The city of Davis boasts a plethora of environmental interest organizations, and it was dubbed the “Coolest California City” in 2013. Davis residents celebrate the Whole Earth Festival every spring, UC Davis students study environmental science, and residents recycle — a lot.
Forty years ago, Davis launched a curbside recycling program. It was one of the first in the nation, trailing only recycling efforts in Berkeley and Woodbury, N.J.
Davis’ historical interest in the environment has since blossomed to one of the most impressive efforts in the nation.
What is now a five-day a week recycling operation started with one man – Richard Gertman. In 1970, Gertman, a graduate student and self-proclaimed “mild activist,” was looking for a way to raise funds so the Geology Club at UCD could go on field trips.
Gertman’s solution was to start the Recycling Committee. Armed with eight boxes left behind by the Salvation Army, he set up newspaper collection bins near schools and grocery stores. He collected the donations and stashed the newspapers in his garage until a truckload could be taken to a recycling facility in Sacramento, where he was paid for the paper.
“We started the program as a fundraiser,” Gertman recalled, and it wasn’t until later that the group’s focus turned to keeping materials out of the landfill.
Collection expanded after Gertman met Barney and Margaret Hill, two local residents and UCD graduates. These three, along with a handful of other volunteers, formed the Recycling Committee.
The committee performed bi-monthly newspaper collections in a small, three-wheeled Cushman scooter with a box on the back. Davis Waste Removal provided the scooter, which sported 1 cubic yard of storage space. This required six to seven trips from neighborhoods to the collection area during each pickup period, along with frequent maintenance for the small scooter.
In 1972, the committee consolidated as a nonprofit under the name the Recycling Awareness Committee of Davis. Under this new title, the group expanded to collect aluminum cans and glass bottles. Twice a month, the group would open up a facility near Aggie Villa on First Street — the current home of the Aggie Village neighborhood — where residents could drop off cans and bottles. From there, the group transported the materials to recycling facilities in Oakland and other cities.
The next step was approaching the Davis City Council with the idea of curbside collection of recyclables.
“We convinced the City Council to ask Davis Waste Removal to take an easy step — collection,” Gertman said. “The cost of the program was integrated into garbage collection rates.”
In 1974, the council passed an ordinance requiring residents to separate newspapers from other waste products.
There were concerns, however.
“City Council thought only students would recycle and that the program would fall apart in the summer,” Gertman recalled. When summer arrived, however, more recyclables were collected than in earlier seasons, to his surprise.
Margaret Hill explained that although recycling was unprecedented in Davis, local residents took well to the new program.
“It was new and there was lots of enthusiasm,” she recalled.
The operation was not without a few challenges, however. Hill recalled placing a can collection bin next to a soda dispenser in Young Hall on campus.
“When students realized the aluminum cans had value,” she said, “there were never any in the collection bin.
“At least they were recycling them,” she joked.
In 1976, Davis Waste Removal took charge of all recycling operations, “with the blessing of the Recycling Awareness Committee,” as written in an article by Gertman.
The Recycling Awareness Committee’s efforts continued throughout the 1970s until the late ’80s when Gertman moved to San Jose to start a recycling program using Davis as an example.
Since then, the recycling program has expanded its operations, with the addition of cardboard collection in 1988 and the transition to the split-container system that is in place today.
Davis Waste Removal now dedicates eight vehicles to its recycling operation — four for residential areas, two for apartments and businesses, and two for cardboard collection.
John Geisler, manager of Davis Waste Removal, explained that the type of recyclables also has changed through the years.
“The stream of material has changed over time,” he explained. “The volume of paper is 40 percent less than 10 years ago.” He attributes the reduction to the fact that people get more of their news on the Internet now.
DWR has composted the city’s green waste for more than 20 years, but those efforts will be expanded as the city transitions to containers for green waste, which also will be used for food scrap collection.
Davis’ recycling efforts are nationally renowned, having received awards such as the California Resource Recovery Association Recycling Award in 2000 and the 2012 California Resource and Recovery Association Pavitra Crimmel Reuse Award.