That’s what Dan Knapp, 71, did when he founded Urban Ore, a waste recovery business in Berkeley, California in 1980 with his wife Mary Lou Van Deventer. Is there any money to be founded in waste? Last year the couple reaped in $2.7 million in sales.
“We went to a dump and I was appalled by what I saw,” says Knapp. As a college instructor in Springfield, Illinois he purchased an old six-wheeled farm truck and helped students collect salvageable material lying about town.
“We were picking up anything. While at the dump I realized that there’s a business opportunity here.” That realization has now become a reality in the form of a three-acre lot in West Berkeley, which diverts 8,000 tons of waste from landfills or incinerators each year and is made up of 38 full-time employees. In hindsight of the Zero Waste philosophy, Urban Ore buys back and sells almost anything they can get their hands on, including materials like old toilets, windows, and doors as well as common thrift store finds like clothes, furniture, and lamps.
“Most of what we sell would have ended up in a landfill,” says Knapp. Only 3 employees recover two to six tons of material from the Berkeley transfer station each day. You do the math and that’s 800 tons of trash a year being recycled. Since most of the company’s items actually come from local residents, Urban Ore has come to be known as a community effort.
Knapp is confident that with time, the city of Berkeley will rack a whopping 90 percent waste diversion rate and that’s not all, literally ANY city has the ability to accomplish this. A profitable business that feeds off the discarded, reduces substantial waste and proves that there really is treasure in trash makes Knapp convinced that he is “On the right side of history.”
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