Concord/Pleasant Hill Recycling Center keeps recyclables out of
landfill to be repurposed as new items
By Lou Fancher
Faced with 800-pound bales of squashed aluminum cans, industrial-sized Dumpsters full of tubas and trombones, nearly 30 tons of glass, a 45,000-pound load of copper, a mountain range of cardboard and more, Mike Jennings knows exactly what to do: recycle.
Officially in the business for 35 years, the 55-year-old vice president and general manager of the Concord/Pleasant Hill Recycling Center on Galaxy Way got an early start as a kid.
Jennings tossed his 25-bucks-a-week paper route when he discovered the cash value in old car motors and electronics. While still a teenager, he upped his income a hundredfold by selling metals and other recyclables.
"I found out I could get paid for beating and tearing something apart. What 12-year-old wouldn't love that?" he asks.
Preparing to lead a tour of the 11,000 and 27,000-foot warehouses owned by Harry Luan, a Pleasant Hill resident and Chinese immigrant who earned a degree in oceanography from Oregon State University and found solid financial ground recycling paper, Jennings says, "I want folks to know what it takes to keep this rock turning."
It's hardly a rock: the operation is more like a boulder -- big, loud and impressive when in motion.
Each week, 45 bales of cans arrive: 29.6 cans equal one pound; 800 pounds per bale. In the company's main warehouse, that means just over 1 million cans form an impressive wall that's only diminished by the cacophony of 8 tons of glass, riding up a nearby conveyor belt and being crushed.
The glare from sunlight bouncing off hundreds of ruined vehicle rims and a big-box store's worth of televisions, computer monitors, film projectors and cell phones, competes for attention.
Across Galaxy Way in a second warehouse, cardboard, paper, gigantic balls of wire, MRP (miscellaneous rigid plastic) and construction materials form an eerie landscape under harsh florescent lighting.
Anne Baker, recycling coordinator for Republic Services, says business at the Concord location is likely to increase. A major recycling center operated by Waste Management at 480 Lawrence Way in Walnut Creek since 1996 is closing Sept. 28, after Republic won a multimillion dollar waste removal contract from the Central Contra Costa County Solid Waste Authority.
"We'll be a customer here, too," Baker says.
The company accepts nearly everything imaginable: aluminum cans and window and door frames, glass, refrigerators ($15 is charged to remove the refrigerant), yellow brass musical instruments, sheet metal, roofing materials, cardboard, paper, magazines, newspapers, electrical motors, radiators, plastics, copper and more.
"(But) we don't take concrete, wood, chemicals or liquids," Jennings says. He would like to accept carpeting and textiles, but doesn't have room for storing them.
He passes along plastic garbage bags, but makes no money from it.
A history buff, he likes to tell visitors about scrap metal drives during World War II, when copper pennies were temporarily made of zinc and tin-lined toothpaste tubes were turned in by citizens supporting the war effort.
"We should go back to paper bags: we can recycle them like this," he says, snapping his fingers.
White paper, he explains, can be made into new white paper; cardboard, into lower grade cardboard or toilet paper; cans, into carpet fibers; and plastic and metals, as long as they are separated by type and grade, can be melted down and used to make new, similar-to-the-original goods.
Even the enormous sorting platform is repurposed: built by Jennings and company employees with scrap metal, he estimates the cost was $60,000, compared to a $300,000 commercial machine.
Jennings says there's money to be had for customers, too.
Typical bottles and cans receive the standard cash CRV buyback, but anything valued at over $61 is paid by check.
To avoid accepting stolen goods, customers are photographed with their recyclables. A name and address is taken and a valid state-issued I.D. is required.
Fingerprinted and asked if they have the right to sell the materials, Jennings says payment is withheld for three days and records are kept for more than three years.
"We can't be foolproof, but we can come close," he promises. Concord resident Georgia Marshall took the tour to learn about recycling.
"I didn't really know much," she admits, "but I do know that people should take responsibility because we're running out of space."
Edward Putzlacher and his 10-year-old son, Tyler, drove from San Ramon. Putzlacher says his son has been fascinated with garbage trucks and recycling as long as he can remember.
Tyler, taking in the baler, crusher and shipping containers full of everything -- including kitchen sinks -- was in his element, as Jennings has long been.
"All of this," Jennings says, proudly waving his arms to indicate the mass of materials, "is just three weeks of collection and would be landfill, if we didn't recycle."