Murder… Betrayal… Aluminum

A review of Wasted, a new novel about recycling set in Berkeley
By Daniel Knapp, Urban Ore
In John Byrne Barry’s second “Green Noir” mystery Wasted (the first was Bones in the Wash), a recycler in a company called Recycle Berkeley (Re-Be) is found mashed inside an export bale of aluminum cans at Berkeley’s transfer station. The recycler, one of Re-Be’s most passionate defenders, is dead. He didn’t get there by himself. Someone had to operate the baler, put him in it. Was it about Re-Be or was it personal? Who killed him? Who operated the baler?

At the beginning of the story, out and about on Berkeley’s gritty flatland streets at 5am, Brian Hunter temporarily escapes his boring day job as a contract bookkeeper to become a freelance reporter. His friend Doug, who drives a collection truck for Re-Be, has told him a small army of people are out every night stealing aluminum cans from Re-Be’s curbside routes. The financial impact is large. To follow the story, Brian decides to become a poacher himself. Doug gives him a route map so he can go in ahead of the collection trucks.

The first poacher he meets is unfriendly one moment, violent the next. Thinking Brian is a liar threatening his stash of cans, the poacher whacks the would-be reporter with a board. Brian howls in pain but doesn’t fight back. The two men take a break from these exertions for some talk over a couple of cans of warm beer the poacher has scored. Brian learns that poachers must have “sponsors.” This poacher offers to sponsor Brian. Brian accepts.

From then on, we’re in a strangely fictionalized but recognizable hall of mirrors that is the lot of people who actually do the work of collecting and processing all those cans and bottles. The author knows his stuff; he used to be on the board of directors of the nonprofit that does Berkeley’s curbside collection, although another nonprofit company processes the materials. In Wasted, they are merged.

Structural conflicts abound both in the novel and in real life. Poachers take the valuable aluminum and leave the rest for Re-Be. Income-deprived, Re-Be is sliding toward bankruptcy. Brian learns that Re-Be has fallen behind three months in rent to the City. He finds the politicians embarrassed and scared because Re-Be holds an exclusive City contract for curbside collection services. But City staff haven’t paid Re-Be’s service fees for months. A City Council member wants to hand Re-Be’s contract to another company. Re-Be’s managers and board battle desperately to keep the nonprofit afloat. Supporters, some armed with dubious tactics, flock to Re-Be’s defense in a press event and later in a big demonstration.

Consolidated Scavenger, a multinational waste company with a transfer station in a city to the south of Berkeley, is a big presence, willing and able to take over Re-Be’s contract. Consolidated, or “Con,” has friends in Berkeley’s high places but not so many on the street.

Just before Brian discovers the body of his friend Doug, he tells his editor how his story about poaching has morphed into something much bigger: “One power struggle mirrors another. At stake, a million-dollar…contract, the city council majority, and…the soul of Berkeley. Add sex and stir.” She says, “That’s not the story you turned in [yesterday].” Brian replies, “That’s right. But it’s the one you’ll get in two hours.”

Doug creates an upset by crashing and ruining a big celebration intended to help Re-Be. What he does leaves everyone embarrassed, confused and hating him. The unrest makes headlines around the world. As Brian tells it, “The media loves to trivialize Berkeley….many of the embryonic movements and trends nurtured here – from free speech to recycling to divestment from South Africa – have become mainstream, but the ‘only in Berkeley’ gibe never seems to go out of style.”

Besides losing the aluminum to poachers, Re-Be is losing some of its best workers to Con. Con pays better, but that’s not all. Some staff are fed up with the “kitchen-table collective” culture of Re-Be, so there are divided loyalties even before Doug’s death. The murder cleaves these loyalties into ever smaller bits.

Brian keeps following leads and trying to protect his sources while cooperating with the police, and we are carried along at a gallop. He loses lots of sleep staying just ahead of other writers who flock to the story. He falls in love with one of the female suspects and reflects on the proper relations between observer and observed. Cool detachment is impossible. He’s inside the story and outside it at the same time.

When the City tries to evict Re-Be, and when Re-Be refuses to go, the City breaks into its site at night and disables its baler. That break-in is one of the events that actually happened in Berkeley’s history. Moreover, a woman whose name begins with “K” (Kathy Evans in reality; in the novel she’s Kisa) finds a replacement part during the night, and the baler is up and running defiantly the very next day.

For fun, I made a list of all the direct parallels to the real story of Berkeley’s recycling. So far there are more than 20.

Which leads to a caution: beyond property damage, Berkeley’s recycling has never been marked by murderous violence. The skeleton of facts that Wasted assembles have been taken out of their actual context, rearranged, renamed, tilted and jumbled to serve the needs of the mystery, not history.

Recyclers have often had to defend their contracts and businesses. To resolve issues they have rarely resorted to demonstrations. Instead, they have written recycling-friendly laws and regulations that voters or City Council have strongly approved. For example, the first citizens’ initiative of three that were written all or in part by Berkeley recyclers stopped procurement on a garbage-burning power plant that City Council had already approved in concept unanimously. This citizens’ victory over their own electeds and the solid waste profession put Berkeley at the forefront of city or county burn-plant rejections that eventually totaled seven in our region alone, and hundreds around the USA. It also started a real-life multi-year no-holds-barred local political struggle. But no humans were mortally harmed.

For those already familiar with Berkeley’s tangled relations with its recyclers, Wasted can be an eerie and unsettling read. Others will enjoy learning a lot about recycling’s dark side while our hero reasons and guesses his way along a twisted trail to find the culprit.

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