The Only Thing Recycle for Change Changed...is its Name
It took three years, but the Oakland City Council, on October 20, 2015, finally approved an ordinance regulating unattended donation/collection bins. Two weeks later to prevent its implementation, Recycle for Change filed a federal lawsuit requesting an injunction based on free speech grounds.
Our just-updated "Solution in the Works" web page already documents what it took to get an ordinance on the books. Today's blog will instead, mostly focus on the plaintiff, the lawsuit and some possible scenarios.
When the plaintiff changed its name in 2014, I began referring to them as "Recycle for Change (nee Campus California)". I've since decided that "AKA" is far more appropriate since the use of aliases is how one typically designates individuals who are motivated to hide their previous identities.
What are they hiding? Not much other than the fact that they are part and parcel of an international cult called the "Teachers Group" whose founder is wanted by Interpol. In addition, Recycle for Change's claims to be a legitimate charitable institution are as tenuous as relying on the IRS to practice due diligence when rating charities.
Here's a chronology:
- They began life in 2000 as Campus California TG and their collection bins sported a large GAIA label.
- When the American Institute of Philanthropy gave GAIA (another Teachers Group affiliate) an "F" rating, they removed the label from their boxes.
- Then they dropped the TG suffix as a result of Anna Werner's documentary that established their ties to the Teachers Group.
- Last year, with Matt Smith's "Our Rags to Their Riches" topping a Google search for "Campus California", they morphed into Recycle for Change.
During this entire period, the only substantive change was the closure of their training school in Etna and subsequent move to Richmond. Otherwise, Recycle for Change is merely the latest incarnation of Campus California. They have the same boxes. The same warehouse in Richmond. The same “Clothing Collection Manager”, Keld Duus, who was employed by Humana France in 1996 when the French government ruled that their clothing collection program was a business, not a charity, and therefore liable for business taxes.
Recycle for Change follows the identical model, but since their move to Richmond, they no longer operate their own volunteer training program Instead, they now donate a portion of their profits to two international training schools which, not coincidentally, operate clothing collection bins and have recently changed their names. Both are associated with the Teachers Group; charge trainees thousands of dollars in tuition; include fundraising and/or support for clothing bin operations as part of the curricula; and pay rent to the Teachers Group.
In their legal brief, RFC did, for the first time, cite support for a local food bank called “Helping Hands Together We Thrive”. What little information is available online would indicate that, as of July 2015, "Helping Hands" reported zero income and zero assets, no contact person, no phone number and no website. The address that is listed is for a single family residence on Thermal Street. Unless I'm shown cancelled checks dating back more than a few months, I'm going to assume that any support for "Helping Hands" is merely window-dressing to enhance their standing before the court.
Whatever the actual extent of RFC's support for the local food bank, it's a tiny footnote in a long history of deception and, most importantly, it's an infinitesimal percentage of the $3.6 million that RFC grossed in 2014. In the ten years they've operated in Oakland, they've paid zero in business taxes. And, now, in a city that's hard-pressed to provide taxpayers with basic services or shelter for the homeless, they have the gall to file a lawsuit against the City - complaining, in part, that the $535 application fee is excessive.
Why are they suing now after ignoring the Alameda County ordinance with a $1,500 fee or the City of San Pablo's that requires a $1,768 fee? Maybe, they figured that Oakland would bend under pressure as was the case when Waste Management threatened to sue. They're also more highly motivated to stay in Oakland, since we've been a virtual cash-cow. One imponderable is the possibility that Recycle for Change was simply emboldened to sue by virtue of a recent federal court opinion in favor of Planet Aid (another Teachers Group's bin operator) that sued the City of St. John's, Michigan.
If that was their rationale, they've made a big mistake since St. John's was seeking an outright ban while Oakland's ordinance merely provides reasonable, content neutral regulations. I'm pretty confident that the District Court will agree on January 13 that the RFC lawsuit is without substance and deny their request for an injunction.
When the ordinance does go into effect, here are some possible scenarios:
- Some of the bin operators will likely ignore the ordinance and sneak bins into the city without benefit of a permit. That's what Campus California did repeatedly in Berkeley and San Rafael after being informed that a Use Permit was required. To minimize this problem, the city should be prepared to enlist community volunteers and business associations throughout the city to report illegal bins and also to report any blight associated with bins that are permitted.
- Most of the bin operators could simply ignore the permit requirement. According to this article in the Mercury News, that's what happened when San Jose's passed an ordinance in 2013. Two years later, there are still several hundred bins in the city - only two of which are actually permitted. San Jose officials blame the problem on under-staffing in their Code Enforcement Department. Oakland has the identical problem but is about to add several new officers. More importantly, it's very unlikely that Oakland will let this issue slide given the amount of staff time, energy and tax dollars that have been expended in debating, drafting and defending Oakland's ordinance. Moreover, staff already has a fairly complete list of bins currently in place.
- Recycle for Change and USAgain may opt to take out permits for the very best locations available - squeezing out those operators RFC describes as "bad actors" and establishing a virtual monopoly on bin operations. With backing from the Teachers Group, both have the financial wherewithal and incentive to make this happen.
- If most or all the bins are removed, there could be an uptick in the amount of textiles that end up in the landfill. Although the bin operators vastly exaggerate the amount of clothing and books that they keep out of the waste stream, their major advantage is their convenience. Accordingly, a small increase would be likely unless concerted efforts are made to publicize other options.
MAY 2017 UPDATE: Currently, to the best of our knowledge, all of the collection bins have been removed from the City of Oakland and no new ones have appeared. Recycle for Change and Discover Books did put up token resistance as each continued operating up to a dozen bins well after the deadline for removal had passed. As predicted above, the Federal District Court rejected RFC's request for a preliminary injunction and, on May 7 of this year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals followed suit. Several summaries of the court's decision are available including THIS ONE by Find Law and ANOTHER ONE by the Meyers Nave law firm in Oakland.
Publicizing other, local options is exactly what DonateOakland.org has been doing on an extremely small scale for the last couple of years. Regardless of the eventual scenario, that's a role we hope to continue playing. When residents have books and clothes and household furnishings to donate, we want to ensure that they can make informed choices.
Hopefully, that means donating to our approved list of local non-profits while studiously avoiding the for-profit thrift shops that solicit donations via postcards in the name of charities that receive a tiny percentage of the proceeds. The same is equally true for the collection bins that are operated by outside interests who literally make millions of dollars but give back nothing to the city that hosts the bins or the neediest citizens in our midst.
Please help spread the word by sharing this blog and the DonateOakland.org website with friends and family.
OCTOBER 2017 UPDATE: An illegally-placed RFC bin was reported this week in the parking lot of the Office Depot. An obviously-irritated store manager notes that they had been trying for six months to get the bin removed but RFC doesn't answer their phone or respond to emails. We've also just learned that RFC has sought a hearing before the Supreme Court.
JANUARY 2018 UPDATE: The bin in the Office Depot parking lot mentioned above was removed only after Selia Warren, the Oakland City Attorney's "Counsel of Record", brought it to the attention of the attorneys representing RFC in their lawsuit opposing the City of Oakland ordinance. A far bigger victory occurred on December 11, 2017 when the Supreme Court denied RFC's petition for a writ of certiorari. If they choose to pursue this case, it will referred back to the Federal District Court in San Francisco. The Supreme Court decision is detailed on the following link:
OCTOBER 2018 UPDATE: This case was referred back to the District Court in San Francisco which ultimately "dismissed the case with prejudice". Congratulations to the City Attorney's office and staff at the Planning Department and especially to Selia Warren.