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A refuge for reusable refuse

By Paul LarmerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 1987



San Francisco

THE early morning sun glances off the long row of porcelain toilets and sinks and dances on Dan Knapp's forehead. Mr. Knapp is standing in the middle of lot littered with the refuse of an overindulgent American society. Old doors, windows, bathtubs, and an assortment of other items crowd the site.

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But there is an order about this acre in Berkeley that bespeaks a rational operation.

Sporting a green T-shirt with a Latin logo that, translated, reads ``I think, therefore I recycle,'' Knapp describes his Urban Ore business as a ``builders' exchange'' for a ``tremendous, decentralized remodeling industry.'' He's been in operation since 1980.

``Every time a tear-out occurs - whether it be a bathroom, a kitchen, or whatever - many construction items need to be replaced,'' Knapp says. ``If contractors tear out in a way so the materials can be reused, I will take the stuff off their hands and sell it to someone else.''

This salvage saves contractors from having to pay a disposal fee to the city dump, Knapp says, and puts a little cash in their pockets.

Knapp also operates a flea market strategically located next to the city dump transfer station. His employees check the daily waste stream at the station, pulling out everything from old sofas and wristwatches to street signs and even a second-hand satellite, apparently discarded by University of California scientists.

Flea market manager Paul Wedel says the market attracts all types of shoppers: ``Some people come here because they like the idea of recycling, but even more come because they are greedy,'' he says with a laugh. ``But that's all right, because that's what is going to sell recycling. After they buy something, then you can tell them they are saving rain forests.''

Terilyn Anderson, the recycling program administrator for the city of Berkeley, says Knapp's flea market operation complements the city's other recycling activities, which include a once-a-month curbside pickup service and a materials buy-back service offering money on the spot for recyclable materials such as cardboard, paper, glass, and metal.

``Urban Ore provides residents with an important alternative to buying brand new furniture and construction materials,'' Ms. Anderson says. ``It is important to target reusable materials in addition to recyclable materials.

``I spent a day salvaging last week and was amazed at the value and quality of what we throw away in this society,'' she adds.

Adding impetus to recycling businesses such as Urban Ore, one of several private recycling outfits to find a niche in the San Francisco Bay area, is the mounting garbage crisis afflicting cities throughout the United States.

Hilary French, a researcher for the WorldWatch Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington, D.C., says that approximately one-half the cities in the US will exhaust their current landfill capacity by 1990.

And, she says, not enough new landfill sites are coming on-line because of the high cost of meeting increasingly stringent permit requirements for air and water pollution. In addition, Mr. French says that public opposition to new landfill sites - caused by a ``not in my backyard'' mentality - is also stymying the approval of new sites. Incinerators are also opposed by a public that doesn't want to trade trash for air pollution. Recycling may be coming of age.

``There is no question that in the past few years states have been taking recycling a lot more seriously,'' French says. ``There has even been a lot of momentum generated by the garbage barge incident,'' she adds.

Knapp feels that recycling businesses are able to make it due to their competitive advantage:

``I'm sure that the environmental movement and legislation are helping, but what is really causing recycling to take off is that mixed waste disposal is pricing itself out of the market,'' Knapp says. ``A re-cycler can come in and charge people less than the dump. And then if he adds this to what he sells, it's possible to make a profit,'' he adds.

But Knapp says politically powerful garbage companies are by and large resisting the trend toward recycling.

A few, such as the Marin Sanitary Service in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, are facing the tides of change and separating mixed materials for recycling.

``Those guys [garbage companies] are invested in garbage,'' he says. ``They get upset if you threaten to take away their livelihood.''

But Knapp feels it is only a matter of time before recycling becomes standard procedure in communities throughout the US.

``It is clear that disposing of garbage, whether it is in a landfill or floating on a barge in the ocean, costs lots of money,'' he says. ``Recycling is economical.''

Knapp, who is currently writing a book on recycling with his wife, feels recycling is the only responsible way to treat the discards of a culture.

``Disposal does not mean destruction. It means orderly placement. Recyclers are truly the ones in the disposal business, not garbage collectors.''