Garbage Guru

Ever wondered what kind of person it takes to run a recycling program? How about a seasoned nonprofit organizer, who has “an accidental interest in recycling”? Or a civil engineer who lived in Japan for five years? If Dave Williamson doesn’t run an average recycling program, it’s because he isn’t your average garbageman. On June 5, Williamson, head of Berkeley’s curbside recycling program, will receive the Crissy Field Center Community Environmental Hero Award.
According to Linda Graham, the Ecology Center employee who nominated him for the award, “While Dave runs an excellent program and is a major advocate and educator in recycling, this is only a backdrop for his accomplishments,” which are both national and international in scope.
Williamson has been in the recycling business for 15 years. “Garbage is a social commons,” he explains. “Working at Urban Ore taught me about reuse and extended value,” which convinced him that recycling alone wasn’t enough—stopping waste at the source is equally important.
“A lot of our technology isn’t technically driven, but socially driven,” he says. He has a particular bone to pick with plastic. “People have this idea that plastic just happens, so we have to deal with it. Well, the truth is, somebody, somewhere, made a conscious decision to use plastic, even though it’s not recyclable in the true sense of the word. If we had producer responsibility from the get-go, we wouldn’t have so much of it.” To this end, he helped found the International Plastics Task Force, an organization dedicated to educating the public and reducing plastic use, particularly in developing nations.
A pioneer in alternative fuel use, three years ago Williamson became the first person in the nation to convert his fleet of recycling trucks to run exclusively on pure biodiesel. Because of his leadership, all large trucks operated by the City of Berkeley are now powered by biodiesel, and other cities have taken notice.
International collaborations are another focus. Working with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Williamson hosted three Zero Waste Fellows, hailing from South Africa, the Philippines, and India. “Working with this group was an enriching experience,” he says, “Each one of them taught me something—I’ve kind of had my mind expanded.”
Asked why he chose to work at the recycling center instead of as a civil engineer, Williamson says, “I’ve never wanted to work for a large organization. I wanted to work in a small group, with community impact—it sounds corny, but it’s important. Quite frankly, here, I’m essentially a truck dispatcher and I don’t make a lot of money, but I have a lot of impact.”
The award will be presented at the Crissy Field Center at 2 PM. A life-size image of Williamson will be on display there for the coming year, accompanied by a video about his work.

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