Free monthly compost giveaway draws Berkeley residents for ‘black gold’ rush

Alvin Wu/Staff

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Early Saturday morning, docked boats floated calmly on still waters at the Berkeley Marina, while across the street, men, women and children of all ages quickly shoveled huge piles of what they call “black gold” into their pickup trucks — or U-Hauls for the more seasoned shovelers.

The compost giveaway comes when the clock strikes 6:30 a.m. and the calendar marks the last Saturday of any month between February and October, except for July, when it is held on the third Saturday to avoid conflicting with the Berkeley Kite Festival.

“It’s nice to get back something from all the crap you put out,” said Shaon Barman as he lined his car’s trunk with plastic. Barman said he cared more about the raw material than the vehicle.

Hundreds like him come to take part in this community event, which is organized by the Department of Parks, Recreation and Waterfront, free and open exclusively to Berkeley residents with photo identification.

“The reason it’s only open to Berkeley residents is because it’s their waste,” said Safiya Lewis, one of two staff members running the event. “This comes from their recycling bins, their food scraps and things like that, and so we give back to the Berkeley residents.”

The event gives residents back what they’ve thrown away but in much better shape. The green waste produced by city residents and commercial businesses is amassed at a transfer station on Gilman Street and then taken to a compost processor about 65 miles away in Vernalis, California.

About 5 percent of the compost generated by the city comes back in finished compost form. Residents can then use this free compost for gardening or landscaping.

“This is not a common service, but Berkeley has wanted to encourage compost application to reduce water and herbicide use,” said Andrew Schneider, Berkeley’s recycling program manager, in an email.

According to Schneider, the finished compost comes back to the city for free. The event is run on a first-come, first-served basis, and partakers need to provide their own means of loading the compost. Most use shovels, buckets and their cars for transportation.

Alonzo Chess, a landscape gardener supervisor who oversees the distribution of the compost, has been helping residents for the past 20 years with their compost and recalls when the piles were much smaller than today’s supply, which has grown to about 100 cubic yards.

“We’re excited out here. It gets pretty amped up. Territorial is a good word because we call it black gold,” Chess said as he directed a flood of vehicle traffic containing Berkeley residents wanting to stake their claim. “People compete for it, but it’s a lot of fun.”

This specific service, now in its 15th year, provides the compost to not only residents but also city schools and community gardens. Those who are environmentally conscious can also use the material for organic gardening.

John Mann, manager of the waterfront division, said that the compost is usually gone by the end of each Saturday and that any leftovers are usually gone within a few days.

“Hopefully this will take care of most of the people in Berkeley,” Mann said. “We’re happy to provide the service.”

Contact Brennan MacLean at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @brennan_mac.