our transition towards sustainable city living.

What You Can Do

E-mail your Oakland councilmember (you can find your Council district at http://mapgis.oaklandnet.com/councildistricts), with copies to city administrator Deanna Santana at dsantana@oaklandnet.com, Mayor Jean Quan at jquan@oaklandnet.com, and Public Works Agency Director Brooke Levin at blevin@oaklandnet.com.

Or write to each of these at:

Oakland City Hall
1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza
Oakland, CA 94612.

Urge them to make sure that the new Zero Waste contract includes a mandatory third-bin for compostables for all Oakland residents, including multiunit buildings, and fair wages for recycling workers.

When the contract comes to the City Council for approval, we will need you to take action again. To be notified then, sign up for the Sierra Club Bay Chapter’s e-mail updates and alerts at http://action.sierraclub.org/site/PageNavigator/CHP_SFBay_SignUp.

Fremont votes big raises for recycling workers

Fremont recycling worker Maria Navarro has been supporting her children on low wages for the past five years. She and others brought their children to ask the City Council for better pay. Photo courtesy International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Fremont recycling worker Maria Navarro has been supporting her children on low wages for the past five years. She and others brought their children to ask the City Council for better pay. Photo courtesy International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

On Dec. 10 the Fremont City Council approved a fee increase to provide for a wage increase for 65 workers at the Fremont transfer station. Over six years, sorters’ wages will increase from $13.90 per hour to $20.94 per hour. Other workers will receive similar wage increases.

While workers’ wages will rise significantly, rates for Fremont rate payers will increase by only about $.32 per month. This shows that when a city, its service provider, and workers and their union all work together, it is possible to solve the problem of poverty wages in the recycling industry.

As participants in the Alameda Sustainable Recycling Campaign, the Sierra Club Bay Chapter hopes that Fremont will serve as a model for other communities in Alameda County, particularly Oakland. On Dec. 17, 24 recycling workers attended the Public Works Committee meeting in Oakland to show support for including a wage-and-benefits standard in the Oakland franchise agreement.

Recycling workers employed by BLT in Fremont are members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 6. They’re working with the Sierra Club and other groups to improve pay and services in the recycling industry--part of an effort to achieve Zero Waste.

Recycling workers employed by BLT in Fremont are members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 6. They’re working with the Sierra Club and other groups to improve pay and services in the recycling industry–part of an effort to achieve Zero Waste.

Workers Jose Romero and Yadira Carrasco thanked Councilmembers Gallo and Kalb for their public support of their campaign and urged all councilmembers to work to include a standard in the contract.

Ruth C. Abbe, Sierra Club Bay Chapter Zero Waste Committee

Alameda County sustainable-recycling campaign gains momentum

220x220_zero-wasteThe Sierra Club has partnered with labor organizations, faith-based groups, and other environmental and community-based non-profits to launch the Alameda County Sustainable Recycling Campaign. We formed this campaign to work toward the shared goals of reaching Zero Waste, elevating the status and working conditions of recycling workers, and creating more good green jobs in Alameda County.

The campaign has advocated for food-scrap collection services for residents of multi-family housing in Oakland (see April-May 2013, page 3), and supported rate increases to pay for better wages and benefits for recycling workers in Fremont. Both of these issues are still undecided. Fremont implements its biennial rate adjustment in January, and so its City Council will consider the rate increase at its Dec. 3 meeting.   Newark and Union City, which also use the Fremont facility, are expected to vote on their own increases later in 2014. The final Oakland waste-hauling contract will return to City Council for final approval, perhaps as soon as January.

On Nov. 9 the campaign hosted a community and worker recycling forum to ask Oakland councilmembers to pledge to support the social and environmental goals of the campaign.


Contact Oakland councilmembers:

Dan Kalb, District 1

Pat Kernighan, District 2

Lynette Gibson McElhaney, District 3

Libby Schaaf, District 4

Noel Gallo, District 5

Desley Brooks, District 6

Larry Reid, District 7

Rebecca Kaplan, at large

Ask them to sign on to the pledge to protect the environment, strive for Zero Waste, and support recycling workers. Tell them you support recycling and composting services for everyone.

Ruth Abbe, Sierra Club Bay Chapter Zero Waste Committee

Community and Worker Recycling Forum: support good green recycling jobs, not junk jobs!

sorterSaturday, November 9, 2 – 4 pm, La Primera Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana, 1941 High Street, Oakland.

Recycling workers are the backbone of Alameda County’s environmental efforts to promote recycling and reduce our reliance on landfills.

Most recycling workers, the majority of whom are immigrants, earn on average less than $13/hour and are struggling to provide for their families while facing hazardous conditions on the job. Last year, a worker was even killed at the Transfer and Processing Facility in San Leandro operated by Waste Management.

Come tell Oakland councilmembers: “We want good green jobs, not junk jobs!”

Oakland is finalizing lucrative 20-year, multi-million-dollar trash and recycling contracts. Help ensure that workers are paid family-supporting wages that value the important recycling work they perform!

To RSVP, please visit https://www.facebook.com/events/610045552371079/.

For more information and Spanish-language flyer, contact Jennifer Lin, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE) at (510)893-7106, ext. 321, jenny@workingeastbay.org.

Members of the Campaign for Sustainable RecyclingEast Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE) * Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) * Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy (FAME) * International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) * ILWU Local 6 * Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter * Ella Baker Center for Human Rights * Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project * Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) * Oakland Rising * Worksafe.

Chapter Zero Waste chair becomes state chair as well

220x220_zero-wasteDavid Haskell of Fairfax, chair of the Bay Chapter’s Zero Waste Committee for the last two years, has stepped in to chair the Sierra Club California Zero Waste Committee, while previous chair Ann Schneider takes a leave to run for Millbrae City Council. David, a Lassen County native and UC graduate, spent 30 years in New Zealand, where he served as director of New Zealand’s Waste Management Institute and group manager of the New Zealand Ministry of Energy Conservation Division. He’s been back in the states for 10 years, and is now senior partner of Haskell & Associate’s Renewable Energy Service Company operating out of Marin County.

Oakland Council advances composting

220x220_zero-wasteOn June 18 the Oakland City Council took a key vote, instructing city staff to come back with a cost estimate for providing collection services for food scraps and compostable paper (pizza boxes, paper napkins, paper plates) for all city residents, including apartments and other multi-unit buildings, in the final negotiations on the city’s recycling, compost, and trash-collection contract.

Providing compost (food scrap) collection is an important step towards the city’s goal of Zero Waste. No longer will valuable organics-rich materials be mixed in with the refuse going to landfill, and workers won’t have to do the inefficient, dangerous work of trying to separate out some of the compostable materials. (Such materials separated at the dump produce contaminated compost that can’t be used for farms and food crops.)

This decision could also make apartment-dwellers full participants in the city’s Zero Waste efforts rather than excluding them from the city’s comprehensive recycling programs. Students who live in apartment buildings will learn how to properly recycle and compost, as they are expected to do in the Oakland schools, and the city will gain the opportunity for real change in the culture of wasting.


In several months the final contract will come back to the Council for a vote. At that time it will be important to make sure that full implementation of citywide compost service is included for all residences. So far the city has merely asked for a cost estimate; food-scrap collection service at no extra charge will only become a reality if city residents insist on it.

To make sure that you receive our alert when it is time to contact the Council again, go to http://action.sierraclub.org/site/PageNavigator/CHP_SFBay_SignUp. Sign up for “Updates and alerts from the SF Bay Chapter”.