How Sharing Wealth Creates Planetary Health
Environmentalist Bert BallJanuary 2018
By Kyle Roderick
A nationally recognized environmentalist and pioneer of the sharing economy, Los Angeles-based Bert Ball is the founder and executive director of L.A. SHARES. For the past 26 years, L.A. SHARES has worked with 4,000+ Californian companies to give away more than $180 million worth of goods and materials to almost 5,000 nonprofit organizations and schools throughout the City of Los Angeles.
According to Ball, decades of nurturing and growing an environmentally-focused organization that benefits communities and the planet has influenced the way he manages his mind/body health.
“Running an organization that has such an impact on the environment and the community has been a huge wake-up call in many ways,” he says. “When I started this organization, I was living on take-out food and working around the clock. As L.A. SHARES has grown, I have aged.”
In the past few years, Ball says he has made thriving rather than surviving a key priority. “I sleep much more than I did before, I shop more frequently for freshly prepared and preferably organic foods, plus I take daily vitamin and mineral supplements.” A lifelong sailor, Ball has lived in Marina del Rey for decades, where he takes regular bike rides and beach walks on the edge of the Pacific. “I started using sun block a few years ago,” he says, “after I got sunburned during a long traffic jam one day on the freeway.”
L.A. SHARES serves school teachers, nonprofit health clinics and others working for vitally important community organizations that are looking for computers, software, medical supplies, furniture, art materials, literary classics, musical instruments and more. While L.A. SHARES helps nurture young minds in underserved schools and parks as well as senior-citizen centers and other community hubs, perhaps the most important entity to benefit from L.A. SHARES is the Earth.
“Everything we give away would be otherwise headed for the landfill,” says Ball, who describes his organization’s societal effect as win-win-win-win. “Public schools, senior centers and other nonprofits receive essential supplies such as computers, art materials, cots and other furniture that they could never afford to buy. All L.A. SHARES demands in return is that the recipient write a thank-you letter to the donor.”
Corporations and individuals contribute valuable resources to the community and get tax breaks for donations of items they’d otherwise throw out.
“Even better,” Ball says, “the Bureau of Sanitation is spared the expense of hauling what would have been solid waste, less garbage goes into the earth and so the planet wins.” In fact, by utilizing L.A. SHARES, California businesses adhere to Assembly Bill 939, which requires them to reduce their landfill-bound waste. In 2015, L.A. SHARES helped local companies divert more than one million pounds of useful goods and materials from local landfills.
Educated at Lehigh University and Sarah Lawrence College, Ball is a baby boomer who by his own admission, “partied away my early twenties.” After a stint working as a paralegal in a New York corporate law firm, Ball moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s with the intention of entering the film business. “Southern Californian culture bubbled with great energy then,” he recalls. “The mid-80s L.A. art scene featured great galleries with emerging artists, the weather was so much better than in New York, and biking, going to the beach, hiking and eating salad for dinner became part of everyday life.”
Although Ball scored a coup by getting accepted into UCLA’s highly competitive School of Theater, Film and Television’s Film Producers Master’s Degree Program, by the end of his course, “It was clear that the film business was loaded with huge risks, challenging personalities and far more politics than I ever imagined.” Reevaluating what he could do with his life, it dawned on Ball that “I wanted to be of service and do something that would help others who had never had the advantages that I had been given.”
Shortly after this realization, Ball visited the set of Steven Spielberg’s Peter Pan-inspired film “Hook” with his UCLA master’s class. Surveying the huge indoor sound studio, he asked then-studio head Peter Guber what would happen to the tons of plywood and lumber used to build the elaborate sets. When Guber replied, “It will all be thrown away,” Ball arranged to salvage tons of wood for Christmas in April, a national nonprofit organization that builds low-cost housing in underserved communities such as South Central Los Angeles.
“I saw that the studio’s trash was potentially someone else’s treasure,” he recalls. “Being able to divert these materials from a landfill and give them to people who could use them to build housing gave me a lot of satisfaction. Besides, there is really no such thing as throwing something away—there is no such place as ‘away.’”
Shortly afterward, Ball started a pilot program of the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department called Materials for The Arts.
“Most people I spoke to about my new job had no idea what I was talking about,” he says. “Remember, this was before household and corporate recycling programs had been instituted in major cities across the US. People weren’t even thinking about recycling household trash, surplus office supplies or furniture. Back then, numerous friends told me I was crazy to go into the garbage business when I could pursue a career in film production and make lots of money.”
As it happened, the pilot program was so successful that in 1994 it became an independent, nonprofit organization called L.A. SHARES.
“It was exciting to expand and service multiple nonprofit groups and schools rather than just artists,” Ball says.
By the late 1990s, L.A. SHARES was one of the biggest and busiest nonprofit materials-reuse organizations in the world. During Bill Clinton’s presidential administration, Ball traveled to Washington, D.C, to meet with various Environmental Protection Agency executives and political and municipal leaders to advise on how state and city government agencies could create organizations similar to L.A. SHARES.
Back in the late 1990s, L.A. SHARES was one of the first nonprofits to harness the power of the internet to broaden its depth and reach so as to distribute as many goods to needy groups as possible.
“We were early adopters of internet technology and influence,” Ball says. “L.A. SHARES started hosting what are in essence online lotteries. Through our interactive website, qualified schools and nonprofits in the City of Los Angeles registered online for the L.A. SHARES program and created a detailed online profile of their organization, including an overall ‘Wish List’ and a ‘Top 20 List’ of their most needed items, drawn from the donations we carry.
“When matching items came in, they were invited to bid on them. We asked them to promise that if they were chosen, they would pick up the goods directly from the donor and write the donor a thank-you note explaining how the goods are being used.” (The same system prevails today.) “We keep careful records to ensure that goods are distributed fairly and equitably based on need, as well as how recently each of the groups has received other L.A. Shares items.”
Ball is the first to admit that he could never have accomplished all that he has without the help of strong partners. For example, the City of Los Angeles provides free warehouse space in the Los Feliz and Wilmington areas.
complex, vitamins A, C,
D, E, lutein and zeaxanthin,
calcium, magnesium, biotin,
and zinc on a daily basis,
Ball says there’s one
supplement that is
particularly valuable to him:
probiotics. “I had a staph
infection last year and
started taking probiotics to
recover from that,” he says.
“Since then, the probiotics
have made a substantial
difference in my digestion
as well as my energy level.”
“From its inception, the key partner of L.A. SHARES has been the City of Los Angeles, with the direct support and participation from the Department of Public Works, Bureau of Sanitation, Solid Resources Citywide Recycling Division,” he says. “The current mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, has also been a stalwart supporter of the organization, dating back to when he was a Los Angeles City Council member.”
Enlightened and proactive board members such as musician and cofounder of A & M Records Herb Alpert, various film industry executives, corporate sustainability officers and Los Angeles philanthropist Page Adler have also helped build L.A. SHARES into the powerhouse that it is today.
“For 26 years, this organization has managed to attract very effective board members and donors who are committed to expanding the reach of L.A. SHARES,” Ball says.
One of the reasons why Ball thinks L.A. SHARES continues to grow and thrive is that it avoids the problem that most standard recycling programs face, namely, that they are “end-of-life based,” as he puts it. “If you’ve got an empty bottle or a can, the Sanitation Department can help you dispose of it. But what about a bottle full of shampoo, an old-fashioned desk or a good battery? Our whole effort is aimed at interrupting the waste stream further up the line, when things like batteries or office equipment are still in good working order and can thus be used by others.” On an average day, Ball reports, L.A. Shares finds homes for about 150 items. On a great day, the organization has given away as many as 450 cots and chairs to a worthy recipient.
Ball is presently working with Lehigh University to perfect the L.A. SHARES software so that a staff of one can operate an online materials exchange program.
“We intend to release an inexpensive system by 2019,” he says. “I like the idea of sharing our program with as many people as possible. My dream is that more people will start passing along their unwanted but still-functioning items to needy and deserving recipients.”
For more information on L.A. SHARES, to either donate or be a recipient, log onto Lashares.org
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