Our Mission – To End the Age of Waste
Urban Ore’s purpose was set in the 1990s by founder Dan Knapp and Board members Mary Lou Van Deventer and Michael Casady. That purpose, To End The Age of Waste, is now printed on every receipt that Urban Ore writes for its thousands of customers to carry home with them. The board’s intention was to set a high performance standard and lofty goal to carry the company into the future.
A Short History
Urban Ore has evolved its current facility and systems as a consequence of moving many times in its early days. In the first two years the landfill salvagers’ processing and sales areas moved several times because the place where incoming vehicles unloaded (the tipping area) changed every few months. The in-town receiving and sales operation, which evolved into the Building Materials Exchange, moved twice between 1981 and 1983 because landlords found other uses for their properties. The hardships of moving offered opportunities to rethink facility organization, and Urban Ore continues to reorganize its operation periodically.
In 1976 the City of Berkeley’s Solid Waste Management Plan called for salvaging for reuse at the City-owned landfill. About 400 self-haul vehicles per day dumped loads rich in reusables. A nonprofit organization tried to salvage but failed. In 1980 Urban Ore rose from its ashes and started recovering and trading resources as a scavenger organization. Its only assets were permission to exist and a place to put things down. It had no capital, no equipment, no shelter, and it paid no rent, building its cash flow from the reusable goods and scrap metals it could divert from or rescue from the tipping face. It moved its operation as the tipping face changed. Its suppliers and retail customers were people who had already paid to waste. Wages were very low at first, about $4.00 per hour. No sales meant no wages. Staff learned to sell. First-year income was about $150,000.
After starting at the City-owned landfill as a bootstrap operation, Urban Ore followed the resources when Berkeley closed its landfill in 1983 and moved its dump function to a new Solid Waste Transfer Station on Second Street. Urban Ore’s salvage-and-sales operation, which became today’s General Store, was allocated 66,000 square feet of paved property with a former office building for sales. This space had been left vacant because in 1982 Berkeley voters rejected a plan to build a garbage burning incinerator there. Urban Ore had helped lead the incinerator’s opposition, so moving to this superior location was an early fulfillment of recyclers’ prophecy that if voters rejected the burner, recyclers could incrementally grow their businesses. The idea was to replace landfilling eventually by recycling all or nearly all discards.
To serve the community’s interest in having a reuse salvaging operation, the City incubated Urban Ore by providing the company licensed access to the resources – scrap metals and reusable goods – and a sales location that was rent-free until it brought in more than $11,000 a month in income. Then the City charged rent caculated as a percentage of income over $11,000. The entrepreneurial Urban Ore staff built their sales until the Store could afford commercial rent, and in 1989 it voluntarily vacated the City property to let the Ecology Center expand. The General Store moved to a warehouse on Sixth Street next to Building Materials, where it stayed until 2002, when it moved to its current location at 900 Murray Street.
The Urban Ore Building Materials Exchange (BMX) had split off from the landfill operations in 1980 and had already moved twice by 1983. The first site on San Pablo Avenue was sold, and Urban Ore was evicted. The second site, unfavorable for retail at the dead end of Fifth Street, was submerged in a hundred-year flood at the new year in 1982. Staff had to dig inventory out of the silt and retrieve lumber that had floated away. The third site, excellent for retail at the corner of Sixth and Gilman streets, had expansion potential, and BMX thrived there. It gradually grew from about a half-acre to two acres.
Starting in 1989, when the General Store moved away from the Transfer Station and into the warehouse next to BMX, the unified 2.2-acre operation attracted many new customers. The company developed as a full-service retail operation. In 1999, however, the landlord who owned the BMX land cancelled the lease and refused to sell to Urban Ore. The State, the Alameda County Recycling Board, and the City of Berkeley helped financially and administratively to keep the company alive and serving the community.
Urban Ore found its current location in 1999 and moved the Building Materials and the Salvaging and Recycling departments in 2000 but couldn’t occupy the building until it was seismically upgraded. Financing and construction took a year and a half. Operations were split and the company paid two rents. The business suffered substantially. When the General Store finally rejoined the other departments at the new location in August 2002, the reunified enterprise thrived again and has grown consistently even during the Great Recession.
In May 2009, again with help from the Alameda County Source Reduction and Recycling Board, Urban Ore was able to purchase its property at 900 Murray St. Buying the site has been a life-changing event, and the company looks forward to continued growth at a stable location.
Moving early, often, and sometimes in forced circumstances has influenced Urban Ore’s development in three major ways:
- Much of Urban Ore’s equipment and trade fixtures are portable. The company can modify its site plan and layout in response to changing conditions.
- Staff viewed each move as a chance to create a better, more effective layout by correcting mistakes and finding better ways to serve both supply and demand customers. The company made frequent use of local architects and tradespeople. The last big buildout required about $1,000,000 in contracts and materials, including innovative uses of recycled materials.
- With the outright purchase of the largest piece of the current site in May 2009, the company is confident that it will not have to move again anytime soon. But staff are still engaged in site modifications to handle more incoming materials more efficiently.
Zero Waste Science, Policies, and Facilities
Throughout its long history, Urban Ore has worked on building the reuse and recycling industries. It has been active in the politics of recycling, participating in regional and national organizations as well as countless activist and advocacy actions. It has helped write several influential pieces of legislation that became law by votes of either citizens or elected officials. It has designed community-scale Zero Waste facilities domestically and abroad. It has based its works on the concepts of founder Dr. Daniel Knapp, a sociologist who was listed in Who’s Who in Science and Engineering for his development of 12 Master Categories of Discarded Resources. Some of Urban Ore’s working papers for a Zero Waste future are posted in the Zero Waste Resources section of this website.