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.

By the beginning of World War I, the streets of San Francisco were so crowded with independent haulers (the city still had no formal garbage collection) that no one was making any money. To deter new entries into the trade, the free-lance garbage men formed refuse associations that made each man an owner in the garbage collection company. "This corporation must protect itself against competition and from degenerating into drones of useless shareholders," read the bylaws of Sunset Scavenger.

Sunset Scavenger, one of the early refuse associations, incorporated in 1920. SPA, later renamed Golden Gate, incorporated shortly after. In 1932, after much strife over garbage routes, the city was home to 36 garbage companies that competed to provide service to 97 collection districts.

The trash haulers amassed immense political power along with the trash, and two of them, SPA and Sunset, flexed their power in 1932 -- and secured a lock on residential garbage pickup -- when the city charter was rewritten. The charter bestowed upon the 36 established haulers monopoly rights to 97 collection districts to haul residential trash.

"By 1935 only SPA and Sunset remained in the formal competition and Sunset bought the last operating company, Mission Scavenger in 1939. From then on Sunset and SPA divided up the city into two more or less unified areas. The cooperatives had taken over," writes Stewart E. Perry in his 1978 book San Francisco Scavengers. (The consolidation of the business was completed in 1987, when Golden Gate and Sunset were merged into Norcal.)

Scandal plagued the operation in the '30s, as witnessed by these Chronicle headlines between 1932 and 1935 -- "Collection Racketeering," "Garbage Collection 'War' " -- and this one from 1937: "Collection Monopoly of Sunset Scavenger Protested." And the rancor over the monopoly continues: A 1993 suit against the city by independent hauler WRT failed to break Norcal's grip, and in the last elections, voters defeated Proposition K, which would have opened up the city to other haulers.

"This is the oldest battle in San Francisco, and it's not over yet," says Deputy City Attorney John Cooper.

While the law is excruciatingly specific about who can haul trash and the illegality of pinching recyclables from blue bins, it is vague about another Mosquito Fleet commodity: cardboard.

Cardboard occupies "a gray area in the law," as Assistant DA Candace Heisler puts it, as long as the cardboard isn't torn to regulation size and deposited in a blue bin. The 1990 anti-scavenging section of the public health code states that "the city and its duly authorized collectors have the exclusive right to collect recyclable materials placed for collection in public sidewalk and street areas."

But whether cardboard on the sidewalk has been abandoned or has been deposited for the city's authorized recyclers is a matter of interpretation. If the intent of the person who unloads his cardboard is to recycle, then taking it from the curbside on recycling day appears to be illegal. But if the gatherer has secured permission for the 'board, then it is a simple transfer of a property right.

Norcal has several trucks that pick up cardboard from businesses for free. Norcal considers this a "service": Bob Besso estimates that between wages and machinery it costs Norcal $150 per ton just to pick it up. Compare that to the Mosquito Fleet, who pick up the cardboard and bring it to the depot, selling it for only $100 to $120 per ton.

Even so, the ambiguity of the law and its enforcement has resulted in a number of $76 citations from the Police Department to cardboard gatherers -- some of them denizens of "Mediterranean" Avenue.

Mediterranean Avenue (its name changed here to protect its residents) is a narrow one-way street of decrepit three-story houses. It's the kind of low-rent place where every door is grilled and spiked with metal but half of the door locks are broken. A dozen kids speaking three languages -- Spanish, Cambodian, and English -- play in the street. "Fuck you," shouts a 3-year-old girl wearing a secondhand prairie dress.

A group of kids romps in the bed of a Mosquito Fleet truck, one of five on the street, stomping aluminum cans vigorously. Four of the avenue's truck owners are Cambodian: Ra, a boyish-looking man who is married with seven young children on AFDC; a 60-year-old man who mails money back to his children in Cambodia;, a middle-aged couple; and a fourth man who makes himself inconspicuous. The fifth scavenger is a grizzled Latino who approaches his work philosophically.

"You got no job, what you gonna do?" he says. "You gonna have to steal? You'd better pick up cardboard on the street."

The Cambodian recyclers employ their countrymen who live on the block. Few speak English, so translation is provided by Jane, a 22-year-old doughnut shop employee who is related to the middle-aged couple. She confides that many of the women receive SSI benefits for mental problems.

Ra, one of the more experienced of the cardboard haulers, recounts the story about getting a $76 ticket from a plainclothes officer while heisting cardboard from the curb on Geary Street. An English-speaking Cambodian who accompanied Ra to court wanted to fight the ticket, but Ra declined.

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