Dan Knapp’s Relentless Pursuit of Zero Waste

“Waste isn’t waste until it’s wasted.” So says Dan Knapp and his wife, Mary Lou Van Deventer, who own and manage the three-acre salvage yard in West Berkeley called Urban Ore.

Near Ashby and Seventh Streets, Urban Ore sells doors, windows, sinks, bathtubs, furniture, cabinets, housewares, hardware, appliances, even jewelry. Thirty-eight people keep the place open ten hours a day, seven days a week, and thousands derive at least some of their incomes from trading goods and services there.

That’s quite an accomplishment, which is why I used Dan and Mary Lou’s quote as the epigram in my new book, Wasted, and got in touch with Dan to check on his latest thinking. Below is an edited transcript of our phone and email conversations.

Screenshot 2015-10-15 12.45.13Tell me about how you came to be part of the recycling world.

In the 1960s and 70s, I was a VISTA trainer and then a community organizer for Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” After getting my doctorate, I spent eight years as a professor of sociology, first in Eugene, Oregon, then Springfield, Illinois.

The first time I got involved in garbage was when some friends I was working with in Lane County, Oregon, hosted an annual fair, the Oregon Country Faire, and I took a part-time job collecting trash for the event.

Every morning four or five of us got up early, fired up a old flatbed, and drove past all the campsites and food businesses, stopping to accept their trash — they handed it up to us in bags and boxes. 

Nearly everything went to the dump and got buried. We didn’t do much recycling, but our crew talked about how an alternative disposal system might work. (Today, the Oregon Country Faire today generates almost no waste at all.)

I was astonished at how much waste there was. Especially food. All the useful stuff at the dump was crushed and rendered useless, under the banner of “the sanitary landfill.”  This compulsory wasting looked like a much bigger problem than I had ever known, and addressing it appealed to me.

Later, at Sangamon State (now University of Illinois–Springfield), my teaching morphed into 20th Century homesteading — building greenhouses, planting orchards, that kind of thing. I bought an old farm truck, recruited students to crew it, and we would crawl slowly down Springfield’s alleys, picking up wood, windows, and doors that we could build with, and hauling in other discarded things we could sell or trade.  

But I was increasingly unhappy being a professor, and I moved my family back to Eugene. I went every week to the dump for the Growers’ Market Food Cooperative on distribution day. I also worked one day a week as a truck driver for Garbagio’s, a pioneering curbside collection company that picked up discarded food as well as the usual recyclables. I learned how to process and sort materials.

All of us on the crew thought that sorting discards had therapeutic properties. I still do.

Screenshot 2015-10-15 12.45.13How did you get to Berkeley and found Urban Ore?

I would probably have stayed in Eugene if I had been successful with the Office of Appropriate Technology, my first major outing as an applied sociologist. But I, and we, crashed and burned , and when I left, it felt like exile.  

The county solid waste manager never bought in to what we were doing. “Dan, you’ve got to understand there’s nothing valuable in garbage.” He paused to let that sink in. “If it was valuable, it wouldn’t be in the garbage.”  

I hitchhiked to Berkeley, where I met Bob Beatty, who hired me as a metal scavenger at the dump, out on San Francisco Bay north of the Berkeley pier. (It closed in 1983, and is now Cesar Chavez Park.)

I opened a little metal recovery depot by the side of the road on the way to the tip, and people started stopping to unload or to chat.  Several times a day I would cruise the tipping area, picking up anything I thought I could sell for scrap, or for reuse. I set up tables and created displays. Income increased.

I learned to generate “clean” material by separating steel screws from aluminum frames, breaking glass into bins, and sorting accurately. Selling for reuse was a steadier source of income, better than selling for scrap, so my metal handling depot quickly became a reuse store specializing in hardware and parts.

I turned any money earned over to the nonprofit that had the salvage contract, Bay Cities Resource Recovery Depot. When it went bankrupt, we kept going, and I registered Urban Ore. The Board of Equalization gave us a sales tax number, and we started collecting and paying sales taxes. Our first year’s revenue was $170,000. Last year, in 2014, it was $2.6 million.

We still don’t know what the top of the market is. So much more is being conserved than in the past, but there’s always more stuff.

Screenshot 2015-10-15 12.45.13What do you feel most proud of beyond your own successful salvage yard?

I’m proud of what we’ve done for the language of recycling, which is very different from the language of solid waste. I still love the theory of Total Recycling, or Zero Waste, starting with the 12 master categories I came up with in the mid-1980s. By then, I’d been working for more than six years at dumps and outside them, and I saw everything that came into the landfill before the compactors came along to push and smash everything. Every day in Berkeley, about four hundred vehicles came to the dump, from pickups to trailers to 18-wheelers.

With my wife Mary Lou Van Deventer, who I’d met when I showed slides about salvaging at a brown-bag lunch in Sacramento, I started writing a book called Total Recycling: Realistic Ways to Approach the Ideal. Mary Lou came up with a single slide for me to use in presentations — a classic pie chart — that showed the 12 master categories of salable commodities. 

If you build facilities that divert all of the 12 commodity types, you’ll be set to approach Zero Waste in incremental steps.

Thirty-five years later, we’re still salvaging at the Berkeley transfer station every day with a three-person crew. We divert an average of three tons a day from the transfer station alone, one ton per scavenger.

Screenshot 2015-10-15 12.45.13In my book, Wasted, a multinational named Consolidated Scavenger scoffs at recycling when it first comes on the scene, but then once it becomes popular, the company tries to take recycling over and kick the little guys off the field. It appears that that has happened. There don’t seem to be as many small recycling operations today.

I think it’s a well-cultivated myth that small-biz recycling is no more. Many start-up operations sold out, but many, many more opened across all commodity types. Take one example — concrete recycling, which started in earnest during the mid-1980s. 

When I started at the Berkeley landfill, 18-wheelers full of broken concrete or asphalt were there every day.Last year, according to C & D Recycling, their collective throughput was 190 million tons!  

In 2004, a big engineering firm, RW Beck, found that the recycling industry included 56,000 businesses, employing 1.1. million people, and generating $220 billion in revenue — that was comparable in size to the U.S. auto industry.

There are people operating niche enterprises all over the place. Right across from Urban Ore is Artisans Burlwood, which has been making furniture out of urban-grown redwood tree trunks since 1971. Just one of those tree trunks can weigh thousands of pounds, and this little company handles hundreds a year.

Screenshot 2015-10-15 12.45.13There were a lot of powerful ideas back when the modern recycling movement came on the scene, and many have never fully realized their promise. What did you hope would happen that hasn’t?  

No one ever said it would be easy. Even so, from start-up in 1970 to something as big financially as the U.S. auto industry in 2004 is quite an accomplishment.

One of my biggest disappointment is that even now, it’s difficult to get many of our colleagues to go along with the word “disposal.” Disposal, in their mind, equals landfill or incineration.

I would argue that that the word disposal belongs to all of us in the resource recovery business — reusers, recyclers, and composters. The wasters don’t own the word.

Screenshot 2015-10-15 12.45.13Why not call it reuse instead of disposal?

Reuse is only one of several forms of disposal. Recycling is another. Composting, too. Wasting as well. They are all forms of disposal, all competing for supply, and competing for the disposal service fees, too. That’s the key dynamic. A free market for disposal service fees is what government should be protecting, not incinerators and monopolistic takeovers.

At Urban Ore we call it disposal, because we know in our bones that we’re providing a valuable service. We make things “go away,” legally. For awhile we even got paid disposal service fees by the city — back when we were moving across town and were stretched financially, Berkeley was paying us $40 for every documented ton we took off the transfer station floor. It still left the the City with $86 per ton of profit, because they didn’t have to haul our stuff to landfill even though they got paid $126 per ton to do so. But then the city hit a financial wall because of declining waste, and they stopped paying us.  

Screenshot 2015-10-15 12.45.13What’s happening locally these days? In Berkeley or the Bay Area? What would you say is the most interesting or important development recently, or on the horizon?

There are several developments that show promise. One of the best is a state measure ensuring that a manufactured form of waste designed to be landfilled, called “alternative daily cover,” will no longer be counted as recycling. This will stimulate the aerobic composting industry.

Another is the realization that recycling is not now, and never has been, without significant cost. It is a superior disposal service, after all, and it requires investment and people. There’s a cost flap going in Oakland and Berkeley right now, one that is long overdue in some ways.

The problem is that people thought wasting would never go away, but it is going away. Raising the cost of wasting to pay for curbside recycling no longer works, because wasting has declined so much. In Berkeley, the amount of waste going to landfill declined 44 percent in 11 years by 2013. Now that there’s less waste, the waste managers have to figure out how to pay for curbside recycling. 

Recycling and wasting continue to compete in the disposal marketplace, both for the materials and for the service fees. That’s not going to change anytime soon. 

Author’s note: I’ll be reading from Wasted at Urban Ore on October 22 (Thursday) at 7 pm.


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