The group behind the green boxes coming to town
on December 26, 2009
The green clothes donation box in the parking lot of S+S Market on South 7th Street is the first of its kind in the city of Richmond. Saleh Algohm, a clerk at S+S, said he dropped off a couple bags of kids clothes soon after the box arrived during a mid-December week.
When asked if he knew what would happen to his donation, Algohm replied, “It goes to kids around the world.”
When told the clothes are actually sold on the open market to raise money for a non-profit organization that sends volunteers to do humanitarian work in other countries, he looked a little confused.
“Oh,” he responded. “OK.”
A label on the donation box clearly reads, “Your donated clothes are recycled and sold solely for the benefit of Campus California TG’s activities.” The label also lists programs the group sends volunteers to participate in, in Africa and Central America.
Still that’s a lot of reading for someone who just wants to drop off a bag of clothes, maybe feel like their donation is helping someone, and be on their way.
Jan Sako, a CCTG manager, admitted it is often difficult to explain how his organization works.
“How do you put this all out for the general public,” he said, “when all they want to hear is a simple thing?”
Campus California TG, a non-profit organization that sends volunteers to work in Humana People to People projects in Africa and Central America, placed the box. There are four other boxes in Richmond, but those were placed in private apartment complexes. The box at S+S is the first that the general public can access.
According Sako, there could be a couple dozen more around the city by early next year.
“This is a valuable service to the city that we provide,” he said.
CCTG collects clothes around the Bay Area to sell on the open market to fund its program, which includes a school in Etna, Siskiyou County, and an office and warehouse in Richmond. CCTG says it has more than 700 boxes around the Bay Area, and collected almost 4.7 million pounds of clothes last year.
CCTG has generated controversy in the past because of alleged ties to Tvind, a Danish humanitarian organization that has been accused of tax evasion and fraud. Paul Jorgensen, a spokesman for Tvind, was convicted of fraud in Danish court in January, and founder Mogens Amdi Petersen has been missing since 2006. Humana People to People is an offshoot of Tvind.
Sako said none of the money CCTG raises goes to support Humana; instead, it goes to the volunteers the program trains in Northern California. According to Sako, volunteers pay $3,900 out of the total cost of $13,000 for the 14-month program.
Many of the volunteers are from countries outside the U.S., and have to first find their way to Etna for a six-month training program at the start of their service. According to CCTG door-to-door manager Line Henriksen, about one-third of the volunteers show up early, and are put in language training and volunteer programs in the Bay Area before they head to Etna. Five students are currently going through language training at the Richmond office.
CCTG has funded its operation by collecting clothes and selling them, mostly to thrift stores. The box operation is growing – Sako said CCGT had 25 boxes in Oakland in early 2008 and now there are 45. In early 2009, CCTG started collecting clothes door-to-door around the East Bay as well.
CCTG’s box operation is not without its own controversies as well. The group had to remove each of its boxes from Berkeley in 2006 after the city required the group have a conditional use permit for each box.
Sako said the group would like to expand its box operation in Richmond, but is limited because of the city’s current zoning ordinance. The CCTG boxes are considered a “small recycling facility” and require a conditional use permit when placed in a commercial zone. The fee for a conditional use permit is $1,616. Boxes placed in an industrial zone, like the one at S+S, do not need a permit.
Sako said that requirement severely limits locations in the city where CCTG can place a box. Most businesses in town where the group would want to place a box – like grocery stores and gas stations – are located in commercial zones. Sako said about 95 percent of CCTG’s boxes in the Bay Area are in commercial zones.
CCTG could serve a valuable purpose in the city, Sako said. The group does not turn down any donation of clothes, and less clothes in the trash would cost the city less trash to pick up.
Sako sent the city a letter in which he suggests that the boxes should be put in the same category as reverse vending machines, and asks that there be one permit for use throughout the city.
“We are much simpler, like a soda machine basically,” he said. “If they change the definition, that would be the simplest solution.”
Another option could be the change in zoning. Richmond is updating its general plan, and Sako was asked to forward his recommendations to the senior planners working on the project. The zoning update is expected to begin in the first quarter of 2010.
Sako said CCTG has nothing to hide and he is hopeful it can expand its operations in Richmond.
“When we explain what we’re doing, and people take time to listen, they can understand and realize this is sustainable thing were doing,” he said. “They can see everyday that it works.”
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