Proposed rebuild from helicopter

Designed to work like an airport; the new facility treats discards as if they are suitcases

Urban Ore’s design team has proposed a rebuild of our 1983-vintage transfer station.  It was designed to feed a garbage burner that was never built, and it is old and run down.  We even hired two local architects to work with us.  We produced dozens of images showing the new buildings and how they would work.

This new system we have proposed could take us well above 90% diversion if it was run right.  At first, Public Works refused to even look at our ideas.  Later, they let us present to them, but nothing happened for years.

At the December 2011 Zero Waste Commission, there was zero interest from staff in any Berkeley rebuild; their approach was still to cut, cut, cut.  But by its January 2012 meeting, the Public Works Department was showing a more friendly face.

While cautiously grateful for this welcome change, I believe that even more change is called for.  Almost more than a physical rebuild, Berkeley needs a new agency to run its discard management system.  In most cities since the sanitary landfill took over the way discards were handled after WW II, Public Works became the traditional home of “waste management” as a profession.  That’s certainly true of Berkeley, whose Public Works Department nearly got council to build a mass-burn garbage incinerator at Second and Gilman, until recyclers and citizens put a stop to it.

Back then, our slogan against the waste burner was “Give Recycling a Chance!”  As we predicted, after the incinerator was rejected, recyclers’ enterprises grew and grew, and new enterprises were formed.  But management stayed the same.

Berkeley boasts the fourth-highest diversion of fifteen cities in Alameda County, 76%.  (The lowest is 59%; highest is 83%.  Berkeley’s waste managers don’t have that much waste to manage anymore.  This waste deficit is one reason why all of Berkeley’s private-sector recyclers came under attack from Public Works in 2011. Up to then, their way of paying for many of the city’s recycling costs was to use waste fees, but waste fees were declining.   In 2010, Public Works suddenly fell deep into deficit mode after being profitable for years.  Council was told by Public Works that the reason for this deficit was we recyclers had done “too good a job.”

In mid-2011, an outside consultant was brought in at a cost to the cash-starved Public Works Department of around $80,000.  His recommendation was to automate everything possible, and let displaced city employees, 27 in all, take over all 3 of private sector recycling contractors, including Urban Ore’s transfer station salvage program. This was a shock and a crisis we had to meet, and fast.

City employees were understandably torn by this tactic, which didn’t work out but ended up hurting them anyway, because the SEIU employee pool got downsized and is scheduled to be downsized some more.   The private sector recyclers battled back, and survived.  But in the scrum, ideas for making more money, for increasing rather than decreasing labor, for a vastly expanded customer interface at the City’s priceless regional transfer station asset, were shelved in favor of cuts in service.

Then key staff pushing this line left the city, and we got a new City Manager and a new head of Public Works.  This ushered in a new era of friendliness.

Some elements of the needed change are already in place.  The City’s discard management system is an Enterprise Fund. There are at least six “enterprises” (3 city-owned, 3 privately owned) that make up the bulk of Berkeley’s ecology of commerce.

The problem is not the people running the system, it’s the structure.  It’s an election year, and candidates are looking for ideas they can make into a winning message.  What we are proposing is basic applied sociology, like Urban Ore.

So, dear reader, shouldn’t we create a new agency to champion the transfer station rebuild and to take us all the way to the city’s professed goal of zero waste to landfill?