Recycling the Death Star

nullSure, haste makes waste, which in our routinely rushed lives seems inevitable. The question is what do you do with the waste if you’re environmentally conscious and want to keep your green badge of honor?

Petaluman Chris Sparks came upon the answer when contemplating his need for green, albeit a different kind of green.

“I wanted to do something to make my truck payment,” says the jovial Sparks with a laugh. He’s a rangy Northern California native who looks like he should be barbecuing abalone and tossing a Frisbee to his dog, Nash. He is also the founder and CEO of EcoHaul, a rapidly growing Petaluma company that specializes in green-minded ways of removing, recycling and reusing material hauled from residential and commercial clients.

EcoHaul jobs run the gamut from clearing the detritus left after a kitchen remodel to helping corporate clients who may discover they have a surfeit of office chairs in need of removal. Each gig, of course, yields material that can find a second life in the hands of recycle centers and nonprofits, to which Sparks’ company sifts, sorts and delivers the stuff.

“I’ve always been environmentally conscious and always recycled,” says Sparks, whose commitment to environmental issues solidified in his late teens when he worked with the California Conservation Corps. He later spent time in the wilds of Alaska before becoming an emergency medical technician. In his early 30s, however, Sparks was interested in harmonizing his environmental ethos with his work ethic.

“That was my quandary my entire life — making enough money to get by but also doing what I think is right,” Sparks says. “I wouldn’t do this at all if I was just a hauler. If that’s all there was behind it, I wouldn’t be involved or enthused. I don’t think that the opportunities to do something with the community or working with the kind of customers I have would have come up had I taken a different tack and not imbued the business with my environmental concerns.”

Sparks launched EcoHaul in July. Since then, the business has grown quickly, nurtured by a community of like-minded clients who embrace ecologically sound ways of addressing their disposal needs. Sparks, of course, is happy to see the venture blossom but is also interested in serving the needs of his community.

“I’m driven as an entrepreneur to get this off the ground, but what propels me along is knowing that when I haul a load of stuff away that I’m sorting and sifting through it and getting it where it needs to go,” Sparks says. “We use facilities around the Bay Area that I think are underutilized. Most haulers are not recycling nearly as much as they could be. The goal is to divert, recycle and reuse as much as possible. Any organization that can step up to the plate and fulfill what I feel is an obligation to do that is on the right track to making the world a better place.”

Late last year, Sparks was joined by partner Morgan Guberman, with whom he was acquainted from the Bay Area experimental music scene (they are both musicians).

“In talking with Chris, I said ‘Hey, man, this is amazing what you’re doing — the concept, the idea, the name,’ ” recalls Guberman, who brings with him a landscaping and sales background as well as much of the company’s sizable East Bay clientele. Guberman also brings, as Sparks exclaims, “a truck! ” which they have nicknamed after a character in Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian.” The nickname, naturally, is not suitable for printing in a family newspaper.

Together, the two have versed themselves in all the laws and provisions that dictate where and how materials should be parsed in the counties they serve. They are also familiar with the various tax incentives available to their customers when distributing the recovered materials to nonprofits.

EcoHaul’s customer base is as varied as the population of the Bay Area, their principle territory. Sparks and Guberman have worked with everyone from welfare moms to movie moguls.

“It’s a full range of people. It’s the construction crew leader, the stay- at-home mom, the hoarder of 50 years whose wife finally gets sick of it and finally says ‘This room is going!’ ” says Guberman.”What ties all of them together is that there is this part of them that gravitates toward our concept. We’re here to make use of what you have. It’s not junk — it’s items and stuff that’s valuable in the eyes of so many people that are less fortunate.”

Guberman is quick to point out that they don’t simply dump goods in the parking lots of charities and call it a day. They work directly with organizations that track the specific needs of people in the community and deliver those things as they come to them.

“There are organizations that we deal with that take that stuff and put it directly in the hands of families that they know need the stuff. That’s a big thing,” Guberman says.

Another big thing occurred when a LucasFilm staffer in need of a warehouse clear-out located the company via their Web site. The Marin County movie juggernaut had a 10,000-square-foot storage facility it needed emptied and went with EcoHaul, in part, because of its ability to disseminate the material to nonprofits.

“LucasFilm has always been into recycling, but there were few options to get rid of the material that was in this warehouse — specifically toys, textiles — some of it was unimaginable. We’re talking 27,000 square feet of shelf space and an enormous amount of material that could be used by kids around the world,” says Sparks, still impressed by the size of the effort. “The proposal that we gave LucasFilm was a solution that the other haulers that bid on this job were unable to do. They were going to haul it away as waste and dump it two blocks down the street.”

Sparks and Guberman set upon finding a way to distribute the material, much of it products and ephemera from director George Lucas’ movie oeuvre, which includes the “Star Wars” franchise.

“Nobody was really thinking creatively about what could be done with this stuff. It was overwhelming, really. You walk into this warehouse and look at 10,000 square feet of toys and T-shirts and stuff and think ‘Oh my god, how could I possibly distribute all this stuff and get it into the hands of kids and people who could use it?’ ” Sparks says. “We brought in nonprofits that had the equipment, the connections and personnel to pool their labor into the job and to help apportion the material. We finished the job in four days — 700 cubic yards of stuff, which is enormous.”

Partners on the job included such local nonprofits as Garbage Reincarnation Inc. in Santa Rosa; East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse in Oakland; Toy Go Round in Albany; and Books for the Barrios in Concord. EcoHaul’s business mentor, Scott Wagner, assisted in locating the various groups.

“This is the biggest job by far,” Guberman says. “We knew it was a huge undertaking, but we knew that we could do it. It was wonderful that they wanted to hire us based on our principles. That means something.

“One of the nonprofits was able to facilitate the transportation of clothing, bedding, baseball hats, T-shirts, books and toys to Indonesia for tsunami relief as well as to Kabul, Afghanistan.”

Sparks and Guberman were proud to have a hand in the efforts.

“We personally filled storage containers that were going to those areas,” Guberman recalls. “That was an amazing feeling.”

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Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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