The expansive, $3.5 million we see today is, in a word, astonishing to those who were there 40 years ago when it began.
Not what founders had in mind
Now white-haired, Ken Little told an audience Thursday night that the "high-tech, state-of-the-art facility" is not only far more "grandiose" than what he and the other co-founders ever envisioned. It also was not their goal.
"This is amazing to me," Little told a gathering of about 50 people at a program on the history of the center sponsored by the and the City of El Cerrito. The event was held outdoors in the arc of recycling bins of the recently rebuilt facility, which .
"I have to say, 'Wow,'" said Little, who now lives in Concord. "... But it was not what we had in mind. In fact, this was not even the goal. It may surprise some of you, but it grew so fast the goals kept changing."
Little, then a student at Cal, said the small group that started it was focused on broader themes of diversity, community involvement and protecting the environment.
"There were so many things that were wrong that had to be dealt with, and we knew we couldn't do everything, but we thought we could do something. So what we thought we could do was not necessarily start a recycling center – there were people recycling already."
"The idea was to teach people to be conscious of their environment, to be aware of what's going on, to have some caring concern for what happens around us – at a lot of levels," he said. "We started with the idea of recycling."
Warning of El Cerrito being another Berkeley
Dave Weinstein, vice president of the Historical Society, helped set the historical context, noting that 1972 was a time of turmoil. "The Vietnam war is going on, and there's a lot or ruckus, hippies and all that kind of stuff," he said.
He cited a news article from the time that was headlined, "Is El Cerrito Becoming Another Berkeley?"
The article quoted an Albany city councilman saying, "El Cerrito is being taken over by radicals under the guise of ecology. What both cities (El Cerrito and Berkeley) are really trying to do is wreck the free enterprise system."
City Council didn't believe it would succeed
The group went to the El Cerrito City Council to ask to borrow a couple hundred dollars and a small spot of land on Schmidt Lane at the foot of an abandoned rock quarry.
Rich Bartke, president of the Historical Society, was on the council at the time.
"I remember that very distinctly," he told the audience. "We said it's never going to work."
But since the group wasn't asking for much, the council agreed to the loan and to letting the group use a spot of land, Bartke said.
The first day – four barrels, heavy rain
So the group secured four steel barrels, and Little donated two sledgehammers that he'd kept from his earlier days as a "gandy dancer," a railroad worker who lays track.
They held their first day of operation on Aug. 5, 1972, with just Little and another volunteer, Chris Devlin, on a small, muddy corner of the property where the current Recycling Center is located at 7501 Schmidt Lane. They accepted only bottles and aluminum cans.
"It was pouring down rain," Little recalled. "... And people would drive up, and they would just roll down the window and sort of stick the bag out."
The group called itself "E.C.ology," a name that Little came up with to link El Cerrito and ecology, and their little recycling enterprise quickly grew in popularity, paying back the city loan easily and winning federal funding that allowed a significant expansion. The city took over operation of the facility in 1977.
"We never thought it would come to all of this," Little said. "It's just way too much for us to even dream about."
But more important, he said, was demonstrating "the concept that we can all help each other, that we can help society, that we the people can actually govern ourselves. ... This was an experiment in government, if you will. This is the way America was designed to be."
Little and the other speakers referred to many other people who played significant roles in the beginning. One was Allan Gardner of Kensington, who also spoke briefly at the meeting. He designed and built a motorized glass-crusher for the early center that was memorable for the loud noise it generated.
A detailed account of the facility's origin and growth can be found in a history of the Recycling Center written by Weinstein, "Where Recycling is a Pleasure."
A had been scheduled to be shown at the Thursday night meeting, according to , but Weinstein told the audience that a screening of the film has been delayed until sometime in August.
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