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 salad days may be drawing to a close for the Mosquito Fleet, even though the market for recyclables remains robust. Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling, predicts prices for recyclables will stay high through the next decade, driven by lack of tree fiber, consumer demand for recycled products, and a radical shift in the role of recycling.

"It used to be people in Volvos [who recycled]," says Powell. "Now Charlie Six-Pack in his pickup is recycling, too. Recycling is now a legitimate industrial supply mechanism rather than a political strategy."

But the market for recyclables is extremely cyclical. The prices for newsprint are now falling from their all-time highs, as are cardboard prices. Previously, cardboard soared 400 percent to nearly $200 a ton, but prices are now slipping below $100 a ton. The drop is so precipitous that many scavengers no longer go out every night.

Meanwhile, the city is stepping up its enforcement program. Both the San Francisco Police Department and the city's Recycling Program are talking with the DA's office about increasing the penalty for taking recyclables from a public health code violation to a criminal theft charge. Meanwhile the Recycling Program has commenced a campaign aimed at getting citizens to call the police on scavengers.

At the state level, the Department of Conservation has announced a grant program for cities taking anti-scavenging measures. And there are some plans afoot to prevent buyback centers from accepting recyclables from people using stolen shopping carts. Also, an April letter from Oakland's acting recycling supervisor asks the Department of Conservation to rethink AB2020, the "Bottle Bill," and "dramatically" reduce the redemption rates for cans and bottles.

The crackdown isn't a grass-roots thing: A 1993 poll for the San Francisco Recycling Program showed that only 3 percent of San Franciscans support ticketing to scavengers. Some of the charges aren't even sticking. The Municipal Court dismissed not only the charges against Saroueun, but Sey as well.

That's not much to show for a program whose $125,000 price tag makes it one of the most expensive enforcement programs in the nation, according to Jerry Powell. In L.A., according to wire service reports, city officials budgeted just $15,000 for police overtime. And they got results: Every month $8,000 worth of newspapers are not stolen from their program.

Bill Doe has already sensed the shift in the winds: He's just checked into a Matrix hotel room.

He made the decision on the spur of the moment when the Matrix van with its pair of social workers appeared at the corner of 15th and Carolina, not far from the West Coast Recycling depot.

"They got me a little program," he says wearily. "I don't like being manipulated, but after all, we're just street people and we're lucky to get any damn thing."

He fears the worst is yet to come.
"If Jordan is re-elected, they're really gonna come down on us," he muses. "Overnight they'll take the carts away."

He's standing outside West Coast Recycling with his two carts, waiting for the door to open. At his feet he has gathered a 5-pound jar of peanut butter, a pair of women's shoes, two telephones, and a frying pan.

Three weeks ago, he told of his decision to get off General Assistance (GA) and pick through the recycling.

"I didn't want to be a slug or a vegetable or a GA person," he said then.
Now he looks at his carts with an air of defeat.
"I have these grandiose plans that never work out.

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