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  • Writer's pictureLuna Oiwa

A Bay Area Reuse Tour: Part 2 of 2

Updated: Sep 18, 2021

The same day I met Kat, I also visited Max Wechsler, Operations Manager at the famed Urban Ore in Berkeley (and a fellow Cornell alum!).

Urban Ore has been in business for 41 years now and in that time has enabled Alameda county to cut its landfill rate by 50% [1] ! Unlike GCI/Madrone, Urban Ore does not work directly with construction and deconstruction projects very often. Like The Reuse People, Urban Ore is huge— but less orderly and more artsy, with a yard-sale-gone-nuts sort of vibe. Every direction you glance, you are bound to find some curious and vintage-y item. According to Max, this unique controlled-chaos atmosphere has shaped the Urban Ore brand and turned it into the store’s greatest asset of all; a New York Times column about Berkeley once said that Urban Ore “capture(s) the Berkeley spirit as much as any place” in the area.

Urban Ore’s materials mostly come from customers that are happy to get rid of their things at no cost. Sometimes, Urban Ore also pays supply-side customers cash or “trade credits” to keep them coming back. The store additionally has a salvage team, and this team works at the Berkeley transfer station to rescue materials. Max noted that Urban Ore and “Big Waste” (large solid waste contractors) are in competition for the same materials. He mused that at this point in time, Urban Ore makes such a small dent on the amount of stuff landfilled (7,000 - 8,000 tons per year) that it doesn’t affect “Big Waste” profit margins much at all.

When I asked Max about his vision for the future of the store, he pointed at the letters outside spelling “Urban Ore Eco Park” and told me that he wants to transform the store into that promised “Eco Park.”

“Let me show you something,” he said, and he took me up a narrow set of stairs in the corner of the store by the paintings section.

Upstairs there was open space. A lot of open space.

The idea, he said, was to clean the place up, get the stairs up to code and fix the elevators, maybe increase parking spaces, and develop that 17,000 SF of currently empty space into a hub where customers could get all kinds of belongings repaired. There would be an upholstery section, a computer repair section, and so on. This was clearly a long-term project requiring a large amount of capital, but Max was hopeful.

When I asked what motivates him in his day-to-day job, he replied that trashing things simply does not make sense. “Waste,” he told me, “is often used as a noun but should be thought of as a verb.” Waste is born of a decision to waste what does not necessarily need to be wasted.

Max also gave me some tips on what to say to convince NYC officials to support reuse, if I ever get the chance:

  • Reuse can create jobs “out of nothing”

  • For-profit reuse stores like Urban Ore pay taxes like any other business

  • Reuse stores sell materials to local communities at affordable prices (and have recently been saving contractors money on lumber)

  • Reuse keeps materials out of landfill, a big plus for regions running out of landfill space

  • Collecting and selling vintage items is a means of preserving culture and community

Really there are so many benefits that one doesn’t need to talk about the environmental aspect to be convincing.

On my last stop, I visited James Dawes, the boss at the Placemakers, Inc. James was nice enough to chat despite the many customers that came by that Saturday morning.

Placemakers is different from both The Reuse People and Urban Ore in that it is a much smaller space, and consequently orderly by necessity. Like GCI/Madrone, it sources most of its materials directly from deconstruction projects.

Because it is a smaller space, James says that he only salvages the top 5% or so of high-value items from deconstruction projects. These include antique porcelain sinks, vintage lighting fixtures, luxury bath wall accessories, and intricately designed wrought iron gates.

“Some days,” he said, “the amount of stuff here feels overwhelming... other days, it feels insignificant [in relation to the amount of stuff there is in the world].”

When I asked whether his business has collaborated with any other reuse businesses in the area, he replied that Placemakers recently received a grant under the condition that the store partner with a non-profit. Due to this grant, Placemakers has been accepting donations, selling those donated materials, and sending some of those proceeds to none other than The Reuse People.

James himself has been running Placemakers, Inc. for over 25 years, and said that in addition to all that he is doing currently, in the future he would like to invest more time in fabrication and value-add projects.

Now for some general observations.

1. First, owning and operating a reuse store is a more dynamic livelihood than one may expect at first glance. With most businesses, supply is fairly constant even when demand is not. With this business, both are constantly in flux. This means reuse store owners are constantly finding creative ways to adjust and readjust to changing conditions.

2. When people hear “reuse,” they tend to associate it most readily with environmental sustainability. Yet when I visited these stores, “sustainability” and “climate change” were very rarely brought up. This is because the stores are more directly motivated by people and a shared sense of community.

Ted from The Reuse People told me that his single-glazed windows are slightly controversial for their limited insulation capabilities, but he emphasized that it was important to him that individuals who needed their windows replaced could purchase them at affordable rates.

Max from Urban Ore told me that the people who come to his stores include artists and landlords and teachers, millionaires looking for vintage items and homeless individuals looking for low-cost options, and so on. Max pointed out that the jobs at Urban Ore are not jobs that can be automated because they are so customer-facing and because they are fundamentally about our connection, as humans, with materials.

3. I believe it was Ted from The Reuse People who said this most succinctly, but no matter how much space there is, lack of space is and will always be an issue because one can always find more stuff to put in that space [2].

4. Even when they are striving to achieve the same goals, there appears to be a slight disconnect between pro-reuse government policy and the reality of what reuse stores want.

James from Placemakers, Inc. said the jury was still out on Palo Alto’s deconstruction ordinance, first because the source separation and hauling regulations set by the ordinance do not mesh well with Placemakers’ established source separation and hauling processes, and second because the ordinance had been developed without much meaningful input from the community.

Kat from GCI/Madrone said that deconstruction and demolition projects associated with San Francisco City are required to adhere to a rigid set of guidelines— for example, waste estimates are always conducted through the platform Green Halo. The benefit to this approach is that it standardizes procedures and ensures a baseline degree of success. The downside is that it can be a cumbersome process to navigate, and leaves little room to correct for inefficiencies and to tailor specific needs to unique projects.

5. As Ted said to me, deconstruction will always cost more but can be helped along greatly by government funding, tax incentives, and surcharges on the “tipping fees”— the cost per ton to landfill material— local to a given area.

Ted said in the early days of The Reuse People, Alameda County approached the store with a $250,000 grant to help launch the county’s StopWaste program. Later on, The Reuse People received another $100,000 from the State of California. Needless to say, both made a big difference in keeping the store running and making it what it is today.

James said that grants from San Mateo County helped Placemakers purchase forklifts and tall metal organizers that have greatly aided in the store’s management of lumber.

Max said that the Urban Ore salvage team is the only salvage team that holds a contract with the City of Berkeley. For every ton of material salvaged by Urban Ore, the City of Berkeley pays the store the same amount it would otherwise have paid to a landfill— about $47.74 per ton [3]. This agreement is a huge deal because between this payment from the City and the salvaged goods that the reuse store is able to resell, for every ton of material salvaged Urban Ore is able to realize higher revenues than the landfill would.

And as mentioned in Part 1 of this blog post, Kat told me that the City of San Francisco is supporting GCI/Madrone’s efforts to develop both a warehouse for salvaged building materials and an online platform through which to sell those materials.

6. The salvaged building materials I saw were items like doors, windows, cabinets, and roofing, as opposed to structural components. These building materials also all come from residential buildings, as opposed to commercial buildings. Ted summed it up by saying that current building codes make reuse of structural components and materials from commercial buildings highly difficult.

I started my trip with a two-part question in mind— why is it that the West Coast appears to be so ahead when it comes to sustainable construction and deconstruction, and can this excitement and momentum be emulated on the East Coast, in NYC?

I asked this question directly to each of the individuals I spoke with on my Bay Area reuse tour, and got some interesting answers. Ted credited Berkeley’s recycling mindset from the 60’s and 70’s for being a launch point to the greater environmental sustainability movement. Max hypothesized that the West Coast has done better because the West Coast is slightly less entrenched in the solid waste industry.

As to the question of whether lessons learned in the Bay Area could be applied directly to NYC, Ted responded that a building material reuse store in the city wouldn’t work because in his experience, at least 10,000 SF of store space are necessary to cycle through 30 to 40 building projects annually and maintain enough variety in product offerings to keep customers coming back. There simply isn’t that type of space in NYC at an affordable rate— at least not without a large amount of city or state support.

But the most thought-provoking answer came from James of Placemakers, Inc. When I asked him why it was that the reuse scene is better out West, he said, “Really? I thought the East Coast was more into reuse than the West Coast.”

It led me down the path of thinking that it isn’t inherently easier on the West Coast; there wasn’t a magical formula that made everything fall into place. As with any big effort, it took a lot of dedicated people and was a movement that grew over time. It’ll be tough, but it shouldn’t be any less doable in NYC.

Enough from me for now! Special thanks to Ted Reiff, Timonie Hood, Kat Hanrahan, Max Wechsler, and James Dawes for taking the time to speak with me. Extra special thanks to Timonie Hood for letting me know all the insider information on where to go and who to meet, and Bradley Solliday for your service as an excellent personal chauffeur. This trip would not have happened without you.


[1] More on Urban Ore!

Thank you also to Urban Ore founder Dr. Dan Knapp for chatting with me after my trip to share his enthusiasm, expertise, and life story via Zoom!

[2] Now that I think about it, the same principle applies beyond reuse. No matter how big your home is, there’s always too much stuff and not enough space.

[3] EDIT MADE ON 08/31/21 - Earlier, I incorrectly stated that Urban Ore receives $126 per ton rather than $47.74 per ton of material salvaged from the City of Berkeley transfer station.

It really works like this: customers pay $126 per ton dropped off at the City of Berkeley's transfer station, and from there either:

(1) the City pays the Altamont Landfill $47.74 per ton and keeps the remaining money, OR

(2) the City pays Urban Ore $47.74 per ton and keeps the remaining money, and Urban Ore is able to rescue and resell the salvaged material.

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