Keeping COVID-19 At Bay While Recycling

By Daniel Knapp, CEO of Urban Ore, Inc., a Materials Recovery Facility now celebrating its 40th year in Berkeley, California
On my way home from an essential errand today, I got off the I-80 freeway at Gilman in Berkeley to check out the status of Community Conservation Center’s (CCC’s) recycling dropoff, buyback, and materials processing facility. I had a pickup full of cans, bottles, and paper, and in previous days I’d driven by at least twice to no avail as the weight built up and the truck’s handling got more sluggish. Recycling is an “Essential Business” but CCC had been closed to the public. Had they reopened yet?

I turned left onto Second Street, and – great! CCC staff had reopened at least the dropoff function, so I could recycle again. They had made a nice adaptation to the shelter in place order. It was simple: they just opened their two long rolling gates on Second Street and skidded in five-yard bins to plug the gaps. Each bin had a label: “mixed paper,” “cardboard,” “green glass,” and so on through six choices. They had rigged an impromptu dropoff capability that we patrons could access from outside the site.

Inside the fence, CCC was still closed to the public. But staff were busily processing recyclables from commercial and residential curbside service. They were making bales.

I parked next to the three paper bins and put the first of seven or eight heavy bags of paper into the mixed paper. I’m slow because I save the bags for another use, and it takes time to fold them properly.

Meanwhile another patron joined me at the bins, a woman maybe in her sixties. (I’m 80.) We started talking about how nice it was to be able to get rid of our stuff again. I told her I still work for Urban Ore. “I know Urban Ore well,” she said. Meanwhile, a CCC forklift driver had come over, stopped on the other side of the bin row, and was looking at me. He looked like he might want to pull the bin I was dumping into. Then he and I recognized each other. It was none other than Michael Ware, the Supervising Manager at CCC.

Just then a talisman at right appeared. It unlocked the questions of responsibility and what is essential.

Earlier I had spotted a tiny hardbound children’s book by Beatrix Potter on top of the mixed paper in the bin, but it was too low and far away for me to reach. I had commented about it to the lady and said it was a shame it was in there with the recycling. She looked and immediately walked over to a different CCC employee who was working on a car on the other side of the fence. She told him there was a nice book in the mixed-paper bin. He just kind of fended her off, telling her “not to worry about it.” She rolled her eyes and resumed her outside-the-fence recycling.

Meanwhile, Michael Ware and I had started talking. He got off the forklift to get closer, but we were still the required six feet away.

Then the lady told Mike about the tiny Beatrix Potter book. He looked into the bin, spotted it, then levered himself up with his body draped over the edge like a beach towel. It took him about five seconds to retrieve the book; he was very agile. Back upright on the ground, he held it up and looked at it. I asked if he had a kid he could give it to. He said no, his youngest was sixteen. He reached across the bin, offering it to my recycling companion. She asked me to take it to Urban Ore, so I accepted it and brought it home.

At home I took a closer look at the book. It’s in good condition, first copyrighted in 1907, renewed in 1935. This is the 17th printing. Judging from the coated paper and high-quality print job, it’s maybe 35-40 years old. The title is The Tale of Tom Kitten. The author and illustrator was indeed Beatrix Potter, author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and Tom Kitten was the 11th of her 23 tales. The publisher was Frederick Warne & Co. I placed it in the “going to Urban Ore” box we keep by the front door.

I have no idea what it’s worth, but I’ll bet it might fetch a price of between $4 and $8 at our bookstore. Any price over a penny would be a vast multiple of the mixed-paper price if it had been sold as scrap.

Restore the CCC buyback service? When and how is the question. 

Then Jeff Belchamber, General Manager of CCC, left what he was doing and walked over to join the conversation. He noted that CCC had decided they could get their dropoff line going again, but were keeping the public out and the Buyback closed based on a directive from the Zero Waste Division.

He said there was some advantage to being closed, because they were able to get necessary maintenance done. I suggested that CCC could tell the City that it is an “Essential Business” for all its functions, including the Buyback that gives people back their nickel deposits, because it provides environmentally superior disposal services compared to wasting. He looked a bit skeptical, and said something about “the politics.” I repeated myself: “But you really are providing a valuable disposal service, and we appreciate it.”

As I spoke I glanced at Mike. He was nodding his head up and down in agreement. He got it! So I suggested to Jeff that he consider asking Mike to help with CCC’s politics, because he understands why all of their functions, not just processing, are essential. From earlier meetings, I thought Mike could do a good job of negotiating with the City to get the Buyback going again.

By this time a fellow in a motorcycle helmet and full motorcycle clothing had joined us outside and was asking Mike when the Buyback would reopen. He said he had a lot of material to bring in. Mike was patiently explaining the closure to him as I closed the awning on my truck canopy.

Jeff walked back to what he had been doing. I got email addresses from Mike and from Denah Bookstein, the lady who rescued the book for Urban Ore, and sent them their own digital copies of The Founders’ Hearts, our book of recycling pioneer stories, as soon as I got home.

That’s my tiny report from the front lines of Berkeley recycling during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Pending Federal EPR Legislation Would Damage or Destroy US Recycling Industry

By Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance and NCRA Member, 8/30/19 – Excerpts and bolding by Dan Knapp of Urban Ore
In August federal bills on plastic pollution and Zero Waste were put forward in Congress by Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Representative Alan Lowenthall (D-Calif.) and Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn). Neither can come close to moving forward given the make-up of the Senate and the veto power of the president. Yet they can establish a blueprint for progressive steps in the future. However, some fine-tuning is needed to ensure that well-intended legislation does not actually make it harder to move forward toward recyclers’ goals.


“The call for a national EPR system is a serious mistake. Recycling is not dying and a radical effort to turn the recycling sector over to the companies that generate waste is uncalled for. It turns out that the demand for U.S. recyclables is strong in the U.S. and overseas. There is a scramble by foreign investors, led by the Chinese, to build paper and plastics recycling plants throughout the U.S. and ship clean materials to home factories. U.S. companies are vying for these materials as well. An estimated 20 new recycled paper mills are under construction in the U.S. at this time in every part of the country. Cities are converting to dual stream and small single stream processing which generate clean materials to meet these markets….”


… “Organized citizen and small business activism has been the key to the start up and growth of recycling in the U.S. and remains so to this day, starting with drop off centers, moving quickly to community based collection systems, then to eventual adoption by cities and counties. The citizens’ recycling movement merged with the hugely successful anti garbage incineration movement in the 1980s and the inspirational and practical Zero Waste Movement in the 1990s. Citizens at the local level have run for office and won, organizing coalitions that city and county councils could not ignore without a threat to their next election….”

… “An EPR system would shut this engine of recycling off completely. Access to decision makers at the local level would be eliminated as cities would have abdicated their decision making power of waste and recycling to corporate nonprofit boards that will replace all decision making, collection, processing, and marketing. Public recycling jobs would be terminated and workers rehired by these Brand Name corporations with little union and employment protections, and lower pay and benefits. Mary Lou Van Deventer, environmental writer, recycling pioneer, and principal of Urban Ore, the iconic materials reuse and processing enterprise, refers to EPR for traditional materials as a “hostile takeover” threatening 50 years of recycling activism.

“PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Nestlé introduced EPR for traditional recycling materials in 2013. The goal, as interpreted by the vast majority of grass roots activists, is to stop any new bottle bills from being enacted and to roll back the existing 10 state bottle bills. Frequently heard comments among pro EPR…advocates add insult to injury: Cities do not know how to recycle and they are broke so they can’t do anything, corporations have the money and know how to recycle better. The Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) praised the legislation’s EPR component, “EPR is the only transformational solution to the current crisis.”

“These comments are counter-intuitive given the history of U.S. recycling wherein cities have learned from the early successes of grassroots recycling and adopted them for municipal roll out. Grassroots pressure at the local level continues to lead the country toward new rules for waste and recycling management.

“Efforts to impose EPR controlled by Big Soda in R.I., Conn., Minn., and Calif. failed in the last few years despite a stealth strategy, including hiring of former state legislatures to lobby their former colleagues, state environmental organization staff, and grassroots environmental organizations.” []

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Subsidy Or Disposal Service Fee?

Subsidy Or Disposal Service Fee? That Is The Question.
By Daniel Knapp, Ph.D., CEO, Urban Ore, Inc., a Material Recovery Enterprise in Berkeley, California since 1980.

Hello Annie Sciacca and Sophie Mattson:

In response to your July 27, 2016 article in the Mercury News, “Why Are Bay Area Recycling Centers Closing — and Can Anything Save Them?”

I am a professional reuser and recycler with 35 years experience in California. The company I work for and with, Urban Ore, Inc., has survived many market fluctuations. Our primary business is reuse, but we also do lots of recycling. In 2015 we sent just 70 tons to landfill, less than 1% of the materials we accepted, upgraded, and returned to commerce.

Your article throws into sharp relief the extreme underlying unfairness that shackles our industry and prevents it from realizing highest recycling goals that are overwhelmingly popular both with voters and with elected politicians. This unfairness stems from dominance within the materials recovery industry by solid waste management ideology, despite this managerial elite’s having lost as much as 50% market share to recyclers in some areas (like Alameda County) in the last several decades.

“…the system is rigged to make sure wasters get theirs, no matter what. And recyclers are left to beg, or close their doors.”

To see how this unfairness works and is baked into our language, consider this sentence from your article:  “Recycling centers are increasingly dependent on the state’s subsidy program, but critics say the payouts are too slow to arrive and the subsidies aren’t adjusted quickly enough to reflect changing market conditions.”

I recognize that neither you nor your newspaper are responsible for this usage. But here’s the thing:

All recyclers compete with wasting industries for the same supply of materials. Wasting industries are, however, never paid with funds that are called subsidies. Instead, they are paid with funds derived from disposal service fees. What’s the difference?

The difference couldn’t be bigger or more consequential. Subsidies are mere handouts, temporary grants, while disposal service fees are monies paid to pay for the costs of making unwanted things go away, legally, plus a minimum 15% profit. But wasting industries accomplish this task by destroying value and creating pollution. Don’t recyclers make unwanted things go away legally too, and don’t they do it in a way that produces jobs and environmental benefits far beyond what wasters can provide?  Of course they do. Then why call monies paid to recyclers subsidies?  Why not call them disposal service fees instead?

There is no good reason at all for this imbalance, other than inertia, waste industry protectionism, and public confusion.

My dictionary tells me that a subsidy is “money granted to a charity…held to be in the public interest.”  The same dictionary says a fee is “…money regularly paid for continuing services.”  Grants can be withdrawn or at least not adjusted upward when money is tight, and that’s what’s behind all these recycling center closures and all the entrepreneurial pain that your article describes so well. But fees have to be paid and even increased as costs go up, regardless. So the system is rigged to make sure wasters get theirs, no matter what. And recyclers are left to beg, or close their doors. Could anything be more unfair, even dangerous to public health and safety?

With few exceptions, the solid waste profession controls both wasting and recycling all over California at the present time. I believe we need to “feel the Bern” in our field, and create a new management structure for recycling that recognizes that we recyclers are now the centerpiece of the disposal service industry, not an expensive add-on fueled by subsidies, and therefore that we deserve full payment for our work with the coin of the realm, disposal service fees.

Waste management is a sunset industry. The fact is that we recyclers have products to sell, and wasters have only liabilities to give future generations. Enacting this needed change will make the recycling industry even more of a formidable competitor than it has been since we hands-on recyclers started our revolution on or about Earth Day, 1970.

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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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