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.

"I just take it personally," he comments.
He says there is only one way to stop the scavengers.
"I don't want to sound like a monger or something, but if a citation is issued I would like to see that the citation is turned over to the IRS and the INS. I think that would really put the breaks on it."

West Coast Recycling, the city's largest buyback center, is located at 17th and Rhode Island at the foot of Potrero Hill. The corrugated-steel depot sits like a wart among the chichi warehouses in a basin that stretches west through the Mission to the Castro, north through SOMA to the Embarcadero, and via Third Street out to Bayview.

As the center prepares to open at 7 a.m., streams of shopping carts, bicycles, and battered trucks -- all laden with recyclables -- approach the depot like iron filings tugged toward a magnet.

The first arrival is an African-American man toting a large plastic janitor's bin. Next is an Asian guy carrying a pole yoked over his shoulders, two bags of crushed cans dangling from each end. A white guy speeds in on an old bicycle ferrying milk crates filled with cans, while a group of Latinos approaches slowly pushing shopping carts wobbling under their loads. An elderly Asian woman pulls a small cart filled with cans behind her. All disappear into the gloom of the building.

One by one, the trucks of the Mosquito Fleet enter the weighing station. Some trash-pickers have neatly refitted their truck beds with wooden sides, complete with ladders and elaborate rope riggings. Others have merely slapped two sheets of plywood to the sides of the truck to corral the piles of contraband cardboard. A few Sunset Scavenger recycling trucks, even a Volvo station wagon, wait in a line that stretches around the corner. A church group serves coffee on the corner until 7:30.

As the morning progresses, a shiny white truck labeled Protector Shopping Cart Services arrives to retrieve the stolen Safeway carts. As the Protector employee struggles to anchor all nine of the carts in the back of the pickup, a raffish white fellow dressed in a black stocking cap, red shirt, and khaki pants secured with rope exits the depot. Dragging a convoy of three Safeway carts behind him, he waves at the cart collector, then gives a radiant smile.

He's "Bill Doe," a 44-year-old junk-picker.
Watching the latecoming Mosquito Fleeters from curbside -- "The wretched cart people," Bill calls them -- he offers his commentary on the unfolding scene.

Irksome to Bill are three white guys in Road Warrior costume pushing two shopping carts filled to the rims with cans and bottles.

"Shopping carts with no bags," Bill says. "That's just so illogical."
The cargo of a shopping cart topped off with cans and bottles is worth about $5 at West Coast Recycling, Bill says. The way to make real money is the way he does: tie 25 heavy-duty plastic bags to a cart. Bill boasts that he is one of the few recyclers who can make $50 in a night's work -- and he offers the receipt to prove it.

The state sets rates for the buyback of cans that centers must either meet or exceed. Glass is redeemed at 5 cents per pound; the current state rate for aluminum cans is 2.5 cents per can or 68.25 cents per pound. Some centers, like West Coast, add a percentage of the scrap value to the redemption value of aluminum cans, bringing the total to 85 cents per pound.

A tattooed urban primitive with an obvious drug problem staggers toward the door clutching a small bag of cans.

"Pathetic," says Bill, who doesn't drink. "Most of these guys are unfocused and have no goals."

Talking about his work outside West Coast on another day, Bill offers the self-assessment that he is lazy. Aside him are two wired-together shopping carts, festooned with no less than 27 sacks of sorted recyclables. It took Bill 11 hours to gather this load from the hilly curbs of Bernal Heights three miles away, but he's still full of self-reproach, even though it's worth $46.

"I just don't go at it like I should."
Bill says he grew up in Ohio, spent part of his adolescence in a mental ward, and entered the Marine Corps in the late '60s. After he received an honorable discharge in 1972, he bounced around doing jobs from telephone operator to short-order cook. In 1989, he moved to San Francisco for the literary life.

"I wrote science fiction," he explains, "just to bring clarity to situations."

He ended up homeless shortly after he got here -- "I just couldn't get it together" -- and has been scavenging for the past three years. "It's almost oxymoronic," he says, "picking through garbage cans for a living. How do you call it a life?"

Now he sleeps each night under an awning near West Coast, stashing a color TV and a flight bag in the weeds.

"When you live outside, every single place you sit down you have to pay," he says. "There's no sense of privacy except in the bathroom."

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