Berkeley Moves The Ball Forward For Salvage and Reuse

From left: Urban Ore staff – Elias Soto, Max Wechsler and Jose Luis Soto. Photo by now forgotten City staff person circa 2011.

By Max Wechsler, Operations Manager, Urban Ore Inc., 6/9/20
On June 2, the Berkeley City Council adopted a resolution authorizing the City Manager to extend its contract with Urban Ore for another 3 years!

Importantly, the new contract reinstates the company’s salvage service fee for every ton rescued from the transfer station to be sold for reuse or recycling. The resolution was written by Berkeley’s Department of Public Works and was passed on the consent calendar. It states that, “the new contract will allow the City to continue reduction of landfilling reusable materials and support the City’s Zero Waste Goal to reduce materials to be landfilled”.

Some history: Urban Ore has been salvaging in Berkeley since 1980. In the year 2000, for two main reasons, the City began paying the business for its salvage service. First, the enforcement of AB939 was about to take effect, and the City was incentivized to meet the state’s diversion requirements. Second, Urban Ore was in the middle of a big move to its current location. Councilwoman Linda Maio led Council to label Urban Ore a “Berkeley treasure” and support it both financially and administratively to help it through the move. Various measures were taken, including the invention of the salvage service fee, which is largely credited to Tania Levy, who was working for the Solid Waste Division – now the Zero Waste Division – of the Department of Public Works.

The invention was elegant indeed, recognizing that reuse and recycling aren’t free; these services involve significant labor and capital costs. The City of Berkeley owns and operates its own transfer station. If the City pays X dollars to send one ton of material to the landfill, doesn’t it make sense to pay X dollars to keep the same material out of the landfill? With that in mind, the City began payments in 2000, first at $30 per ton, and then $40 per ton – always slightly less than the landfill disposal fee. This continued until the Great Recession created a budget crisis for the City, and the salvage service fee was removed from the 2012 contract renewal.

Now, eight years later, the salvage service fee has been reinstated, and for the first time ever, the City is paying Urban Ore the exact amount per ton, $47.74, as it is to Waste Management, Inc. for landfill disposal. This is good news not only for Urban Ore, but conceptually, it is a game changer because it recognizes that Zero Waste services deserve at least the same amount of compensation as do Waste services because Zero Waste services create a variety of economic, environmental, and social benefits that wasting does not. Actually, one can quite reasonably make the argument that a Zero Waste service should be paid more than the alternative, but this is a good start! Here is the summary of the benefits that we create, taken from my public comment to City Council:

Economically, the City’s landfill tipping fees decrease proportionally to our salvage service payments, so the direct cost is a wash to the City. However, Urban Ore’s goods and services create interesting economic multiplier effects that landfilling does not. We provide inexpensive, quality goods to our customers, thus saving the local community money and increasing the profit margins for other small businesses. For example, contractors buy lumber and vintage door hardware from us at the lowest prices available—a shameless plug, but true! We also pay out about $100,000 to customers annually, in both cash and store credit, in exchange for dropping off high quality items for us to re-sell. This process recirculates money and goods through the local economy. Little is exported. Furthermore, as a for-profit business, in 2018 we paid $240K in sales tax, $116K in property tax, and $456K in employer’s taxes. In a “normal” non-virus situation, we employ 42 staff, which translates to 31 FTE.

Environmentally, it’s a big win that helps the City reach its Zero Waste goals. In addition to the resources that we salvage at the transfer station, we deal with thousands more tons of materials that are dropped off on our site annually. We also have a crew doing pick-ups from residences and businesses throughout the Bay Area. Our salvaging staff are trained to identify hazardous materials at the transfer station and communicate with City staff to ensure responsible handling.

Last but not least, there are intangible but very real social and community benefits which I have come to appreciate increasingly over the last four years. Urban Ore serves as a stage for a vibrant community of artists, teachers, builders, collectors, environmentalists, hipsters, do-it-yourselfers—you name it! Our customers are from every socioeconomic background and are as diverse as you will find. The 2018 New York Times article “Berkeley on a Budget” ends like this:

‘But the place that captured the Berkeley spirit as much as any place I went was Urban Ore; part salvage yard, part thrift store, it’s one of the most incredible places I’ve visited for recycled and upcycled goods. From clothing to electronics, an entire section of loose doors (yes, doors) and a yard full of toilets and sinks, you can easily spend a few hours there. It’s eclectic, a little chaotic and inimitable — just like Berkeley itself.”

In summary, the question for City Council was: with two equal cost options, how do we want to allocate the enterprise fund? Do we want to allocate it to Urban Ore, which generates all of the aforementioned benefits? Or, do we want to allocate it to the largest owner of landfills in the world, which involves a handful of people and some heavy equipment burying the same materials in a landfill at the headwaters of an upland creek that drains into the San Francisco Bay?

Urban Ore would like to thank the Berkeley City Council, the Berkeley Zero Waste Commission, and the Berkeley Department of Public Works, particularly Phil Harrington, Greg Apa and Heidi Obermeit. On the resolution, the list of WHEREAS’s really knocks the ball out of the park, including, “WHEREAS, Urban Ore’s proven safety record, environmental commitment, and quality customer service have made them a vital zero waste partner; and… WHEREAS, the Urban Ore salvage program is a Strategic Plan Priority Project that advances our goal to be a global leader in addressing climate change, advancing environmental justice, and protecting the environment”.

We look forward to continuing our pioneering and renowned private-public partnership for generations to come.

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