Remembering Arcata Community Recycling Center’s Origin Story

by Maggie Gainer

Following Earth Day 1970, drop-off recycling programs run by volunteers sprung up in college towns all across the U.S. With the leadership of NEC’s first executive director, Wesley Chesbro, Arcata Community Recycling Center (ACRC) was started as one of NEC’s first and most prominent projects. It was positive and hands-on, something that the public could actively do.

Fast-forward a few years, I was hired by the NEC in late 1976 to direct ACRC. The NEC interview panel (including Wesley) knew that increasing public participation in recycling was crucial, and that was my strength. I started the job in early 1977 and was grateful to have a week of orientation and training with outgoing Executive Director, Karen Nardi. There was so much to learn about warehousing, processing materials according to buyer specifications, trucking regulations, local government, and increasing the commercial cardboard collection service for businesses. On Karen’s last day of training me, she urged me to convince the NEC board to allow ACRC to separately incorporate as its own 501(c )3 nonprofit. She had tried and failed. She explained that with the growth of recycling, the NEC’s decision-making structure could not keep up with ACRC’s needs for deciding the best systems, marketing the materials, hiring employees, financing, and large purchases of trucks and processing equipment. She said, “You’ll see what I mean when you give progress reports at their monthly board meetings.” Several months on the job and attending board meetings that went late into the night with political strategy debates, I was convinced Karen was right. 

One by one, I met with board members to present the ACRC perspective. It was bursting at the seams and needed a strong financial strategy and operational plan to provide services and prepare for growth. NEC’s initial hope was that the income from the sale of recyclables would help to support the NEC. But every dollar earned was needed to invest in recycling equipment, the facility, and personnel. This was also a time when Humboldt environmental activists were blacklisted from jobs and were personally harassed. It was hard to let go of the positive “mom and apple pie” reputation of recycling. I assured them that the NEC could forever take credit for starting ACRC; and that ACRC would always acknowledge the founding relationship with pride. The NEC board of directors finally agreed and appointed a committee of Susie Van Kirk, Bill Devall, and Pat Ferris to assist me in the legal requirements of ACRC’s incorporation.

I will always remember their encouragement and assistance in setting up by-laws, articles of incorporation, and getting all the legal forms filed with the State of California and the IRS. Bill Devall, in particular, had a clear vision that the recycling movement would become the recycling industry. Bill was an HSU Sociology professor and author of DEEP ECOLOGY. He explained that recycling was going to grow beyond what I could imagine at the time, and he wanted to make certain that environmental values would not be lost and would always be at the core of ACRC’s operations. To ensure this, we designed an organizational structure with overlapping boards of directors. A representative of the NEC would always be required to be a member of the ACRC board of directors, and an ACRC representative would always be on the NEC board. ACRC received its legal nonprofit organization status in 1978. Pat Ferris was ACRC’s first Board President and Susie served on the Board for several years.

Thank you, Bill Devall. In recent years, I have remembered Bill’s predictions and think about how they have become reality.  Core environmental values played an important part of the ACRC origin story and its services on the Redwood Coast for 40 years.