Click photo to enlarge
Construction nears completion last year at the El Cerrito Recycling and Environmental Resource Center.

EL CERRITO -- As the city embarks on new sustainability endeavors, nothing demonstrates El Cerrito's environmental commitment more than the cutting edge Recycling and Environmental Center, rebuilt and reopened nine months ago.

The center has a number of energy-saving and waste-reducing innovations that other cities and other recycling centers don't offer.

For example, recycling center customers can drop off Styrofoam, a material recyclers typically don't want. Workers run the Styrofoam through a "densification" machine that compacts a 50-cubic-yard bin of the material down to about 2 cubic yards.

Loose Styrofoam is a potential pollutant when dumped in landfills, but after compacting, it can be sold for reuse to manufacturers of picture frames and crown molding at about $80 a pallet, said Garth Schultz, who supervises the recycling center's operations.

Besides such commonly recycled materials as paper, glass, scrap metal and plastic, green waste and food scraps, visitors can drop off electronics, motor oil, used cooking oil, fluorescent bulbs, batteries and many other items.

And while there is no market for "packing peanuts," the foam pellets people use to protect the contents when packing items for shipping, the center collects them anyway with the hope its customers will take and reuse them.

The center also accepts prescription drugs to keep them from polluting landfills and waterways under a program paid for by the East Bay Municipal Utilities District. Other partnerships include Goodwill, which collects clothing and other household items for reuse, and Berkeley-based Urban Ore, which takes reusable construction material and larger household items.

Another partner, Oakland-based Universal Waste Management recycles the electronic equipment that arrives at the center, including TVs, microwaves, computers and peripherals.

(The center does not accept paint, refrigerators and air conditioners, large furniture, tires or hazardous waste, which must be taken to the West Contra Costa Hazardous Waste Collection Facility in Richmond for disposal.)

Recycling and reuse are built into the center's design itself.

A rainwater collection system channels water from the roof of its main operations shed into an 11,000-gallon cistern that takes care of the center's water needs for eight to nine months a year and an expansion to its solar collection system will soon make it energy self-sufficient.

Some of the wood used to build the new center was salvaged from the previous recycling center.

Schultz said he knows only one other recycling facility like El Cerrito's nationwide, in Boulder, Colo., and a certification the center received in December for the U.S. Green Building Council, backs up his claim.

The center has been awarded platinum certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the agency's highest award.

The recycling center is one of 17 buildings in the state that have achieved platinum status out of 521 that have been LEED certified.

The center has come a long way since it was started by a group of volunteers at the same site at the eastern end of Schmidt Lane, said Melanie Mintz, the city's environmental services director.

Today, El Cerrito's four curbside recycling trucks haul their loads to a facility in Oakland so the recycling center doesn't have to separate the materials on-site.

"The trucks don't dump their loads here anymore," she said. "It wasn't the best use of the space."

When customers separate the materials by dropping them into the proper bins, it makes the materials more valuable, Mintz said.

"Presorting materials always adds value," Schultz added.

The sale of recycling dropped off at the center and from curbside recycling accounts for about $250,000 of the center's and curbside recycling's $2 million annual budget, he said.

The rest is paid for from a $9-a-month charge on El Cerrito residents' garbage collection bills. Residents of other areas can drop off most materials free of charge, with the exception of fluorescent tubes and CFLs.

"If people from, say, Oakland want to donate material we can sell, we are happy to take it," Schultz said.

The city is introducing a set of new rules that go into effect this week. Anyone taking items from recycling bins must fill out a form describing how they intend to reuse the materials. Removing items to recycle them elsewhere is prohibited, Schultz said.

"People are allowed to take things if they get permission from the city in advance by filling out a form," he said. "We want to encourage reuse, which is a higher purpose than recycle."

Customers also will be limited to removing two bags of books per day from the book exchange, he said.

The center is part of a group of initiatives that El Cerrito has taken to help protect the environment.

The city is also working on a Climate Action Plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent in 2020 and 30 percent by 2035 from a baseline set in 2005.

recycling center
WHERE: El Cerrito Recycling and Environmental Resource Center, 7501 Schmidt Lane
PHONE: 510-215-4350
WEB ADDRESS: wwwecrecycling.org
HOURS: Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.