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Feb 07th
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Grey & Green

coverweb2Our curious reporter heads behind the scenes of the California Grey Bears and uncovers a surprisingly inventive recycling program

There are win-win scenarios, and win-win-win scenarios, and then there are scenarios that have so many advantageous angles you lose count of the wins. “Seniors Helping Seniors” is the motto of the California Grey Bears, and they live up to it with the kind of efficiency and positive reputation that many other volunteer organizations would kill to achieve.

In a nutshell, the Grey Bears is a multi-faceted organization that coordinates various recycling operations that fund a program that distributes weekly bags of fresh food to thousands of county seniors. Most of the work is done by an army of 500 or so volunteers that can choose from a wide variety of activities to suit their needs, interests and experience. There is also a small paid staff, because you don’t live to be a senior without learning it’s worth paying somebody else to go to meetings.

The organization began in 1973 as an effort to get surplus garden produce to people who needed it. And though they have grown into a more diversified $1.4 million operation since then, the basic premise of generating value from cover_wharehousewaste has remained constant. For starters, they generate a good chunk of their income managing the recycling center at the Buena Vista landfill as well as the one at their main compound near Dominican Hospital (several volunteers made cracks about the location, including a woman who noted that her dialysis hoses nearly reach to the hospital, and another who said the ambulance rides are half price).

cover_wharehouseGO BEARS! Volunteers in the California Grey Bears lair work hard at creating food bags for those in need.

In the recycling biz, the more items are separated the more they’re worth. It wouldn’t be cost effective to pay somebody to make sure glass is sorted by color, but volunteer labor makes it practical, and so they get top dollar for the goods. The same principle applies to their impressive electronics-recycling program. E-waste companies will pay a certain amount per pound for, say, whole computers, but they’ll pay more when computers have been stripped down and separated into circuit boards, wires, hard drives, and power supplies. Again, there’s a volunteer job for everybody, and if sitting around shooting the breeze while stripping electronics to their bones sounds not only fun but also helpful in delaying the inevitable rise of the sentient machines, there’s your niche right there.

Even better, they are able to take good parts from broken computers and Frankenstein together perfectly good ones, which are sold cheap on site. Really cheap. They’ve even put together a whole computer lab where members can take classes. All this from the constant stream of e-waste being dropped off every day. Win, win, win.

Yet another efficient monetization of the consumer waste stream happens via the popular thrift store. To check that operation out I took my friend Laurence, whose natural scavenging talents draw glances of admiration not only from other shoppers, but also from packrats, raccoons, and seagulls. It was good that I took him, because otherwise I may not have noticed that the thrift store is actually spread through several buildings that aren’t always clearly marked.
Personally, I get more satisfaction from getting rid of things than accumulating them, so while Laurence tried on a few vests and hats from the ’50s and checked the undersides of desk drawers for secret caches of cash, I went to the thrift store receiving area, which had a mountain of stuff waiting to be sorted and priced. I got to ask a question that’s been on my mind for years: how often does somebody inadvertently drop off something truly valuable? Are there diamonds in the rough? There must be the occasional Picasso sketch, or Super Bowl ring, or a souvenir ashtray from one of Captain Cook’s voyages, right?

I asked three different people. They all said it happens pretty much never. That’s either sad or they just don’t trust me with the truth, and I’m going to assume it’s the latter. The hardest part of the job isn’t pricing a serving tray with a photo of John Denver on it, they said, it’s turning away people trying to drop off items that are basically worthless or even disgusting, like mildewy clothes, chipped plates, and certain kinds of home medical equipment that I didn’t know about, and didn’t want to. Now I’m having bad dreams.
cover_cornThe Grey Bears get regular drops from large retailers like Costco, who donate returned or damaged items. Occasionally, entire estates are signed over. Basically, they never know what’s going to appear on a given day, but most everything is either broken down as profitable waste or resold with their imperfections intact. Working the drop-off job would presumably appeal to the kind of volunteer who’s excited by phrases like “mystery box” or “grab bag.”

After seeing all these programs in operation, I started to envision myself as a useful volunteer—once I can afford to retire at 90. This would have to replace my previous plan for old age, which was to basically to cut loose and work my way through the seven deadly sins as if they were a to-do list.  Doing volunteer work would mean laboring among people who aren’t bitching about their jobs all the time, which would be a refreshing change. As role models, my parents volunteer, which is great for me because it keeps them active and slows the steady drain on my inheritance.
All the aforementioned money-making programs are in place to provide volunteer opportunities and support the core mission of the Grey Bears, which is the brown bag program. To see the weekly culmination of this effort I got up early on a very cold Friday morning and headed to an unheated former chicken coop where a fast-paced assembly line was already in motion. On one end of a long row of tables, volunteers whipped open full size brown grocery bags with a practiced flip of the wrists. At the other, full bags of food were stapled shut. In between were the packers, amiably chatting in a variety of languages while filling the bags with items from boxes and crates that were replenished by large men reaching over their heads like human cranes. A nearby white board listed that week’s items, which were mostly fresh produce, though a few cans made their way in as well. A newsletter with nutritional advice and recipes was the last thing to go in. Filled bags were whisked away to volunteer delivery drivers by yet another group who arrived too late to get a coveted packing job. All told, 90 or so volunteers packed or drove off with 1,350 bags in a matter of hours, and they do even more on Thursdays. Every week, more than 3,500 bags of surplus food is delivered, funded by recycling. Can’t get greener than that.

Outside, 27 drivers lined up in their rag-tag fleet of vehicles, ready to fan out across the county. As I talked to somebody in an ancient Volvo, I watched a Prius get stuffed to the roof, the fat packages pressing against the glass and cover_pielooking like 37 airbags had gone off. A volunteer named Randy stood by with a clipboard, checking the vehicles in as they arrived. He expressed his admiration for the drivers, a sentiment I heard over and over. Many of them had regular routes and got to know the folks they were delivering to, and could bring them requested items or little extras, like surplus baked items such as cakes, for special occasions. They might stay and chat for a little while, or even help with the occasional repair or chore. About half of the bags are delivered to home-bound seniors who appreciate not only the food but the visit. Membership in the program costs only $20 a year, and the only other requirement is to be 55 or older.
Brown Bag Program Director Mike Phinn is responsible for not only coordinating 4,000 volunteer hours per month, but also acquiring and staging the food in time for the bagging operation. He works with the drivers to figure out what kinds of produce are popular, and knows many seniors just aren’t that interested in unfamiliar foods. Out in the storeroom, he showed me hundreds of pounds of portabella mushrooms he was hoping to get to another food for distribution to people who would actually eat them.

Most of the food is gleaned or surplussed from growers, supermarket chains, and some local businesses, including bakeries, reducing the amount of food waste our culture is so infamous for. Excess or spoiled produce goes into large composters or worm bins out back, which create garden compost for sale.
Of course, just because food is donated doesn’t mean it’s going to be delivered to the door. Mike maintains a fleet of vehicles for gathering it all, and it’s one of the places where the Grey Bears is groaning under infrastructure limitations. There’s a big flatbed truck that can be used to go to the Salinas valley to pick up greens in the summer, but that long drive back in the heat would wilt the produce. Refrigerated trucks are high on the wish list, as is an expanded refrigerated warehouse and flooring designed for forklifts, not chickens. Overall, the compound isn’t much on looks. The property was purchased lot by lot over the course of years, and generally speaking they made do with whatever buildings were there. A major donor could feel pretty good about himself by razing most of the buildings and constructing a facility that suits their needs better. If you are a major donor type, I hereby waive my finder’s fee. Naming the building after me is all the thanks I need. If you’re a minor donor, guess what, they can make good use of your money, too.

Until you become a senior yourself, you may fall into the very American mindset of forgetting that seniors aren’t born that way. I know I have. But they aren’t a different race, they are you and me and anybody lucky to live long enough to gain the title, and when we get there some of us will be thankful for the kinds of senior services available to provide a little help, and others will be glad for having something valuable to contribute. The volunteers I spokecover_truck2 to were enjoying what they were doing, and their appreciation for the Grey Bears organization was infectious. They were also full of jokes about aging, my favorite being a man who claimed he was so old he didn’t even risk buying green bananas. Thaddump-bump.
On my way out of the compound I peeked into the paper-rolling room, where newspapers are unfolded and laid flat in piles before getting rolled into thick tubes for sale to anyone with a need for cheap paper, such as florists, fish peddlers, art studios, and shipping departments. There were a couple of old guys in there doing exactly what I would end up doing if I had that job: reading. It probably takes a long time to read and roll 25 pounds of newspaper, but somebody’s gotta do it. In another hour they would be able to partake in the free daily lunches for volunteers and staff cranked out by the on-site industrial kitchen, and sit with friends and share what they learned.

For more information about the California Grey Bears, go to

Comments (1)Add Comment
Slick operation
written by Nancy Lynn Jarvis, March 30, 2011
I did my first run as a volunteer bag deliverer last Thursday ( yes, during the storm.) The operation is truly something you have to see to believe. It was cold, wet, windy, and at the beginning of the pickup, still dark outside post Daylight Savings. Didn't matter. Everyone seemed to know exactly where to be and what to do. There was plenty of friendly banter, but no dawdling to chat and most volunteers were smiling. What an amazing group.

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