Unattended clothing donation boxes are all over Oakland, at places like schools and the parking lots of grocery stores and liquor stores, making it convenient for people to drop off unwanted clothes. Companies that operate the boxes, however, currently don’t need a permit and don’t pay a fee for putting a box on private property in the city. The lack of regulations for these boxes has caused tension between nonprofits with local offices, like Goodwill, that compete with box companies for donations.
The proliferation of donation boxes around town and the problems associated with them—like the blight added to neighborhoods when the boxes are not maintained by their owners, or concerns that many of the boxes are associated with organizations that don’t employ local workers—caught the attention of Oakland City Council members. On Tuesday afternoon, the council’s Community and Economic Development Agency considered implementing regulations concerning the boxes, such as imposing a fee for each box and regulating how they look and are maintained.
But while each of the four councilmembers on the committee spoke in favor of some form of regulation, the committee did not pass a motion by Councilmember Patricia Kernighan (District 2). Kernighan’s motion would have imposed an annual fee of $450 per box, included a cap on the number of bins citywide (60) and per vendor (15), and would have imposed fines on organizations for boxes that aren’t maintained or are without permits.
But the motion didn’t have majority support within the group, with only Kernighan and Nancy Nadel (District 3) voting for it. Ignacio De La Fuente (District 7) voted no and Jane Brunner (District 1) abstained. After the motion failed, Kernighan said she would bring another proposal for a box ordinance back to the committee, without specifying a date.
The committee’s decision to not move forward with box regulations on Tuesday came as a blow to nonprofits like Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County, which receive clothes donations and work in the local community. During the meeting’s public comment period, representatives from these nonprofits implored the council to take action in regulating the boxes, arguing that because they operate a store, they are forced to pay the fees and taxes of any other businesses, giving an edge to the box companies.
“Unregulated donation boxes do not pay city permit fees, the act of which puts our regulated collection efforts at a disadvantage,” said Christine Lias of St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County. “Their donations do not remain in the Oakland community, and they are also a magnet for blight, unlike our collection efforts.”
Representatives from companies that operate collection boxes for businesses based outside of Oakland, like Campus California, a nonprofit which collects clothes to support developmental work, and USAgain, a company that collects clothes and resells them worldwide, spoke in favor of what they called “reasonable regulation” of the boxes. Julie Watt Faqir of USAgain, said that if not for the boxes, thousands of pounds more of textiles would end up in landfills every year. Faqir said in an interview after the meeting that she felt that a one-time fee of around $250 per box would be a fair price to charge.
“Goodwill, Salvation Army and other local agencies just cannot handle the volume of clothing that is in circulation,” she said. “Collection bins are not a threat to those organizations. The numbers prove there need to be more textile recycling bins in place.”
But the councilmembers seemed to disagree that there need to be more boxes in town, with De La Fuente going as far as saying the boxes should be banned, “period.” De La Fuente said the boxes are all over and causing blight, and that the city can’t afford the staff time to enforce regulations. “In many areas, they’re used as a dumping ground,” he said. “They pop up all over the place, they look terrible. I think they really impact the quality of life of businesses and people, and they don’t give anything back.”
After the meeting, members of the local nonprofits met outside the chambers to discuss what to do next. Lias said that while they were disappointed no action was taken, they were encouraged by De La Fuente’s stance. Lias said it was the first time a councilmember has said the boxes should be banned outright.
“We are very encouraged by that,” Lias said.