The Recycling Queen

In any line of work, says UC Berkeley’s Lisa Bauer, there are three types of people: those who do the bare minimum to get by; those who work hard and then go home; and those few who log way too many hours and let their lives revolve around their mission.

“I’m definitely one of those kind of nuts,” says Bauer, punctuating the air with her hand as she flits dizzyingly between her interview, a student worker awaiting her paycheck, and a series of urgent text messages.

Trash is the unlikely culprit that keeps this energetic 45-year-old with a penchant for colorful dangly earrings working at such a frenetic pace. Seven tons a day with a mixed paper program to be precise, and a couple hundred more pounds of organic waste that is composted.

“I know it’s not sexy,” she says, but in terms of the environment, “It’s where the rubber hits the road.”

Her official title is manager of Campus Refuse and Recycling Services, but Bauer’s reach does not stop at the dumpsters hidden in the shadows of the school’s service entrances or the tiny, windowless room underneath Edwards Field that she calls her office. Chances are, if it’s been reduced, reused, or recycled at Cal, Bauer has had something to do with it.

Behind the scenes and “under the radar,” working “12 hours a day if not 15,” according to partner Douglas Labat, Bauer does everything from carrying in reams of recycled paper into the university’s halls and handing them out like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed to introducing eco-friendly ideas to the administration.

Look back to the very first membership roster of the chancellor’s-level committee on sustainability formed in 2003, and Bauer stands out as one of only two people nominated to the group by then-Chancellor Robert Berdahl. The idea started a few years earlier when Bauer, frustrated by the lack of a voice afforded to an overactive recycling manager, began looking for a way to imbue green ideas into overall campus planning. This year, the committee completed the first comprehensive report detailing concrete steps to lessen the campus’ environmental footprint.

“Her job description is managing solid waste,” says Bill Berry, a professor of earth and planetary science who invited Bauer to co-teach a freshman seminar with him. “But she’s driven the bus on sustainability.”

Until a few years ago, says Bauer, she had no idea what sustainability meant. But according to Berry, Bauer always had a bottom-up approach to stopping waste before it starts. Through their class, Bauer has helped launch student-run projects like the Green Room and has recruited dozens of environmental peer educators who help spread the word among students about recycling and reduced water usage.

The transition from waste management to overall sustainability has been a slow process, says Bauer. She only stumbled upon trash-as-mission in the ’80s after a few months of working in a youth hostel at Point Reyes. Those who had come to commune with nature, she noticed, invariably brought mountains of Styrofoam plates and plastic utensils with them in order to avoid doing dishes in the hostel’s fully equipped kitchen. The nature-lovers created so much trash that the hostel had to buy a bigger dumpster.

“I realized that I wanted to go into garbage because it was just not being handled properly,” says Bauer. Armed with a used pickup truck and a makeshift route culled from restaurant listings in the Yellow Pages, Bauer was ready to go into the recycling business for herself. “I had this half-baked scheme,” she says. “I was going to pick up newspapers and bottles and cans and get them recycled. I had no clue what it would cost, what I was going to get paid.”

A month before she was to start her ill-planned venture, she met a woman at a party who told her about a recycling manager position at Golden Gate Disposal, a division of NorCal Waste Systems, one of the biggest garbage haulers in the country. With no managerial experience, no formal recycling experience, and an intense desire not to work for “The Man,” Bauer showed up for her interview in shorts and handed in a resume printed on one side of a used piece of paper. To her surprise, she landed the job.

Back then, says Bauer, recycling was just “window-dressing,” though at the time, she had failed to read that in the fine print of her job description. And these days, she still considers recycling to be “just a band-aid.” While she still hauls seven tons of recycling off the Berkeley campus each day, her real goal is to stop garbage before it starts.

For her, that means getting through to the next generation early. “Most people think, ‘Oh yeah, I can get these individual water bottles, cause guess what! I can recycle them,'” says Bauer sarcastically. The next step, she says is to make people stop and think about what it takes to “take it, make it, ship it, and recycle it.”

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