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Old Baldy, Canada | photo by Cameron Schaus

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   Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | monterey county

Turning waste into warmth
Grey Bears recycle 11,000 tons annually

June 2006

by Debbie Bulger


Photo: Debbie Bulger
Lyla Games, Grey Bears Thrift Store manager, arranges items offered for sale. The Thrift Store is open from 9-2 Monday through Friday. Photo: Debbie Bulger

A feeling of joy and satisfaction pervades the Grey Bears' recycling facility in mid-Santa Cruz County. It is palpable. On this 3-acre plot, seniors are hard at work recycling just about everything.

Founded in 1973 by two UCSC students (helped by local senior, Frank Gallagher) who didn't want surplus produce from their garden to go to waste, Grey Bears has evolved into a non-profit that gives seniors a reason to get out of the house and do something worthwhile.

Photo: Debbie Bulger
Rolled bundles of old newspapers await transport to their next life protecting flowers during shipment to markets across the country. Photo: Debbie Bulger

"I like to say we are recycling the life skills of seniors to benefit the community," expresses Lynn Francis, Executive Director. Relying on about 500 volunteers assisted by a staff of 7, the California Grey Bears keeps 11,000 tons of material out of local landfills annually and uses the proceeds to feed seniors.

Almost nothing is wasted. Many of the volunteers remember collecting string and newspapers during World War II and employ those long-ago-learned skills to meet the challenge of a sustainable modern economy. The organization distributes donated and gleaned fresh produce to 2300 seniors per week. Produce that cannot be distributed is fed to livestock or turned into high-quality compost which is sold dirt cheap.

Photo: Debbie Bulger
Computer components are separated by donated labor. Photo: Debbie Bulger

In a small shed on the Grey Bears property on Chanticleer Avenue in Live Oak, volunteers disassemble old computers to recover the valuable parts. Recently retired Ron and Carolyn Stephenson are the volunteer managers of the computer refurbishing program. "We remove and sell lots of computer parts including the wires," explains Ron, holding up an old Pentium chip. "If you grind it up to recycle, you get less money. This chip contains 60¢ worth of gold."

The volunteer labor makes the economics pencil out. In the next building workers give new life to old newspapers by rolling them into bundles which are sold to growers to protect flowers being shipped nationwide. "Scrap newspapers can be sold for $50/ton; rolled, they sell for $200/ton.

Photo: Debbie Bulger
Grey Bears volunteer, Marie, is dwarfed by one of the giant Earth Tubs that turn food waste into garden compost. Photo: Debbie Bulger

By working with Santa Cruz County programs, Grey Bears complements government activities rather than competing with them. For example, the recycling program at the Buena Vista landfill operated by Santa Cruz County is run by Grey Bears. Their for-profit subsidiary, SCRAP, which recycles cardboard and plastic film for local business customers, operates with the County's blessing as it diverts these materials from the county landfill.

In addition to recycling, Grey Bears promotes re-use. They operate a thrift shop where household treasures, clothing and furniture are offered for sale. In Grey Bears' computer shop, refurbished computers are sold at bargain prices to those who might otherwise not be able to afford one.

Membership in Grey Bears costs $20/year. Volunteers get bags of produce, lunch and a chance to join in the fun. Special events throughout the year include a volunteer recognition dinner, a fall picnic, and a Holiday Dinner for 2500 seniors. Learning opportunities such as cooking and computer classes enrich members lives.

Photo: Debbie Bulger
Volunteer Ken Miller removes components from an old computer. Photo: Debbie Bulger

After viewing the movie Calendar Girls, some of the Grey Bears volunteers and staff decided to publish a risqué calendar. Executive director, Lynn Francis is Ms February. She is described as valuing "love, harmony, peace and waste reduction." To see enticing photos of Grey Bears Calendar Girls visit

Do you have extra produce?

If your fruit trees are especially prolific or your garden overbursting with tomatoes, string beans or other luscious veggies, consider donating your extra produce to Grey Bears. Deliver produce to their facility at 2710 Chanticleer Avenue, Santa Cruz. Call 479-1055 if you need assistance to pick the fruit off your trees. Don't let that good food go to waste.


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