Welcome back to the The Planet You Save May Be Your Own, a weekly newsletter about local climate change stories. I’m Taylor Kate Brown and today we’re going to a place where “one person’s trash is another’s treasure” is quite literal.
On my way to Urban Ore, a salvage and reuse store in Berkeley, a well-timed joke pulled in front of me on the highway: a box truck full of old lamps, metal and what appeared to be a vertical washer-dryer combo. A wood plank across the back of the truck kept the items from falling off. Was the truck on its way to the dump? Where would these items go?
I came across Urban Ore after Jamie Facciola, aka Furniture Cycle, shared one of their posts on Instagram. I’m fascinated by the gap between the vast quantities of stuff – new and old – that get thrown out and how many people can’t afford the same items. Salvage, thrift reuse, antiques, tag sales and consignment stores are all different ways of trying to even out both sides of this scale.
Urban Ore is an all-of-the-above version, and I wanted to see how their particular model works and how their business has changed just in the past two years.
(Reuse was also the subject of last month’s newsletter for paying subscribers. You can sign up here to get the next Resource of the Month email).
Max Wechsler, operations manager at Urban Ore, showed me around the 30,000 square foot warehouse that holds their retail store and receiving department.
Urban Ore is a for-profit, but the majority of what they sell comes from people who donate their goods instead of bringing to it the transfer station (where they’re likely to pay a fee to get rid of it). Even as someone who’s seen the inside of many a thrift or consignment store, as well as a literal dump, this was a new experience.
In the front of the store, Max points out their antiques, rare jewelry, books and records sections.
“We may have the best selection of VHS in the Bay Area,” he quips, pointing towards a wall of tapes at one end of the retail shop. Across the aisle there’s a few dozen sound systems, stacked on top of each other. In another corner, there’s a collection of skis. Apparently it’s the best time of year for them to sell.
Then we walk through a section full of furniture, lighting fixtures, rugs and hardware. For a brief moment it feels like I’m in a bizarro Home Depot. “Pretty much anything you think we can sell for reuse or recycling we’ll take, “ Max says. “Which makes us different from most retail reuse operations which have a niche. Our niche is everything.”
At the far end of a row of doors – there’s about 2000 of them — we go through a gate to the receiving department, with an opening to an alleyway. A man with a dark blue Tesla is pulling boxes out his trunk and onto Urban Ore’s dock.
Most items get an initial sort here, Max says, and then are passed onto staff members who sort them further: Fred is currently working on hardware. There’s a clear organizational structure, but the receiving department is absolutely packed with items. Max says they try to price items so they turnover quickly. They’ll need it: he estimates about 50-100 people drop off items every day.
The store also salvages about three tons per day from Berkeley’s transfer station, aka the dump. Staff members rescue items that would otherwise go to a landfill, to resell or to break down into scrap that can be recycled elsewhere.
“What are you pulling out?” I ask. “I mean, it can’t be literal trash – although I guess everything is technically trash at the dump.”
I’ve clearly said the magic word: “No, no, no.” Max says. “Not everything at the dump is trash. We say waste isn’t waste until it’s wasted. In other words, waste is a verb.”
We’ve left the receiving department now and are walking back toward the cash register, there’s more doors and handicap equipment and signs all around us.
“These are resources…People just throw out perfectly good stuff. And we just get the tip of the tip of the iceberg and try to do what we can… and help folks save a lot of money.”
We walk out to the parking lot. It’s full and busy with cars coming and going, even though it’s the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday. So who are Urban Ore’s customers?
“It’s really a cross section of the Bay Area,” Max says: artists, teachers, do-it-yourselfers, contractors. Anyone looking for a good deal or just the experience of digging around for unexpected treasure. “From students to an unhoused population just a football field away, to millionaires in the [East Bay] hills. They all come here.”
Urban Ore had a good 2021, and Max thinks there’s a couple things in play. Job losses and rising costs means more people are looking for affordable goods. Meanwhile, people stuck at home cleaned out their houses, started on new hobbies or home renovation projects. Offices and businesses closed down without any obvious place to sell their furniture or extra inventory. After about a decade of making about $2.5 million a year, Urban Ore’s gross revenue jumped about $3-$3.5 million in 2021, and is on track for a similar amount in 2022 so far.
There’s also a shift in the perception of used goods. “It’s a lot cooler than it used to be,” Max says. “A lot of the stuff that’s used is a lot better quality… You know, we say affordable, or inexpensive as, as opposed to cheap, because cheap implies poor quality.”
Urban Ore’s audience has expanded in part because of their use of social media. Last month they received 13 Herman Miller knockoff office chairs. They put them on Instagram and sold all within two days. The store allows for people to make purchases over the phone as well.
It makes sense — if Urban Ore’s niche is everything, then it receives all kinds of items — and often needs to find the right buyer for the right item.
“It’s a matter of distribution, it’s not a matter of stuff,” Max says. “There’s enough stuff. There’s more than enough stuff.”
Outside, there’s plenty of items ready for a do-it-yourselver or contractor to sweep up. We stop to talk outside a literal pile of bricks, then walk around the warehouse until we arrive at a locked gate. Inside, among other things, are solar panels.
Urban Ore started rescuing them from the transfer station in 2017 – the panels general have been removed from roofs, but some are only 10 years old and still work. They’ve sold 800 of them, including shipping two containers to a village in Senegal. Right now, there’s no established infrastructure to handle and recycle with solar panel waste – even as the market faces exponential growth.
There’s also a name-your-price last chance section before Urban Ore returns it to the dump – which they estimate happens to about 1% of all the items they handle. It’s a necessary risk, Max says. “If we’re not sending anything back to landfill, then we’re not taking in enough stuff.”
Before I head out, there’s one more place inside Urban Ore we have to go. Max leads us up some old wooden stairs to a lofted mezzanine space that looks out over the store. It’s giant — and mostly empty. He explains that once the stairs and elevators are brought up to code, they’d like to rent out the space to businesses that would extend the idea of an “ecosystem of reuse” – electronic repair, furniture reupholster, fix-it person.
“Folks who take our stuff on the cheap and do what they do best with it.”
As we look out over Urban Ore’s store, the full scope of it is overwhelming, especially knowing these items only represent one part of one region’s contribution to what we all throw away. What is it like to work at a place where you’re confronted with how much people throw out every day, I ask?
“I think we’re pretty sick as a country with all the shit that we consume,” Max says. “And you really get to experience that firsthand here. It’s just incredible stuff people are willing to give us [for free].”
Large waste management companies, Max says, aren’t particularly interested in what’s going into the landfill – their business model depends on volume.
“Again, it’s just a matter of distribution and redistribution of stuff.”
I asked on social media (this newsletter has an Instagram) and regular readers of this newsletter for their favorite reuse stores in their neck of the woods. Here’s what they said
Richmond,VA: Stylish home decor friend Door Williams (I’ve been to their house! can confirm!) says their some of their favorites are Brick Alley Co and Commodity Fetish. There’s also a ReStore near Richmond, one of dozens run by Habitat for Humanity across the country.
Central Pennsylvania: Reader Gretchen Camp suggests The Tatted Toy Guys for all your nostalgic toy needs.
Washington, DC: Community Forklift got multiple recommendations from my District folks.
Very upstate New York: An anonymous reader suggests Classy Collectibles in Canton, NY: “An oddly shaped warehouse space with booths from lots of vendors”
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