Joe Garbarino

Scavenging toward Zero Waste

Recorded: January 30, 2014

Wonderful story told by Joe Garbarino Jr., a self-described scavenger, now Chairman of the Board of Marin Sanitary Service (MSS). Joe shares the story of his beginnings with MSS and explains how he started one of the first and most successful recycling programs in the state of California. Marin Sanitary's recycling program currently recycles up to 75% percent of the collected solid waste. Joe also shares his plastic bag story; it will make you smile. Because of his dedication and success in recycling, Joe admits he has become an environmentalist along the way. Joe is now on the quest to find additional and more creative ways to recycle the last 25% of the waste left over from the MSS collection.

Joe Garbarino Jr. gave up on his dream of being a pharmacist and dropped out of college to follow in his dad’s footsteps into the family business of scavenging. Joe’s dad immigrated to the US from Italy and settled in San Francisco. Today, Joe Jr. is Chairman of the Board for Marin Sanitary Service, a business founded in 1948 by the Garbarino, Segale, Zappetini, Marconi and Zanotti families. The business now serves more than 33,000 residential and commercial customers. Currently, three generations of Garbarino’s work at Marin Sanitary Service.

Joe’s early work began in the North Beach district in San Francisco where he hauled garbage up and down the hills of San Francisco in burlap bags. From early on, Joe realized that people tend to discard more than they need to and much of this material could be reused or recycled. He soon began scouring wine bottles, eyeglasses and shoes and reselling them. The family has worked long and hard over the years to get Marin County to recycle 75% of all waste. The business has grown and expanded into three separate divisions in order to address every facet of waste management and recycling. The Garbarino’s have created three divisions that work together to provide comprehensive collection, recycling and education services.

Mr. Garbarino is also notable for his unique collection of World War II military vehicles, which he houses in a Museum in San Rafael, California. The World War II US Military Vehicle Museum has one of the largest collections of military vehicles in the country. All are in working condition and were rescued and restored from a bombing range in Pendleton, Oregon or bought from smelting plants. There are 65 World War II tanks and vehicles, which are maintained by staff and volunteers. The vehicles have been on parade on the Fourth of July every year since the early 1980s in the towns of Corte Madera and Novato.




Joe Garbarino:  75% of what I collect gets recycled one more time.


Joe Garbarino: I grew up in North Beach. My dad was a scavenger; so I grew up in the industry that way.  And then I had an opportunity. After college, I was going to be a pharmacist.  My cousin, who was up here in San Rafael back in around ’52 with five other guys, they were expanding. They needed another partner, asked me if I wanted to go.  So I asked my dad. I says, “Papa, you want me to finish school or you want me to be a pharmacist?”  And here was a man that was totally uneducated, never went to school, couldn’t afford it. That’s the way it was there, got drafted in the [Italian] Army in 1918. The war ended and he was able to emigrate over here to the United States and became a scavenger here.  But he never looked back, he says, “Go be a garbage man.”

So I became an owner in 1955. As the years went by I became president of the company. An opportunity came up in ’79. The garbage companies, or anybody else, can go to the state and apply for a grant to start a curbside recycling program.  And there were six garbage companies in Marin at that time and they didn’t think it was such a good idea, you know: “We’re going to lose money if you do that.  Anybody that recycles, there’s less garbage.”  I says, “No, it’s not going to work that way, we’re talking about bottles, cans and paper.”  So anyway, I did go up there and I was denied.  I had the best program.  On my way back, I was discussing this supervisor Giacomini, who just lost the race for the senate and he says, “Joe, that’s the way it works in California at the state level.  You’ve got to go back and bring your support.”  He had a big van. We went back with a group of environmentalists, mayors and councilmen and women. We talked for 3 hours in front of the state waste board. And after that they said, “Stop! We give up. You win.”  They gave us 75,000 for ’79 and the commitment for a half a million in 1980.  So that started it. We ordered the trucks, six of them, for the first curbside recycling program countywide in the United States in 1980.

Joe Garbarino: I have to be honest, I didn’t do this to save the environment.  It ended up, with those people helping me, of course I became a true environmentalist.  But when I started it, I just wanted to take this stuff out of the landfill which would save me money and my ratepayers money.

Joe Garbarino: The easiest thing to do is not have three trucks picking up your black can for garbage, your recycling bin and your yard waste can.  Put it in one truck, go to the landfill and then bury it. You get rid of millions– multi millions of dollars of help and equipment that it takes to do all that.  But is that the right thing to do, to bury all this?  You’re polluting the underground water supply system and you’ve done it for years.  You’re burying resources.  You know it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that. And it takes work to do that, but we’ve done it. 25% goes north to the landfill and 75% goes all over the world.

Huey Johnson: Wonderful.

Joe Garbarino: Yeah, secondary products.  There were many, many, many obstacles along the way getting markets for the material that we recycled.   You read the paper, big ad in the paper: “Bring all your bags to Lucky Stores in Terra Linda.  There’s no market for plastic bags.”  I couldn’t sleep that night, I was wondering how am I going to do this?  I had 58 bales, 1800 pounds each, left over what I was shipping to the Philippines and China. And they quit. So at 4:30 in the afternoon with two gorillas and me, we backed right up to the front door of Lucky Stores in Terra Linda just about ready to lift this 1800 pounds, and the manager runs over: “What are you guys doing here?”  I said, “I saw your ad in the paper, you wanted some bags. I thought I’d bring you some.”

“You drop that off here and I’m going to call the cops.”

“Hey buddy, do me a favor.  Stand back because when this thing hits the floor, it’ll break both your legs.”  And in five, less than five minutes– there’s two squad cars.  A big crowd is what I wanted.  I wanted to be arrested again.  I wanted people to know there is no market for plastic bags.  And the cop comes out, he’s a sergeant, and a stamp collector. He picks up my mail and saves the stamps, “Joe, what’s the problem?”  I said “Gee, I don’t know sergeant. I saw this ad, the guy wanted some bags, I thought I’d help him out.”

“Is this your ad?”  The guy says, “Yeah.”  “So what’d you call us for?  You wanted bags, you got them.  We’re busy on the beat.”  I says, “You know buddy,” I says, “you’re a lucky guy.”  He says, “What do you mean lucky?”  I says. “I collect military vehicles as a hobby. If I’d have collected airplanes, I’d have dropped it on you, you bugger.   And go tell your people that.”  And never, ever, ever was there an ad in Marin about bringing plastic bags in.

Joe Garbarino: The story with that: two weeks later, my son in law calls. He picks up the dumpsters in the alley. He says, “Joe” –at 4 o’clock in the morning– “you better come out here. I’ve got something you want to take a picture of.  There are all your bags in their big bag in my dumpster on the way to the dump.” And that was the B.S. they were giving the people.  There was no market for this material.

So the many, many, many conflicts in order to find markets, that these people would take back and use the material that they made in the first place.  This was the barrier that we faced. They’re still ongoing.  Markets come, markets go.  We had a market for plastic bags. China put up a barrier here this past 7 or 8 months, they quit taking it from the people.  We’re dumping it now like where we were before.

Huey Johnson: How about the future, what’s going to happen?

Joe Garbarino: Well in the future, we’re going to have to find a solution, and it’s going to be difficult for the other 25%.  So where are we going to go, down the road?  We’ve taken everything out that you can think of.  I’m doing the roofing on houses, mattresses, rubber pads, sheetrock off the walls making gypsum out of it, to plow back into the ground, along with our composting.  So I’m at a point now that I don’t see anything that realistically I can take out and recycle.  But you know, you never give up.  Years ago I wasn’t even taking those items out.

Huey Johnson: What have been the lessons you’ve gotten in your work experience that might be helpful to others in the future?

Joe Garbarino: Well –

Huey Johnson: Hard work certainly is one of them.

Joe Garbarino: I mean, you’ve got to work hard.  We worked 7 days a week for years. Then we bought a piece of property, a bigger one, and went out to another one, and then a third one. But it was always with the hours put in, 12 hours was a minimum day.  I try to preach that to the kids that we’ve got, you know, you’ve got to put the time in here.  If you really want to go someplace, this is the time when you’re at this age.  You know between 20 and 30, 35, you’ve got the energy to go out, and if nothing else, get yourself a degree.  Go beyond what you’re at now. There is no other way, unless you inherit it. And you know, I didn’t do that.