San Francisco's scavengers: a story of gangs, poverty and recycling

Scavenger carrying waste

A scavenging culture, like that seen in Africa and Asia, is growing in cities across the US

Scavenging is on the rise in the US and is no longer the exclusive domain of the poor. Felicity Carus reports on San Francisco's attempts to close down this informal sector and its impact on a burgeoning recycling culture

A few steps away from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park lined with eucalyptus and palm trees, a dozen men and women queue with trolleys overflowing with salvaged trash. At 9.30am they are allowed to start the noisy process of separating the cans, glass and plastic bottles before being weighed.

The Haight Ashbury Neighbourhood Centre (HANC) echoes with the clink of glass and the crunch of cans. Years of discarded dregs from fizzy drink cans and bottles of beer and wine makes the weighing area sticky underfoot, and the air stale and sweet.

The majority of those who arrive every morning at the recycling yard with plastic bags and shopping trolleys are some of the keenest recyclers in San Francisco - not for the sake of the environment, but because it’s their only source of income. But that is now under threat.

Victor, 59, turns away with $27.95, after weighing in two barrels of glass, one barrel of cans and 10lbs of plastic. He comes to HANC with recycling he has collected in the city every week. It’s the only work he knows, he says.

Patrick, 51, sleeps rough in the Golden Gate Park, and reckons his haul is worth around $5. He comes to HANC most days because 'I want a drink and I’m hungry'.

California’s 'bottle bill' was introduced in 1987 to encourage recycling and reduce litter by adding a deposit of 5¢ for containers up to 24 ounces, and 10¢ for larger containers. Deposits on aluminum cans and glass and plastic bottles are then redeemed at recycling centres.
Statewide, the bottle bill represents rich pickings for recyclers. Of the 21 billion drinks purchased in cans and containers in 2009, 17.2 billion of those were recycled, according to California's Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.

The California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act has been a huge success. Last year, San Francisco recycled 77 per cent of its total waste, and has set itself a zero waste target by 2020.

Some of this success is down to innovative policies such as a city-wide kitchen scrap and garden waste collection service, resulting in 20,000 tonnes of high-grade compost a year - much of which ends up spread over the vineyards of Napa.

Scavengers who scour the streets of San Francisco for cans and bottles also contribute to this high recycling rate, creating a symbiotic relationship that turns trash into cash and provides an income to some of the city’s estimated 8,640 homeless people.

Homeless men and women pushing shopping trolleys loaded with their possessions and empty cans and bottles are now as much a feature of the city as the fog that sweeps in under the Golden Gate Bridge. And although it is illegal, police are reluctant to arrest people for scavenging which can carry a fine of $2,000.

Dr Dan Knapp, a sociologist and founder of Urban Ore, a salvage company in Berkeley, said: 'Scavengers are hand separating the recycling before it reaches the depot, and they’re willing to work for almost no money - a dollar an hour on average. It’s a cheap way to access labour, that’s why it works and why it’s hard to stamp out. The police don’t want to enforce the law because they know that they’re the working poor trying to make a living and don’t have many alternatives.'

The recycling economy

But San Francisco’s scavengers are not all homeless or disaffected like Victor and Patrick. HANC is one of around three recycling centres in San Francisco and returns $60,000-worth of deposits to recyclers each month. But only some of that money goes into the pockets of the homeless because the 'bottle bill' also props up other poor communities.

Immigrants from Latin America turn to recycling when they are unable to find work or claim welfare, while elderly Asian men and women top up their pensions.

However, since the economic crisis, the numbers of scrap and traders have ballooned to their thousands, operating in an informal industry estimated by San Francisco’s official waste disposal company to be worth at least $5m a year. But where once the homeless, immigrants and Asian pensioners turned up with trolley loads worth a few dollars, increasing numbers of working- and middle-class people are driving to the centre with boot loads of recyclables worth $100 or more.

Kevin Drew, the residential recycling coordinator at the city’s environment department, says: 'More people are scavenging as the economy suffers. It used to be the homeless and the really disaffected and little old Asian ladies but now organized gangs drive around the streets with trucks. As government budgets shrink, more workers will be laid off and suddenly collecting bottles and cans has value. It used to be marginalised, but now middle class families are turning to it.'

Wayne Wiley, 25, one of 10 staff at HANC says 'better dressed' people in nice cars are increasingly using the centre, and cites a flight attendant who turns up with bottles and cans collected at airports during layovers when his hourly rate drops to $1.50.

After the weigh in begins at 10am, the cars become increasingly flash – brand new VW and Audi SUVs park alongside modest family sedans.
Elisa B, a 38-year-old teacher, has brought $14-worth of her family’s recycling in the boot of her Cherokee Jeep. She says: 'Times are hard and my salary is so low. I used to leave my recycling out on the street, but now I bring it here.'

Jason Stone, 39, a bar tender, arrives in his truck with around $100 worth of cans and bottles that took him eight hours to collect from bins in his neighourhood.

He says: 'I need the extra cash. I’m divorced, with one child, and $600 a week in wages isn’t enough, so the extra $400 makes a big difference.'

Gangs taking over recycling profits

San Franciscans are mostly sympathetic to the scavengers, and HANC is popular with its neighbours who use the centre to drop off their recycling and include Hollywood actor Danny Glover, who lives a few blocks away and has voiced his opposition to closure.

But Bob Besso, recycling manager at Recology, the city’s official waste collectors, says his company loses at least $5m a year to the scavengers. He estimates that there are 400 vehicles operated by organised gangs that earn up to six-figure incomes. The company has resorted to employing private patrols because the city cannot afford the cost of enforcement, he says.

'These people are poachers and are stealing a commodity. Not one container on the streets of San Francisco doesn’t get opened between 8pm when it’s left out on the street by the householder and 8am in the morning when it’s collected by our trucks.

'Scavengers are creaming the crop, taking the most valuable materials and leaving us the rest. It’s parasitic and is the Achilles’ heel of California’s bottle and recycling laws. They should be scrapped. What went from a consumer law turned into a poachers’ opportunity law.'

Recycling plant now due to close

The improvised social safety net created by the bottle bill was an unintended consequence that Gavin Newsom, San Francisco’s former mayor, appeared determined to crack down on by closing HANC.
Ed Dunn, HANC’s executive director, accused Newsom of a vendetta against the centre: 'It’s class warfare because poor people use this centre the most. These are people who have no hope of getting work and it would be a gigantic obscenity to close the centre.'

Now Newsom has gone to Sacramento to be Governor Jerry Brown’s second in command, an eviction order from March has yet to be fully enforced.

It’s too late to put the brakes on legal proceedings started under Newsom and executed by the City and County of San Francisco, says Robert Devries, the lawyer representing HANC.

HANC has challenged the appeal which could be ruled on at any time - tomorrow or three months. Until then, HANC’s regulars live in a state of limbo, expecting the gates to be closed for good without warning as the battle with city hall continues.

Devries says: 'The centre is arguing that the eviction order is political retaliation and is not legal. The eviction is a minor skirmish in a wider political debate about the value to the community of the recycling centre.'

Supervisor John Avalos hopes that the eviction order will eventually be overturned, and that San Francisco’s world-renowned social tolerance will prevail.

He said: 'Evicting HANC is part of an effort to remake San Francisco into a city that looks better for the wealthy and not one that takes care of low-income people.

'We had the summer of love here in San Francisco, it’s a place where people come hoping for something different. Gavin Newsom’s approach went way against the notion of San Francisco as a sanctuary city and as a place where people can remake themselves.

'People come from all over the world to be in San Francisco. Some come with means to find a home and others have to scrabble for years to find economic security. That’s just the reality.'

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