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Recycling is religion for Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates

The former legislator has a minuscule carbon footprint despite days filled with travel. He recycles and reuses at home. He owns no car but walks, and uses mass transit and a city CarShare program.

August 08, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga

BERKELEY — Tom Bates stands in his pantry, grinning like a boy on Christmas morning with his loot spread out in front of him.

There's a vase half full of used rubber bands destined for return to the newspaper carrier. A pile of hangers will go back to the cleaners. A bin of scraped and dried coffee filters awaits the artist down the street, who incorporates them into her work.

Used coffee grounds fill a plastic bag on the kitchen counter. Bates collects them for the compost-making worms in his garage. The sack slumps damply beside a wooden rack where rinsed-out baggies hang to dry. He opens the drawers of a cabinet like a happy shopping channel salesman, showing off newspapers and empty bottles ready for their next life.

Recycling, Bates says, is his religion, but on this day he's forced to give the green gospel short shrift. If he doesn't hurry, he'll miss his BART train and be late to the first meeting in a long and busy day as mayor of this Left Coast city.

Four months ago, the silver-haired septuagenarian sold his beloved Volvo S80 T6 sedan -- his 26th car -- and set off on a new adventure: shrinking his already tiny carbon footprint.

Bates has been eco-minded as long as his two grown sons can remember, separating and recycling garbage before cities began curbside collection. These days, he feels an urgency to bring others along with him, although his style is less taskmaster than Tom Sawyer ("Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little"). "When you reach my age, you think about how you want to spend your time," he says. "You only have so much left on the planet. I want to do what I can for climate change and global warming."

Before the year is out, he wants to issue a friendly challenge to his fellow eco-minded mayors: Do a personal green inventory and go public with the results. His hope is to convince indifferent consumers that they really can help cut greenhouse gas emissions.

"Do one person's actions make a difference? Probably not," he says. "But if, out of the 6 billion people on the planet, 1 billion take action, that makes a difference. 'Try to be the change you seek.' Didn't Gandhi say something like that?"

Bates picks up his canvas briefcase (there's a reusable shopping sack inside) and hoofs it to the station. His khaki-clad stride is long and swift. A panama hat sits jauntily on his balding head. He is off on the first leg of a 13-hour workday that began with a brief shower -- never more than three minutes -- and will include a train ride, a bus trip, a short hop in a City CarShare rental and four or so miles on foot.


The BART train zips uneventfully from Berkeley to Oakland, where Bates is headed for a meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The trip is fast and efficient, the meeting plodding and inconclusive. He ducks out early in search of the bus that will take him to his next appointment.

Bates considers bus travel "an adventure," and on this day it is obvious why, as he wanders Oakland's historic warehouse district for 15 minutes or so, increasingly late.

He pokes his head into a coffee shop to ask for directions and is sent across the street. No bus. He wanders more, then points at a white behemoth with teal and orange stripes. Success!

Bates flashes his transit pass and boards AC Transit's 72 line for the 30-minute trip along a gritty stretch of the East Bay, sharing the bus with a changing cast of the homeless, old people with walkers, obese mothers with bright-eyed children in rickety strollers.

"The reason people don't ride the bus is its lower socioeconomic level," he says. "So when I see someone who knows me, they say, 'What are you doing here?' I say, 'This is my limo.' "

During two decades in the California Assembly, he got a new Buick Park Avenue every other year and drove it back and forth to Sacramento -- with a carpool. "If I was driving and passed him on the highway, his car was always full of five people," recalls former East Bay Assemblyman Johan Klehs. These days, Bates' wife, state Sen. Loni Hancock, plies Interstate 80 in a Toyota Camry hybrid.

As the noisy bus rumbles along San Pablo Avenue, Bates says his newly car-less life has been an education -- once he got over the shock of seeing his empty driveway and thinking, "Damn! I made a mistake."

Walking "opens up a whole new vista in seeing the city in a different way," he enthuses. "The city is beautiful. I've fallen in love with spring again, and the flowers."

A weary laborer hops on board, sits beside the mayor and promptly falls asleep.


The son of working-class parents who came to Southern California from Iowa, Bates traces his environmental awareness to his frugal upbringing. He wears his shirts for a dozen years, mending frayed cuffs and collars. Born in San Diego in 1938, he came north on a football scholarship to UC Berkeley.

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