A book bin outside the Telegraph Andronico’s: the bins could endanger donations to Friends of the Berkeley Public Library. Photo: Lance Knobel

Berkeleyans tend to be generous, civic-minded people, so the bright blue bins in supermarket parking lots marked “Donate Books” could inspire thoughts about clearing clutter from some shelves. Think again. The bins are run by for-profit Thrift Recycling Management, based in Lakewood, Washington. In Berkeley, the bins are now at Andronico’s and Safeway locations. Nationally only about 25% of the books are given to non-profits (locally, Safeway has a different arrangement with no books being sold).

According to a recent investigation by D. K. Row for The Oregonian, Thrift Recycling Management (TRM) has revenues of about $26 million a year and 200 employees. The books collected in the bins are sorted into three groups: about one-quarter are sold through online sites like Amazon, about half are pulped, and the final one-quarter is given to non-profits. Most of these go to Reading Tree, a non-profit registered in Utah. Row’s investigation revealed unusually close links between TRM and Reading Tree. TRM President Jeff Mullin is also president of Reading Tree. (Reading Tree’s 2009 990 form can be seen here. The organization had gross receipts of over $10 million in 2009.)

“They’re not being straightforward,” said Diane Davenport, president of Friends of the Berkeley Public Library. “TRM made $26 million last year from books that they’d gotten out of these blue bins.”

According to Davenport, the Friends have not yet seen any impact from the bins, which have been in Berkeley for less than a month. She said, however, that the friends group in Lafayette, where the bins have been in place a bit longer, has noticed an impact. Davenport said the Friends gave $128,000 to the Berkeley Public Library last year through its sales of books. About 60% of donated books are unsuitable for sale and are either given away free or collected by the non-profit DR3 recycling program run by St. Vincent de Paul.

“We depend on donations of salable books,” said Sayre Van Young, a volunteer with the Friends. “If people want to stick their 1983 encyclopedia in those damn blue bins, that’s okay.”

The book bins at Safeway stores are handled differently to others. According to Susan Houghton, Director of Governmental and Public Affairs for Safeway in Northern California: “No books will be sold.” Safeway has Reading Tree collect the books and sort them to go to either schools or to qualified charities. Unsuitable books — those that are tattered, soiled or unsellable — will be pulped. Safeway is working with the Oakland-based Reading Partners, which has been distributing books to schools for the last 10 years.

“We’ve already seen thousands of books going to students that didn’t have them otherwise,” said Matt Aguiar, chief operating officer of Reading Partners. He said the organization distributed to 40 schools in the Bay Area and another 20 schools nationally.

The books that don’t meet Reading Partners’ criteria, according to Safeway’s Houghton, are held for other charities. Reading Partners will be the conduit to other charities, such as library friends’ organizations.

A call to Andronico’s seeking comment on the bins on their sites was not returned.

Lance Knobel

Lance Knobel (co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine in Britain,...

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  1.  Same problem in Southern California.
    There is a for profit store in
    Downtown  Los Angeles called The Last Bookstore.   This for profit store
    keeps expanding its operation.  The owners  created a nonprofit called
    Books For People  to solicit donations from unsuspected donors. In the
    website of The Last Bookstore, the owners swear they only helped create
    the nonprofit and then they ‘turned it’ to new management. However, what
    they don’t disclose is they simply transferred the nonprofit to their
    relatives. The owners (Josh Spencer and Heidi Hazen) transferred their
    nonprofit to the mother in law Kathy Hazen, brother Tyrone Hazen. The
    good and valuable books are still funneled to the for profit store.
    Seems clever, until a real investigation is launched.
    This group of
    people collect donated books and sell them on Amazon and the for profit
    store, The Last bookstore in Los Angeles. Anything that has no value is
    sold for $1.00  dollar which supposedly go to the nonprofit–which in 
    turn claims to help homeless children. 
    A little investigating is needed as people are realizing what’s going on, based on what Yelpers have to say:


  2. Thought so!  Something just didn’t look kosher with those bins.

    Thanks for shining some light on this scam.

  3. To answer @Jane Tierney’s
    question, the clothes collection bin that you spotted at the ’76’ gas
    station at Colusa and Solano in Berkeley is
    owned by USAgain (“use again”), a foreign-owned, for-profit company
    headquartered in Chicago.

    The Danish government says that USAgain is tied to a
    controversial education organization called “Teachers Group” or “Tvind.”
    Numerous media reports as well as investigations by several European
    governments claim that Tvind is a cult-like group involved in financial
    criminal activities. (see link #6 below)

    In Denmark,
    Tvind’s leaders have been prosecuted for serious financial crimes. Two Tvind
    members have been convicted, and one of them has been serving a 30 month prison
    sentence for fraud. Several other Tvind leaders, including founder and kingpin
    Amdi Petersen, are currently international fugitives wanted in connection with
    a multi-million dollar tax fraud and embezzlement scheme.

    As for USAgain, several news reports claim that in the past some
    business owners were given the impression by USAgain representatives that the
    company was a charity. (see links #1 and #2, below)

    The bin located at Colusa and Solano is of USAgain’s
    new, green and white design, which clearly states that “USAgain
    is a for-profit clothes collection company.”

    But what the bin doesn’t tell you is that such honest
    wording was forced upon USAgain in Washington State in 2010, after that state’s
    Secretary of State office (WA SoS) determined that USAgain was not properly
    licensed to collect clothes in Washington State.

    Following an investigation aired in November 2009 by Seattle’s KIRO-7
    Eyewitness News, it had come to the attention of the WA SoS that USAgain
    was engaging in “charitable solicitations” as defined in Washington’s Charitable Solicitations Act.
    As a result, state officials gave USAgain two choices: either 1) register as a
    “commercial fundraiser,” or 2) make changes to the language on its bins and
    website so that potential donors wouldn’t mistakenly think that USAgain was engaging
    in charitable solicitations.

    USAgain initially resisted such requirements, but gave in,
    opting to change the wording on its bins and website — hence the new green and
    white design. In Washington State, the old style of USAgain bins, shown in the
    following news reports by KIRO-7, now have the potentially misleading text
    (“We cooperate with schools, non-profits and city recycling
    programs…”) covered up by a big sticker.

    If anyone is curious to learn more about USAgain, here are
    some interesting links:

    KIRO-7’s news investigations
    of USAgain, aired in November 2009:

    1) http://www.kirotv.com/video/21640407/index.html

    2) http://www.kirotv.com/news/21727639/detail.html

    3) http://www.kirotv.com/video/21633589/index.html

    4) A 2011 report
    on USAgain from the Herald & Review
    in Illinois:


    5) A Better Business Bureau report on
    USAgain, from 2005:


    6) A Danish court
    case summary against Tvind, (translated into English) from the Public Prosecutor for Serious Economic Crime
    in Denmark. In the document (near the bottom of page 4), Danish prosecutors
    allege that USAgain helps to finance Tvind:


    7) For further info on USAgain and Tvind, please visit:


  4. You would be better off selling your books outright, and giving the money to charity. This method of collecting books is underhanded and deceitful. I think these bins should be removed; this practice should be illegal. They imply that they are running a charity.

  5. Kaiser is three entities; the health plan, the hospitals and clinics, and the medical group/doctors.  Only the medical group/doctors is a for profit.  The health plan contracts with the other two.  Funds after operating expenses are used for upgrading and expansion.  State seismic laws require that the aging 62-year-old Oakland hospital, and many others statewide, be seismically upgraded or replaced.

    A 2004 article in the SF Business Times indicates then current plans include converting Kaiser’s current flagship Oakland hospital at 280 W MacArthur into a 300,000-square-foot medical office building/clinic.  The hospiital is a collection of low-rise buildings from the 1940s and a single highrise tower build in 1968.  It will be brought up to code and upgraded by the addition of courtyards and other new design features.  When the dust clears, Kaiser is slated to have a new hospital and more than 450,000 square feet of new medical office space at the MacArthur Blvd complex.
    There is a new clinic in Pinole.

  6. I was wondering about these bins; thanks for letting me know. I can sell my books for a quarter a piece and give the proceeds to charity, and it sounds like it would lead to a better result.

  7. Earlier this year, TRM received an 8 million dollar cash infusion from an investment fund that is allowing their expansion into Northern California–primarily through some kind of agreement with Safeway. When news filtered out that TRM is a highly profitable company masquerading as a charity, Safeway and TRM freaked.

    Two weeks ago as a result, The Reading Tree Books for Charity announced that none of the books collected from Safeway would be sold other than those that are ground up and sold as pulp.  Their website says quite specifically that this is an arrangement that is “unique to Northern California”.   Furthermore, this arrangement is for a 6 month period only.

    TRM’s response was to scrub their website which used to trumpet their profitability and which included data on the ACTUAL percentages of books that they sold, pulped and donated.  They also reached out to at least some of the publications that had published their press releases and scrubbed those.

    Fortunately, before it vanished, I cut and pasted this article from the The Enterprise West Valley Utah News. Jan. 17, 2011 where TRM founder, Phil McMullin lives:

    “From a warehouse and processing plant in Lakewood – and from three other facilities in North America – Thrift Recycling Management in its most recent fiscal year sold or recycled 31 million pounds of books.
    EIGHTY PERCENT (emphasis mine)  goes to pulp, sold for between $60 and $70 per ton. The rest goes online, selling for what readers will pay, or else the books – primarily meant for children – are donated to literacy charities.
    At any one time, each plant has 500,000 individual titles for sale online at sites including, among others, Amazon.com, Half.com and eBay.com.  http://www.thriftrecycling.com/www/news/08-10-16/Old_books_Sort_scan_resell_or_recycle.aspx

    There are two basic problems with the TRM/Reading Tree operation.  Number one, what they’re doing is deceptive.  Would people be filling those bins if they knew that up to 80% are pulped and the most salable books are sold?  Number two, the proceeds are destined elsewhere to the detriment of the true non-profits that provide real benefits to our communities.  In addition to the Friends of the Libraries groups, you might also consider donating children’s book to the volunteer-run East Bay Children’s Book Project which has quietly provided over 1 million books to local schools, clinics and other such agencies in the past five years.  That total, incidentally includes 2000 books donated to Brookfield School–the site of a giveaway event highly orchestrated for the local press by Safeway and The Reading Tree.

    Let me add a few words about the clothing collection bins serviced by Campus California and U’SAgain that are similarly garnering a salable commodity that would otherwise end up with any of the dozens of locally based charitable groups that plow the proceeds back into the local communities.   CCTG is a registered non-profit that used to be part of the Gaia network which consistently received an “F” grade from the organizations that rate charities. Last year, they grossed 1.9 million dollars in the Bay area.  U’SAgain. is unabashedly a for-profit company but the wording on their collection bins has been changed over the years as a result of pressure from regulatory agencies.

    Both are part and parcel of an international cult called Tvind or the Teachers Group that originated in Denmark.  Their founder is currently living in seclusion in a 10 million dollar hideaway in Baja California.

    Finally, please note that each and every one of the donation bins in Berkeley are there illegally.  The city requires that placement of each of these boxes requires a Conditional Use permit and other fees.  To the best of my knowledge, those forms have not been filed–nor fees paid.  You can report offenders to the City of Berkeley Code Enforcement Officer.

  8. I’m sitting on the fence on this one — nothing feels particularly wrong about donating unwanted stuff to organizations who resell, and make $$ off of it. Most nonprofits actually do make money, it’s not like they don’t pay people to work for them, for instance. However, the boxes themselves should say something like “10% of all donations are given to charity” so that those who donate can be more informed about what they are actually giving to.  

  9. There is nothing wrong with forming a viable business model around taking one persons discarded trash, recycling, or used goods. This is what is done by Urban Ore, Goodwill, and numerous thrift stores. Folks who think “non-profit” mean “no profit” should wake up-with an non-profit, high salaries can be made just as easily-note-Kaiser Permanente is a non-profit. From Wikipedia “In its most recently reported year, the non-profit Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals entities reported a combined $1.3 billion in net income on $42.1 billion in operating revenues”. As an alternative, try selling your books on Amazon and see what a pain it is to sell a .99 cent book and make it worth your time, then donate the profits to charity…

  10. If the charities care to take on the expense of purchasing the blue boxes, negotiating deals with retailers to store the boxes, employ people to collect the books, employ people to list the books on Amazon, and run a logistics department to handle the incoming/outgoing books, they’re more than welcome to.

    The fact is, their revenues are $26MM – but that’s likely nowhere near their profit.  In fact, they raised venture funds earlier in the year to expand operations, so I doubt they’re a highly profitable company (and might be operating at a loss).

    Also, if you read the 990, you’ll see that they’re giving all of the children’s books to the non-profit for distribution, keeping some of the adult books to sell on Amazon, and recycling the rest (I’m sure people are dropping off a lot of ‘MS-DOS For Dummies’ books).

  11. BAFBE better be careful or this group will come and snag all your books and sell them on Amazon for their own profit!

  12. Read the article. This isn’t charity, it’s a $26 million a year FOR-PROFIT business, misleading you into thinking it’s charity, which means the charity lose potential income.

  13. The problem is misleading people into thinking they are donating to a good cause, when in fact you are giving free goods to an organization who turn around and sell it for profit. Not only is that wrong, but it hurts the non-profit groups who REALLY need the help these days.

    Did you read the article? This is a 426 MILLION a year business. Don’t you think the libraries or other REAL non-profit groups could use some of that $26M?

  14. I don’t see what is wrong with this? Books donated go to charity, some get sold. Big whoop. Most get donated. That is charity for you.

  15. This reminds me a bit of the controversy behind the green clothing recycling bins provided by an organization calling themselves “Gaia”. The green bins showed up all over the place, East Bay Express and a few other news outlets published negative stories about this group, others accused this group of being a cult with no real environmental agenda (See http://www.clothingbincult.com/ ), and then the green bins disappeared from many locations. Now I only see these bins at gas stations and less reputable businesses. 

  16. So what`s wrong with recycling clothing.  Do you know how many clothes get dumped in our landfills on an annual basis?

    I don`t understand why we are apposed to a recycling initiative that is not orchestrated by just one group. 

    What happens to all the aging friends supporters.  Is the younger generation prepared to step in and take over.  I doubt it. 

    Maybe the libraries need to look for alternative ways to collect their books and progress with the rest of the world. 

    How many books can grandma sort in a day…..


  17. Ask the students at Brookfield Elementary or the 4000 books going to Rise Community School in Oakland how they like the books.

    I think it`s great that the Friends help their local library, but what about all the other libraries in Oakland or in demographic areas that don`t receive the support of higher income and educational donations such as Berkeley.

    Are we only concerned with our own back yard or do we have a global crisis on our hands that requires co-operation and initiatives such as Reading Tree`s or Reading Partners to help us see that their are communities that don`t have the same type of involvement that Berkeley does but is still in need of our support.

    I applaud both groups on their literacy and recycling initiatives and feel there is room enough for both charities to operate. 

    I also suggest that the reporters focus a bit more on the benefits of such a program rather than the negative which is what sells papers.  How about running a story on the single mom in Oakland who can barely keep food on the table for her kids.  How about what a difference some of these books would make in the lives of kids that have nothing rather than a few dollars that won`t go back into Berkeley`s funding. 

    Can you spare some change Berkeley……

  18. Yes, I’ve noticed nice clean donation bins going in around Berkeley, Albany and El Cerrito. There’s one at the gas station at Colusa and Solano. The name is not recogizable to me, and I wonder where the items are going, and how much it’s helping people who really need help?

  19. Thank you for this information! Is the same thing going on with the clothes “recycling” bins? (there’s one on the Malcolm X school grounds, and I’ve seen many others around town).