On a Saturday afternoon in January in the pouring rain, recycler Maxine Malberg maneuvered a carton bungeed to an old luggage carrier up and down the chilly streets of Albany. It was filled not with cans and bottles scrounged from people's blue bins, but with dead batteries and fluorescent lightbulbs. Pounds and pounds of them, the used-up power for toys, consumer electronics, and kitchen gadgets. So why was she humping a hundred pounds of toxic waste down the street in the rain? Malberg has made it her personal mission to get every scrap of recyclable material out of the six square blocks bounded by Thousand Oaks Boulevard and San Carlos, Santa Fe, and Solano avenues.
Malberg isn't your typical scavenger, nor does she look like one. With her glossy auburn curls, rosy complexion, and perfect teeth, she looks like what she is, a successful real estate agent with an office in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto. She selected this neighborhood as her personal project because it was a pleasant place to make her rounds and contained a manageable number of houses between her office and her home in Pinole. Then she used the skills she developed selling real estate to market her free service.
First, using a database of addresses, she sent out a letter explaining that she planned to be in the neighborhood in a couple of weeks to collect used batteries. One week before collection day, she followed up with a reminder suggesting that people leave their batteries on the porch if they weren't going to be home. Somebody asked if she would also take fluorescent bulbs, so she added those to her list. Even small, screw-in fluorescents are supposed to go to the toxic waste facility, although people commonly throw burnt-out bulbs into the trash.
Malberg is a fanatical recycler and a dedicated volunteer. "It really started with my father," she said. "One big lesson from him was never to litter. If I did, he'd make me pick it up." She said she spends time thinking about how to give something back to the community. "I make it a point to do things outside of real estate that bring me nourishment in a different way," she said. For instance, she works with a kindergarten class once a week and visits a Pinole senior center.
She knew that curbside recycling takes care of only a tiny part of the potentially useful stuff that either collects dust in garages or ends up in the landfill. Getting the rest of it to where it will do the most good requires creativity, dedication, and perspiration. "One of the reasons people might not recycle many things is because it's an inconvenience," Malberg said. Her goal is to take away that barrier for at least this slice of the community.
Trudging through yupscale Albany with her cart, knocking on strangers' doors, Malberg did feel a little weird at first. "I felt like a homeless person," she said. "I've never put myself in that position before — but it was all good. A learning experience." She wore a floor-length hooded raincoat and jogging shoes, but she also carried her Realtor's ID badge to reassure the wary.
Despite the advance work she'd done — and the convenient service she was offering — not everyone welcomed her visit. A few people thought she was soliciting; some had no idea what she was talking about. In the end, 26 of 135 households participated — enough for her to collect 879 batteries and a full box of lightbulbs. Yes, she counted them by hand.
She left a thank-you note to everyone who participated, and followed that with an update to everyone in the neighborhood, detailing how much she'd collected. Although her goal is not specifically to educate others, she has begun to put links to web sites with information about recycling and living green on her fliers.
For her next collection, in March, Malberg settled on shoes. She figured that a lot of us have shoes we haven't looked at in years, or ones that are worn out but still hanging on the shoe rack. Shoes with some life left in them would go to a Danville thrift store that supported research in childhood diseases. And she did some research and found Nike Grind, a program of the shoe manufacturer that turns worn-out shoes of any brand into resilient surfacing for playgrounds and sports fields.
This time, she collected 106 pairs of shoes — so many that her husband had to follow behind her with the car so she could offload every block.
Last Saturday, Malberg parked behind two folding tables at the corner of San Carlos and Thousand Oaks for a book swap. People who brought a book could take a book; any books that didn't find homes went to charity. Or, they could simply stop by for lemonade and cookies.
One person asked her, "Do all Realtors do this?" The answer would be no, which gives Malberg a bit of differentiation in the highly competitive real estate game. But after six months, she said her recycling service has not resulted in any listings for her. While it's possible that being "the recycling Realtor" could tip the scales in her favor if someone is looking for an agent, Malberg said she does this for the sheer emotional and physical pleasure she gets from doing something so concrete to give back to the community.
"I enjoy communicating one-on-one — actually standing on somebody's porch eyeball to eyeball saying, 'This is what I do,'" she said. "I'm not doing it for any other reason than to provide a service because it's important to me. And I hope it's important to you."
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