Money for Nothing

If you're good at pushing a shopping cart - really good - and establish a lucrative route, you too can make minimum wage by heisting bottles, cans, and newspapers from the blue recycling bins. And incur the wrath of the cops in the process.

Dusk falls on Fourth Avenue in the Richmond District as Officer Lewis Bronfeld of the San Francisco Police Department's Burglary Detail cruises the area in an unmarked squad car. Bronfeld slows the vehicle as he and his partner, Officer John Cleary, squint at a double-parked 1981 Toyota pickup with a camper shell on the back.

"This one here, this could be it," Bronfeld says to Cleary. A shadowy figure with a ponytail runs toward the truck hefting a box on her shoulder.

"Bingo!" shouts Bronfeld, and for two seconds the scene turns NYPD Blue as Bronfeld does a U-turn and roars back toward the truck, his beams on high. The young woman, a Latina, freezes in the glare. Behind her in the truck cab sits a 40-ish Latino.

"Police!" says Cleary, stepping out of the car and waving his badge at the pair.

Bronfeld joins Cleary.
"Do you have any ID?" Bronfeld asks them. "Do you speak English?"
He opens the truck bed's rickety hatch to find another young Latina, eyes glassy with fright, sitting amid the booty.

"Buenas noches," Bronfeld says as he surveys the cache of 50-some shopping bags stuffed with discarded newspaper, piled neatly as bricks. A short older woman in long peasant clothes emerges from behind a car.

"Yeah, we'll be here awhile," Bronfeld says as he busts the newspaper thieves.

Yes, newspaper thieves.
The cans, bottles, newsprint, and cardboard stacked at city curbs were once considered just garbage. But no more. During the last 15 years, a free-lance industry on wheels has established itself to cash in on trash. First there was the "Mosquito Fleet," so dubbed by the refuse industry because they're so pesky, who piloted pickup trucks to gather recyclables. Later came marching armies of scavengers, wielding nothing more than shopping carts. The renegade recyclers come from all walks of life, but currently most of them are Cambodia immigrants, the homeless, or impoverished Latinos.

The rise of the renegade recyclers -- estimated at 300 pickups and hundreds of shopping carts -- parallels both the advent of mandated curbside recycling and eight months of escalating prices for scrap paper and aluminum (not to mention the homeless-hostile Matrix program). As recently as May 1994, some recycling programs were paying scrap dealers $5 per ton to take old newspapers off their hands. Today, scrap newspaper commands between $75 and $130 per ton. Scrap corrugated cardboard, which went for $20 to $75 per ton last May on the West Coast (where prices are higher), sold for $140 to $160 per ton in May 1995.

"Paper has seen a tremendous spike in the past year," says Amy Snell, editor of the trade journal Recycling Market. "It's a combination of new mills coming on-line that require recycled tonnage and consumer demand for recycled paper products."

Other recyclables have increased in value, too: The scrap value of HDPE, the plastic from which milk jugs are made, has risen from 5 cents per pound last year to 22 cents per pound. Aluminum cans have almost doubled in price and now fetch as much as 50 cents per pound.

All of which has made your blue recycling bin glitter like gold. Recycling theft has broken out across the continent -- from Los Angeles to New York, from Toronto to Houston -- and city recycling officials are scrambling to stop it. Recyclable aluminum cans and paper that have real cash value have historically subsidized the recycling of valueless tin cans, which means that the wholesale pilfering of the good stuff indicates that the city programs end up recycling little more than ... trash.

According to David Assmann of the city Recycling Office, San Franciscans are enthusiastic about S.F.'s recycling. A whopping 84 percent of the population recycles about 18.1 pounds of material per week (94 percent of college graduates recycle, but only 76 percent of high school grads). The potential value of all of San Francisco's recyclables is $19 million, of which the official haulers recover about $9 million. Assmann estimates that the scavengers collect $2.3 million worth of trash. (The remainder of the recyclable trash is mixed in with the garbage and cannot be recycled.)

The city's garbage guerrillas prowl the streets by night, pushing shopping carts and driving ramshackle trucks, filching the newspapers and cans set at the curb for the official recyclers. They dumpster-dive during the day for precious cardboard in SOMA, and beg small businesses for permission to take empty boxes. You turn away as they rummage waste receptacles in the Financial District hunting for a discarded soda can.

Their numbers have grown to the point, says Ed Dunn of the nonprofit S.F. Community Recycling, that "effectively the city has two recycling systems."

One is legal and the other very much against the law. And the competition for curbside trash is so intense that San Francisco recycling officials are now aiming their big guns at the tiny mosquitoes.

Bronfeld and Cleary issue two $76 public health citations for scavenging from recycling bins. One goes to the 40-ish man, who is culpable as the driver. He, it turns out, is the father of this family of Guatemalan refugees. One of his daughters gets a citation for hefting the blue bin. The other daughter, inside the truck, receives only admonishments because she didn't touch the blue bins. The mother draws a bye.

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