Recycled office supplies, furniture fly off shelves at LA Shares

Teachers consult notes about needs, and call schools to check printer cartridge numbers. Printer cartridges are high-demand items for groups with tight budgets.
Teachers consult notes about needs, and call schools to check printer cartridge numbers. Printer cartridges are high-demand items for groups with tight budgets. Molly Peterson/KPCC

A waste-reduction program nurtured by the city of Los Angeles is gaining traction with environmentalists and people in search of gently used office furniture. KPCC's Molly Peterson has the story.

A few dozen women and men holding clipboards stand somewhat patiently before Bert Ball one sunny winter morning. He's the head of L.A. Shares. He calls these people his shoppers.

"We appreciate you coming, we appreciate you being trash collectors," he says, to scattered laughter. "You realize everything in this building if it hadn't come to us, it would have gone to the landfill."

The impatience in the air evokes post-Thanksgiving doorbuster sales. But this is a city-owned warehouse with peeling brown paint in Los Feliz.

La Shan Branham works with Ball. She checks invited shoppers off a list. They crane their necks for a look inside. "We’ll allow you to take as many shopping bags as you need. Come in and out of the warehouse, place your items any where in this lot. They'll be safe, don't worry. ‘Cause we share," she says, with a smile.

People from nonprofits and schools regularly line up here. One morning every few weeks, L.A. Shares invites them to “shop” for office supplies and other materials that companies donate. "You'll note that everything is tagged by the donors name, and has a limit. We ask you to please observe those. We call it ‘L.A. Shares,’ not ‘L.A. Pigs Out.’" Ball gets a real laugh this time.

Everything inside is free.

"Are you ready to shop?" Branham says. A whoop goes up. Marvin Redeemer, the third employee of L.A. Shares, reminds everyone to stay single file going into the building.

Inside the warehouse, the selection is dizzying, deep and diverse. Metal bookends. Reams of paper. Heavy duty hole punchers. Printer cartridges.

Teachers like Topeka Elementary School's Elise Zimmerman grab basics. And lists them: "Electric pencil sharpener, electric stapler, large envelopes, notepads, 2 glue sticks, 2 notepads, 2 CD labeling systems. Colored markers, pens pencils colored files and expandable folders."

Bert Ball began LA Shares as a pilot program in the city of LA's cultural affairs department. Through the economy's ups and downs, Ball says donors like Avery-Denison and Paramount Pictures have been generous. Smaller companies, too. "Times are good companies tend to buy more and change out their furniture. Times are bad they tend to close and give it away," he says. "So good times bad times we've a pretty steady flow."

LA Shares stands alone now as a nonprofit. In 19 years it's recycled 180-million dollars of goods. Lately, the flow of donated discards to the warehouse has picked up. Ball attributes that to the snowballing rate of business failures. "What we did in a month, we're doing in a week. What we did in a week, we're doing in a day," Ball says.

Green initiatives get credit too. A program called RenewLA aims to lead Los Angeles out of reliance on landfills by diverting and recycling as much waste as possible. It's the brainchild of Councilman Greig Smith. Smith's chief of staff, Mitchell Englander, says RenewLA sparked new interest in re-using goods. "It has and that was sort of our mission when we started on the zero waste concept and drafting RenewLA," Englander says. "We had a whole plan to change the paradigm and the way people think and what happens if you throw something away, what happens if you don't get the use out of it."

Ball wants to grow L.A. Shares. He plans to donate toiletries to women's shelters, and to solicit items from households, not just from companies. Budget cuts have brought city-run projects here. So has the threat of cuts to neighborhood councils.

Sue Devandry leans over a white board-easel combo she hopes to mount in the North Hills Granada neighborhood council meeting hall. "We have committees and they meet once a month. The city has meetings at our office. The AYSO has referee meetings. We're in Granada Hills north so we don't have any city owned facilities. So we had to get an office."

La Shan Branham says five times as many people as she’d expected arrived for a recent shopping day organized through Mayor Villaraigosa's office. "Oh, the one for the mayor was hell. 500 people, supposed to be like 100. This whole lot. Everyone in the city was here, people were piling in here. It was great though."

For big-ticket items, L.A. Shares uses a lottery system. A thousand registered groups can sign up online for a chance at credenzas and fax machines. The demand for chairs is enormous. Still, Brennan called to double-check one teacher's sizeable request.

"I wanted to make sure she could really use 150 chairs," she says. The teacher got Brannan to cry. "On the phone. And I'm tough. I don't cry. You don't realize, the chairs are so bad, when the kids sit on them they get splinters. She sent me pictures! She was not exaggerating."

Branham and Ball like that more groups who need L.A. Shares know about it. They say they're ready for more people to come through their doors.

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