Shopping Urban Ore: Dedicated to Ending Waste

By Lydia Gans Special to the Planet
Wednesday December 10, 2008 - 06:20:00 PM
Some of the treasures to be found at Urban Ore, 900 Murray St.
By Lydia Gans
Some of the treasures to be found at Urban Ore, 900 Murray St.

To end the age of waste is the message of Urban Ore, a Berkeley institution, the business that represents the ultimate in salvaging just about everything and turning it into something that can be used. On a three acre spread just off Ashby and Seventh Street, Urban Ore has a most amazing assortment of stuff—hundreds of doors, windows, bathtubs, books, dishes, hardware, sometimes a piano or two, “collectibles” and all sorts of oddities large and small.  

Dan Knapp, who still owns and runs the company at 900 Murray St., started it in 1980 with two partners. They were “just a bunch of scavengers at the dump,” he says. But “we were not your usual scavengers. A couple of activists from Berkeley and there was me - I’m a former college professor. I was testing some theories.” His field of study was sociology—but not the sociology most of us are familiar with. At the time it was called ‘action sociology,’ now it has broadened into ‘public sociology.’ The “dump” he is talking about was actually a series of landfills that were operating all along the edge of the bay.  

His theory had to do with the concept of zero waste, “the idea that we should not be land filling anything. Everything that goes into the landfill is a resource that ought to be conserved.” From spending a lot of time at the landfill watching everything that was brought out and dumped, he accumulated enough information to develop a plan to virtually eliminate waste. With that they established Urban Ore.  

That was less than 30 years ago and few people questioned how and where, let alone if, dumps should be operated. Some of us remember going out and scavenging at our local dump. I have a wonderful, cozy armchair that originally came from there. It’s been reupholstered three times and still occupies pride of place in my living room. Eventually when the dumps were filled to capacity they were covered with dirt and landfills created. Nobody even questioned the presence of toxic materials that might be buried there. Today, the garbage business, now called waste management, urges us to sort our waste which they promise to recycle or compost. 

Dan is the sole owner now with 38 dedicated employees carrying out their mission to end the age of waste. That message is printed on every receipt they hand to their customers. 

“We handle almost anything that’s reusable and a lot of things that are recyclable,” he explains. “Basically what we do is we put it back into commerce. He insists that just about everything can be reused or recycled—or if it can’t, it can be banned or redesigned.  

Urban Ore is unique in that it combines in one location both a kind of general store where people can buy all sorts of used items, and a building materials yard. The items come from three sources. They have their own crew who go to the Berkeley transfer station (at 2nd and Gilman) every day to pick up anything that can be used or recycled. Then there are the “outside traders” who have a truck and go out to and pick up loads of items that are being discarded. But by far the biggest source is from individual people bringing in things—all sorts of things. There are some things they cannot deal with, but, Dan says, “of the stuff we accept (almost) 98 percent is returned to beneficial reuse or recycling.”  

Handling the vast amount and variety of materials that come in is an awesome process. Over the years Dan has developed a system which enables him to treat “everything as a commodity not as a waste.” Take windows, for example. There are always hundred of all shapes and sizes in the yard for reuse by builders and remodelers. But those that aren’t sold after a time have to be culled out and disposed of. He explains that the glass is collected in a 10 yard debris box which weighs about 10 tons when it’s full. The entire box is then hauled to another location where it is ultimately made into fiberglass. Bottle glass is treated differently—it is sent where it can be made back into bottles. Porcelain is sent to be crushed and made into aggregate. All this, while involving a lot of work, is economical and ecological.  

“If we sent the same ten yard box of glass or broken porcelain to the transfer station not only would it be wasted but it would cost us $1,150 to dump it. So instead we pay a guy with a truck a couple hundred dollars to haul it down to Hayward or San Leandro and in the case of the window glass we get paid for it ... (and) we’re saving about 800 bucks.”  

Metal is another big and even more complex item. “We do a lot of hand separation which is something that makes us very different from a lot of recycling places. Not very many that are as labor intensive as we are. So we produce a lot of jobs in relation to our output. I think we’re the biggest recycling employer in Berkeley.” And, he adds, his employees get good pay and benefits.  

Urban Ore has had to move several times since it was started and the moves are extremely complicated and expensive. The problem has always been finding an acceptable location for an enterprise like this. Dan insists that, “the biggest problem for right now is that we don’t have secure access to land and we’re a utility. We need to be seen more as a utility not so much like just a hippy enterprise—a place where things that people discard can be handled.”  

As people become increasingly committed to the concept of recycling and reducing waste, Dan Knapp with all his experience with Urban Ore is a man to pay attention to.  

And the store might be a good place to check out for interesting and inexpensive holiday shopping.