Letters for June 23

Readers sound off on Hamas, indie video stores, and poaching in Berkeley.

“Kiss Me I’m Palestinian,” Events & Attractions, 5/26

You Heart Hitler?

I note that a solo piece performed by a Palestinian who says it focuses upon her searching for her identity appears under the charming name of “I Heart Hamas.” Since Hamas, in addition to subjugating Palestinian woman, jailing gays, and torturing and murdering dissidents, advocates the genocide of Israeli Jews, one can’t help but think that the name of this piece could give rise to titles for potentially similar subject matter such as “I Heart Hitler.”

Naturally, although the Express feature gives no such indication, one would nevertheless like to believe that the author intended the name “I Heart Hamas” to signify satire. But given that the venue is La Peña Cultural Center, the home of many loony left paeans to other unsavory regimes such as those of Castro and Chavez, I would be surprised if the author didn’t mean her title in utmost sincerity.

Dan Spitzer, Berkeley

“Reel Video Threatened by Bankruptcy,” Culture Spy, 6/9

What About Videots?

I’m sad that we lost Videots in Elmwood recently. You didn’t mention them.

Li-hsia Wang, Berkeley

“Recycling and Anxiety in Berkeley,” Feature, 6/9

Poaching Is a Symptom

As the former operations manager of the Berkeley Curbside Recycling program, I can attest that poaching makes people including myself incredibly angry. I have trapped poachers in cul de sacs with my recycling truck and shoveled material out of their pickup just to humiliate them. I have had people call me in tears because a poacher emptied their recyclables on the lawn in search of a can. All of my outreach staff were told not to say the “p” word in public forums because the public’s anger is such that once poaching was broached we would never get back on subject.

What is not apparent is that the comingled aluminum cans, glass bottles, and plastic cost more for a garbage company or recycling center to sort and market than they are worth. The moneymaker for recycling programs is newsprint. Ideally, the value of the paper offsets the sorting cost of the containers (glass and cans). The West Coast paper industry is structured in such a way that makes it especially vulnerable during times of economic contraction. Most of the paper is going to East Asia. The American Paper Industry never made an adequate investment in recycling, relying instead on federal subsidies for resource extraction. When the demand from East Asia ceased, recycling markets crashed. Also less and less newsprint is being used in papers. The decline in paper quantities and value has increased the cost of recycling programs.

Then we are confronted with the fact that long-term unemployment is debilitating to an individual, and many poachers are now unemployable. And we are making the problem worse. The closure of the NUMMI plant on Fremont added potentially 20,000 people to the pool of poachers from the loss of direct and indirect jobs. Poachers could have been shipyard workers, cannery workers, assembly-line workers. The Bay Area used to have many of those factories. And that directly affects us who are middle-class. If they were making those good wages they would be buying houses and keeping our home-equity values high. Instead we are fighting them for our garbage.

Once we view poaching as a symptom instead of a moral failing we can act on the solutions that are in front of us.

First: Poaching as a misdemeanor in Berkeley is self-defeating. The DA will not prosecute garbage theft, and the police will not make arrests. Make it an infraction and get the vehicles (the real problem) off the road.

Second: The largest class of exports from the Port of Oakland by volume and value is recyclables: our garbage. This is a decadent state of affairs. And by decadent I mean ourselves. Next to the Port of Oakland is a very large source of industrial grade water: East Bay MUD. East Bay MUD also has energy sources. Waste Paper + water + energy + land will give you a paper mill and that is at least 800 jobs. This is just paper, similar endeavors can be made with plastics, metals, textiles, glass, and ceramics. Given the natural advantages of Oakland, access to water, access to materials, access to a workforce, access to cheap energy, access to transportation, access to demand, the East Bay should be the West Coast’s version of the Ruhr. A “green” Ruhr. These factories will absorb the pool of poachers and create value in our community.

Local political leadership plus some seed money (local waste management agencies) plus loan guarantees (yes I mean earmarks) and real purchasing preferences by government can start to reindustrialize the East Bay. That will benefit all us.

Dave Williamson, Berkeley

Target the Centers

Why is it so hard to calculate the value of the materials that poachers take? They sell the stuff in recycling centers, and the centers certainly know how much they take in. So get the data from the centers.

Come to think of it, why are there still recycling centers for ordinary waste, anyway? Shouldn’t every can, every bottle, every re-sellable poachable thing be picked up by a city waste service instead of a poacher? Recycling centers have to have permits. Cities could shut down the market for poached materials by forbidding centers from taking it in.

All that stuff belongs to us. Recycling centers and the cities that license them shouldn’t be enabling the poaching.

Mike Bradley, Oakland

Cancel Buyback

If buyback has become so counterproductive, it should be cancelled. Receptacles could be left around for responsible volunteer collection of recyclable trash.

Another hidden cost is at the grocery store. Market carts are expensive. We probably pay for the stolen ones every time we shop for food. When I see one go by I resent the cost to all of us at the same time as I deplore a wealthy country like ours having no better solution to desperate poverty.

Ruth Bird, Berkeley

Don’t Wanna Dig

As a graduating Berkeley High School student, I am particularly worried about my job prospects in the future. I like Ben Bartlett‘s idea of a National Employment Initiative.  Maybe young people like me could help rebuild the country instead of digging for cans.

Frank Carter, Berkeley

Stop Complaining

Even the topic of who gets dirty old cans and bottles can benefit from a little history. In the mid-1970s, recycling was a badge of honor. There was no pickup so people did their own. Neighborhood and “ecology” (new word) groups rented vacant lots to collect bottles and cans, then used the proceeds to fund their programs. 

Government only became involved when commodity prices took off late in the decade.  Citizens were asked to separate their garbage into various bins. Some people objected: “Why do I have to rummage through my garbage?” Thus our modern practice of putting recyclables into one big bin so Mr. and Mrs. Prim wouldn’t have to get their hands dirty.  Now Waste Management does the sorting with big machines that cost $600,000, staffed by minimum-wage workers in danger of cutting themselves on sharp metal or broken glass as the materials whiz by. The whole process is expensive and both labor- and capital-intensive, thus the impetus to make it (finally) pay.

In Berkeley, you can still deliver your cans and bottles directly to the site and sort them yourself, bypassing the machines. I do. The point of requiring citizens to sort was so they’d start taking responsibility for their garbage. Those who complain about paying are the same people who would not do this before. Now they’re guarding their garbage as if it were the Kohinoor diamond.

To stop the theft, those complaining should organize a neighborhood patrol. Neighbors can take turns walking their blocks, especially at night, watching and listening. Pickup is only once a week, so it should be easy to get neighbors out on the night shift. That’s the least people can do to make sure garbage justice is done.

Steve Tabor, Oakland

Bourgeoisie Grumblings

Caitlin Esch’s article on Berkeley’s curbside program problems is mostly on the mark but with a few errors.

1. To speak of “catching those who steal what most people consider garbage” (page 16) is demeaning to the millions of people nationwide who every day manage their discarded materials so that those materials can return to the stream of commerce and not end up in a landfill or incinerator. If recyclables were in fact garbage, we could put them all in that black can and save ourselves a lot of trouble.

2. Your author fails to recognize that there are three reasons why people recycle: some for the moral virtue (recycling saves immense quantities of virgin resources, energy, landfill space, untrammeled environments, etc. — all scarce resources), some do it for the money (business people pay small amounts to collectors so they can sell the stuff to Fortune 500 companies and their worldwide trading partners for more money than they pay out), and some do it because it’s convenient. Long before Berkeley had curbside, it had drop-off (for the morally upright) but a lot of folks didn’t come; curbside collections were invented by the just to make recycling easy for the lazy.

3. Nobody is compelled to participate in a curbside program any more than anyone is compelled to go to the public library, to vote or do a lot of other useful things. Berkeley doesn’t even compel people to keep recyclables out of the garbage; cities push but they only push so hard.

4. When I was the chair of the Waste Reduction and Recycling Commission in Oakland in the early 1990s, I suggested we enfranchise the indigenous haulers of the flatlands as our city-sponsored collection team; I was laughed off the podium. “It would be demeaning to flatland residents to be served by a guy on a $500 pedi-truck instead of a $200,000 behemoth,” they said. I replied, “It works all over Asia, Africa, South America, but not here?” “No sale,” they said, “won’t fly.” We are now reaping the grumblings of a program for the bourgeoisie that doesn’t fit the society as more and more people recognize the growing value of some of our discards and are taking things into their own hands to put some bread on the table.

5. When Oakland started its curbside program in 1991, in the previous year, over $5 million had been paid out by existing buyback centers in Oakland under our then-new state bottle bill to collectors bringing in containers for a state fee (then) of one cent each. When the city got us residents to pay for curbside, we put big business with big trucks in competition with a private system that, despite its fraggedness, worked (more or less). To call these collectors thieves or shabby is offensive; it’s as bad or worse than telling Native Americans to move over because Europeans or Africans or folks from anyplace else are here to take over.

Arthur R. Boone, Center for Recycling Research, Berkeley

Misc Letters

Transportation a Fundamental Right

After reading all the comments and editorial opinions about bus-service cuts, one question keeps recurring: Has any qualified transportation expert ever attempted to identify which of our various travel options might be considered natural or fundamental rights and which are not?

Nature still does a remarkable job of equipping human beings with a pair of legs, but not with fins, flippers, wings, or wheels. A peek into the foreseeable future indicates nothing that might be considered a trend away from past practice.

From time to time somebody will take the state Department of Motor Vehicles to court, claiming that revocation of a drivers license constitutes a violation of one’s constitutional right to travel. In two cases California courts turned the plaintiffs down, ruling that a drivers license is not the equivalent of one’s fundamental right to travel. In a third case the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the state court’s denial for the same reason.

Streets, roads, and the Interstate Highway System are public works projects intended to benefit everyone. In the case of citizens who don’t drive, should that benefit be limited to the trickle-down effect of enhanced economic activity or should it be of a more transportation-related nature? Growth patterns after World War II and completion of the Interstate Highway System forced many to rely on motor vehicles in order to access much new development that was approved by local and county planning commissions and elected officials who apparently gave no thought to the needs of those who don’t drive. Is this forced dependence on automobiles an appropriate alternative benefit of public works road projects? Forcing anyone to rely on a mode of transportation so dangerous that it requires an insurance policy seems more like a violation of one’s right to life.

Why do we continue promoting smart growth with incentives, tax breaks, and other stimulants and subsidies? Let’s replace the New Urbanist rhetoric (“sustainability,” “creative class,” “world-class transit systems”) and other euphonious appellations with terms that relate more directly to the rights of those who cannot, should not, or choose not to drive — then just prohibit all development that is not at least as accessible and functional for non-drivers as it is for those who drive.

Art Weber, El Cerrito


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