Green America: Growing the Green Economy for People and the Planet
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LogoUrban Ore
Berkeley, CA

Urban Ore began in 1980 as a bootstrap business that identified value in discarded objects; sorted, cleaned, priced, and organized them; and presented them as merchandise.  It was waste into wealth, trash into treasure.  We started by salvaging at the dump, mining the landfill instead of the land.  When the landfill closed, we moved into town.  Today Urban Ore is a cultural fulcrum point where we prevent waste, create jobs, put cash and refined resources into the community’s hands, collect and pay sales, payroll, and property taxes for the public benefit, and provide worldly goods at bargain prices.  Thus preventing pollution supports the community’s real property and standard of living. 

Urban Ore’s corporate purpose is To End the Age of Waste.  We divert from landfill about 7,000 discarded tons a year, make hundreds of sales each day, and bring in income of $2.6 million because 38 interested and interesting staff work hard.  In 2012 we paid $117,000 in cash and store credit to the community to buy discards, and 62% of our income went for staff expenses. The work is labor intensive; everybody is an hourly worker.  We pay the whole healthcare premium for every fulltime staff member and all their dependents.  The company shares 9.5% of gross income in every paycheck with all staff equally according to hours worked, and shares 10% of profit with staff.  We have an annual injury history that one insurance analyst said would “fit on your thumbnail.”

The history is unusual.  In 1976 the city of Berkeley decided that old-time salvaging at its municipally operated landfill could be improved.  A nonprofit organization won a bid in 1979 to make the idea work, but failed in 1980. 

A few months later, three people continued the work, reorganized as Urban Ore.  One is still with the company, now a for-profit corporation.  He is Dr. Daniel Knapp, a sociologist who wanted to change the way people handle their discards.  Urban Ore’s assets were meager: permission to salvage from the active dumping face, and a rent-free, unsheltered place to put reuseable goods and scrap down at the side of the dump’s road after people had already paid to waste.  The founders substituted their labor for startup capital.  They learned that bargaining to sell a hammer for reuse might bring $3, while scrapping it for the metal would bring a few cents.  Over a month’s transactions, the difference could support an expanding payroll and pay the company’s bills.

They rented another sales location in town on a commercial street and salted it with building materials.  They learned that if they paid a small amount for materials that contractors, informal haulers, and householders were taking to the dump, supply customers would divert their loads from the dump, saving time and money.  Putting money in haulers’ pockets is an effective motivator to prepare the next load well.

After 33 years the company now owns 2.5 acres of Berkeley real estate.  The dump closed and moved to a transfer station, where Urban Ore still salvages more than two tons a day.  We also receive goods from up to 100 vehicles a day.  Many people thank us for existing, because we provide them an opportunity to do right by the objects they no longer want but don’t want to be wasted.  We also pick things up from people who can’t get them to us.  Far from shutting down existing reuse businesses as we grew, we stimulated their growth, from 150 smaller reuse enterprises 20 years ago to  more than 300 today.  Our customers include resellers, real estate professionals, contractors, householders, students, low-income people, high-income people, and everyone in between.  On any given day we hear 10-15 languages.  We enjoy our community, and they enjoy us too. 

We  spend time and money advancing Zero Waste policies.  We participate in regional, national, and international reuse, recycling, and Zero Waste trade associations.  We have designed more than 30 Zero Waste transfer stations in four states and several countries.  We fight against garbage incineration and new or expanded landfills, and support Zero Waste policies and programs - no burn, no bury.  We sponsor Zero Waste conferences. 

Most of all we enjoy and respect the planet and its people, and we try to protect them all.  If you’re not for Zero Waste, how much waste are you for? 

  
Materials Interior
This is about 1/3 of the exterior sales area for building materials.  This is about 1/4 of the interior sales area in the 30,000 square foot building, a former pipe manufacturing company.  We've reused the indusrial building for a mercantile purpose. 
Salvage Surfboard
Salvaging looks like this:  A surfboard is dumped.  And the surfboard is saved. 


The image below illustrates our 12 Master Market Categories of Discards, which got Dr. Knapp into Who's Who in Science and Engineering (a treat for a sociologist), and which we use to design Zero Waste facilities for communities.  These categories describe everything now wasted in landfills with nothing left out, nothing left over.  (Download as PDF.)
Universe