Cities around the Bay Area have been cracking down on the big colorful bins that invite the donation of castoff clothes, shoes and books.
For many people, they seemed like a convenient way to keep textiles out of the trash. But the boxes wore out their welcome in Berkeley, Fremont, San Jose, Union City, San Pablo and other Bay Area cities after complaints surfaced about piles of discarded clothes, graffiti and trash.
On Tuesday, the Oakland Community and Economic Development Committee will consider an ordinance to regulate the bins and require their upkeep to stop them from becoming a magnet for dumping. However, the proposal does not address claims that the bin operators are deceiving the public by appearing to help the needy while actually diverting resources away from local charities.
The ordinance would create a permitting system that requires 1,500 feet -- roughly four blocks -- between bins. Distance is "the real key to limiting how often and how many," Oakland Zoning Manager Scott Miller said.
Operators would have to apply for a permit, renewable each year. The rules would apply to all of the 80 to 85 bins now in Oakland. The total cost to the operators would be no more than $650 the first year.
Donation bins are not essential to the Salvation Army, which has five in Oakland, but they are very important, said Maj. Jack Phillips, coordinator of the nonprofit's Bay Area adult rehabilitation centers.
By comparison, USAgain, a for-profit company, collects 4 million pounds a year in 500 boxes around the Bay Area, including Oakland, Division Manager Tobin Costen said.
The city's proposed one-time permit fee seemed a bit high, Costen said, because his company is "very small," even though it is owned by a holding company, Fairbank, Cooper & Lyle Ltd.¿
USAgain welcomed regulations to keep the boxes from being set up where they are not wanted, he added.
Another visible operator in Oakland is Campus California, formerly Gaia. It is registered as a nonprofit, along with its sister organization Planet Aid, which previously had a fundraising office in Oakland. Other bin operators are small and fly under the radar. In one case, an Oakland-based organization called Reuse Clothes and Shoes was in fact owned by We Recycle, based in Illinois.
Many of the organizations justify the bins by arguing they keep tons of textiles from landfills. But USAgain, Campus California and similar operators have persistently attracted nationwide scrutiny from the public, media and government officials concerned that the tens of millions of dollars the organizations earn by selling donated goods are not going to communities in need, as the organizations claim.
"People think they're doing good by donating," said Andrea Silverstri, an Oakland resident who worked to get a bin that had been attracting junk and graffiti near Park Boulevard and East 24th removed.
"But local charities are losing out," she said.
In 2012, Campus California sold 4,000 tons of donated clothing, books and other household goods through third-party brokers for $3 million, according to documents filed with the state and the IRS. But the organization, with an office in Richmond and headquarters in the Siskiyou County city of Etna, reported spending no money on program services in 2012. Salaries are up to 32 percent of expenses, the documents show.
That same year, Planet Aid, which operates numerous bins from coast to coast, took in $39 million. Only 27 percent of that, or $10.6 million, was spent on program services. The organization spent another $8.6 million on collecting and shipping, as well as broker, repair and maintenance fees.
In contrast, one arm of the Salvation Army, the World Service Office, spent 64 percent of its revenue on services and 10 percent of expenses on salaries. The Salvation Army pays $100 a month to keep bins on BART property.
USAgain is a private company, so donations are either recycled or sold. The money goes back into the business, although USAgain pays churches and schools a fee for the goods collected in the bins in exchange for allowing the organization to keep the receptacles on their property, potentially giving the impression that the goods are not being collected by a for-profit company.
Scott Burnham, an outside attorney for USAgain, said the company has never represented itself as a charity. "We have been in the industry for 15 years, and it's an integral part of our business model to be very upfront about being a for-profit company," he said.
Oakland isn't the only city that has proposed action against the proliferation of clothing bins.
San Pablo decided in 2012 to require operators, including Campus California TG, Reuse Clothes and Shoes, and Reading Tree, to apply for a use permit and disclose information about the nature of their organization. The number of boxes dropped from 20 to zero, San Pablo Planning Aide Gian Martire said.
An early proposal to regulate the bins in Oakland stalled in May 2012, after a nearly two-hour hearing.
The new version is watered down compared to previous drafts and puts the interests of the operators over the community, said Ken Katz, who has been trying to get the city to regulate the bins since they began proliferating in Oakland in 2008. Out of frustration, he set up the donateoakland.org website with a list of nonprofits that accept donations. "We're at minus square one," he said.
What: The Oakland Community and Economic Development Committee will review a proposal to regulate unattended donation boxes
When: 1:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: First Floor, Oakland City Hall, One Frank H. Ogawa Plaza