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.

The father is driving with a suspended license, so he is written a traffic citation and his truck is ordered towed. Bronfeld estimates that the fines will total about $1,000 by the time the family retrieves their car and leaves court.

To document the crime scene, Bronfeld poses the father in back of the battered Toyota, its hatch up to show the goods, and snaps a Polaroid. Cleary pokes at the roughly 700 pounds of newspapers, worth about $30 at the recycling depot.

"See, he's got quite an operation here," says Cleary. "Is it easy? He just drives along and picks it up!"

"In a way I feel bad for him," confides Bronfeld as he fills out paperwork on the hood of the police car. "He's unemployed, and I don't know where he's gonna get the money. It's not gonna be pretty."

Bronfeld is right. The family speaks no English and is poor among the poor.
A patrol car arrives carrying a Spanish-speaking officer who explains the citations to the family, and then gives them a ride home to the Mission. Bronfeld and Cleary head back to the station to complete the evening's paperwork. Meanwhile, the Mosquito Fleet buzzes through the mean streets.

Payroll for the SFPD's burglary detail's once-a-week, four-hour overtime shift is covered with a $125,000 grant from the proceeds from the city's recycling program. (Beat cops have also been writing tickets.) Three months into the enforcement program, the special details have issued 122 $76 public health citations and towed nine vehicles. In the course of their garbage dragnet, they've also arrested eight people for other offenses. The police keep a mug file of those Polaroids -- most of the subjects are Asian and Latino, posing stiffly beside their trucks. Although recycling authorities say the program is supposed to target fast-moving truckers who rob from the blue bins, one photo shows an African-American man beside a shopping cart, another an elderly Asian man with a plastic bag.

San Francisco's recycling program is mandated by a 1989 state law that requires California cities to divert 50 percent of all solid waste from landfills by the year 2000. Unlike New York, where citizens are required to recycle by separating paper and bottles, the program is voluntary in San Francisco.

The program is funded by the monthly garbage bills paid by property owners and, to a lesser extent, the sale of the recyclables. Sunset Scavenger, a subsidiary of the Norcal trash conglomerate, is enjoying the fifth year of a seven-year, no-bid contract to collect and haul recyclables to West Coast Recycling. West Coast is another Norcal subsidiary, and it processes the recycled materials.

Because Norcal already holds a monopoly on residential -- and most commercial and municipal -- trash collection in the city, veteran recycling activists like Ed Dunn interpret the police crackdown as another example of Norcal's efforts to maintain an absolute monopoly over San Francisco trash. The police, viewing the conflict through the lens of the legal code, treat the Mosquito Fleet as simple thieves.

Bob Besso got into recycling back in 1973, when he left the Air Force, first working at nonprofit recycling centers. Today he is program manager for Sunset Scavenger's recycling division.

"Part of my whole life was to bring recycling to the point where it was part of the mainstream of our society and part of everyday life," he says, driving a company station wagon around the Richmond.

Besso is famous within the company for his midnight drives in search of scavengers. For years he's gone out alone on his scavenger hunt, with a video camera and a cellular phone, to hunt for the culprits who steal from his blue boxes. He keeps a whole scrapbook of perpetrators in his office.

"I have fought and kicked to get into a position where now I feel like I'm getting something accomplished, and I'm having this program essentially dismembered by thieves," he says.

It's a lonely life, though, all this driving around and hiding behind walls with his lights off.

"My girlfriend's given up on me. A lot of people at work actually have, too," he says. Sometimes, when he confronts a thief with one of his Xeroxed copies of a police memo stating that taking from blue bins is illegal, he fears for his life. Is recycling worth dying for?

"Yes," he says.
Although Basso admits that the recycling program isn't imperiled by theft, he worries that scavengers will drive off some citizen recyclers. To make his point, he offers this letter from a customer:

"Gentlemen: Just a little note, it is indeed very frustrating having to place recyclable items in the box for you to pick up and have some bum pick them up before you do." Besso says his office gets as many as 40 complaints a day, although the city's 1993 recycling survey failed to find a single individual who had quit recycling because of scavengers.

And so he continues his mournful rounds, every once in a while jerking the car to a halt and staring into a blue bin, only to find a bit of a purple egg carton and a steel can that once contained chicken broth.

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