• Insight into our “Follow the Trash” Pitch from an Oakland Activist


    Meet Beth Terry, Oakland resident who is one of the Bay Area’s leading advocates against plastic consumption. She writes about finding alternatives to plastic use and tracks her own progress at Terry started documenting her weekly plastic waste two years ago and although her life is not entirely plastic free, she rarely purchases any new plastic. Last week, all she acquired was an envelope window from a company that still doesn’t offer paperless statements and a plastic straw that was brought in her mai tai at a restaurant.

    Terry’s not just the kind of person who brings reusable bags to grocery stores and refills her canteen instead of buying water bottles. She goes as far as making her own cat food to avoid the packaging and washing her hair with baking soda and cider vinegar so she doesn’t have to buy the plastic bottle. She ran into a dilemma last week when she forgot her canteen at the gym. Good thing she had a coffee mug with her that she could sip from in between reps!

    Terry hasn’t always been an environmental activist, however, and she is quick to point this out. “I’m an accountant for a local Bay Area Homecare Agency,” Terry said. “I’m a regular person like every one else. I was the kind of person who would request double plastic grocery bags at the store just because I thought it was easier that way.”

    But something changed in her two years ago when she was at home recovering from surgery. She was moved by a "Plastic Oceans" article she read about the Texas-sized plastic soup located in the North Pacific Gyre. The thing that really got her was this photo of an albatross carcass filled with tiny pieces of plastic thousands of miles out to sea.

    “This stuff didn’t come from out there; it came from us,” Terry said. “At that point, I looked at my life and I thought, ‘oh my God, my every day actions are affecting the world in ways I can’t even imagine. I’ve never even heard of this bird before.’ And that’s when it started."

    Now Terry blogs about her experience living with less plastic and encourages others in a guilt-free way to take a look at their own lives and try some of her suggestions.

    “I hope to be an inspiration and example to other people to see what is possible,” Terry said.


    Read some excerpts from the Beth Terry Interview below:

    So what types of plastics are collected in the Bay Area cities you have investigated?

    “What people have to realize first of all is that recycling is a business like any other and if there is no market for the materials, they’re not going to get recycled. So cities have to find markets that will buy the materials they collect and that is one of the things that limits what they will take. When I first moved to Oakland, they would take [plastic] narrow neck-bottles and they didn’t really care what the number was... If it’s a bottle where the opening is smaller than the rest of the bottle that’s how you know you can put it in there. So you can put in a shampoo bottle, water bottle, soda bottle, laundry detergent bottle, all that kind of stuff. Recently they’ve also started taking wide mouth tubs like yogurt containers, pudding, cottage cheese, those kind of things, #5 plastic and the lid is #2. San Francisco was taking those wide mouth tubs long before.

    The thing is when plastic goes to the recycling center it’s being sorted by hand. It’s going across on a belt, which is moving pretty quickly, and there are workers who are grabbing out what looks recyclable to them. They’re trained to look for certain things. So if you’re sticking weird things in there even if they have a number on it, if [the workers] can’t tell what it is when it moves by them really fast, it’s just not going to get recycled."

    What happens to the rest?

    "All of the other plastic that stays on the conveyer belt goes to the landfill. If it’s not something that you’re city picks up, you may as well just put it in the garbage, and they want you to put it in the garbage. [If you don’t], it just makes it harder for the workers to sort it out."

    As you know, Spotus is working on an article following the trash in the Bay Area from the curbside through the recycling and disposal processes. What, in your opinion, is the best way to reveal the recycling business from city to city?

    "Ask to have a tour. I took tours of several centers in the area-- the Davis St Transfer Center, California Waste Solutions and also the San Francisco Transfer Center through Norcal Waste. I was told that all the plastic collected is mainly sold to China, to companies in China or Asia. At the Davis St. Transfer Center, they have big containers right outside the center waiting to be filled with this stuff that’s going to go on a ship to go to China. And basically we’re sending it back in the empty containers that were used to ship the plastic junk over here in the first place, the new plastic junk. So, I don’t know how you would follow what happens to it after it gets on one of these boats, [but it would be interesting to know where it goes.] And also, I didn’t actually see the plastic going from the Transfer Center to it being loaded. I’m not sure how you would check to make sure it is actually being shipped over there. I would love to know that. If somebody could actually follow a load of plastic and see what happens to it every step of the way, one particular load, that would be awesome. I would be very interested."

    When it gets to China, do you know what happens to it?

    "The thing is in China, they don’t have the same worker safeguards that we have here… One city in particular in China is basically a waste dump for all of our 'recycling.' And they are recycling it; they’re melting it down and doing what needs to be done, but the fumes are everywhere, no body is wearing masks, children are wondering through piles of plastic, the water is completely contaminated. There are piles of plastic all through the town and it’s the most horrifying thing you’ve ever seen. So for me, the main thing that I want to say is that we need our companies that are making these plastic products to follow the principle of extended producer responsibility and create ways for them to take back and be responsible for the stuff that they put out into the world. Just putting it on communities to do something about it once it’s here and then having the communities ship it overseas and out of sight out of mind is not the solution. And reducing our plastic consumption and plastic waste in the first place by using less in the first place is where we need to be going."

    Any other advice for our journalists?

    “Well, the bottom of the recycling market is being pulled out from under itself due to the economy. I would like to know if our recycling is actually getting better or worse. What people don’t realize is that the people who pick up your recycling don’t recycle it. They sell it. They take it to be sorted and stored and sell what is collected in that city. If there’s no market for it, what happens to it?"

    Anything else you’d like to share?

    "I’d encourage every one interested to take the challenge to collect your waste for a week and see what you’re generating. Let’s just all be mindful. Let’s be mindful of the things that come into our lives and where they come from."

    --To hear the full BlogTalkRadio interview with Beth Terry click here.

    Recycling Resources:

    -Alameda County: (also has a page of contact info for other Bay Area counties

    -San Francisco: (a great resource for finding recycling facilities throughout the U.S. as well as where to take things that aren't accepted by community recycling programs.)
    -Oakland: Waste Management's Davis Street Transfer Center or California Waste Solutions

    -Beth Terry's blog posts about recycling centers she has visited:

    -list of all Beth Terry's plastic free changes to date:

    -Sky News video showing what happens to plastic recycling in China:









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