Walkin’ After Midnight

In the quiet of early morning, the unmusical clanging of glass bottles can be heard a block away. Tex moves slowly along San Francisco’s 25th Street, his heavy-duty Costco shopping cart loaded as efficiently as a mule packed by a master guide. The main basket is crammed full of bottles and aluminum cans. A bag hangs from each corner for a specific grade of plastic or for clothing. Scrounged food is kept off to one side, so the drips fly away from his legs as he pushes his cart. A pair of black wingtips dangles from the handlebar.
“There is so much garbage in this city,” Tex declares, meaning it literally. For him, garbage is an abundant resource—he makes a living selling recyclable materials gathered from trashcans and blue bins around the city. “The scavenger company thinks they’re losing something, but they aren’t losing. There is no way I’m gonna get it all. And the next guy’s not gonna get it all. Even in this little area, all of us can’t get everything.”
Tex waits for a car to pass before stooping to pull an old sports drink bottle from a box full of garbage on its way to the Altamont landfill out in Livermore—where San Francisco sends its trash. “They got undercovers out here that pop us now and then,” he says slowly, rubbing bloodshot eyes. “But if I could afford to pay a ticket, I probably wouldn’t be out here doin’ this stuff. So they give us tickets and then we get a warrant but what are they gonna do…take us to the penitentiary?” His voice trails off for a few seconds. “I’m not out here sticking a pistol at people.”
The police wouldn’t disagree. San Francisco Police Inspector Bob Rogers has worked to stop the theft of recyclables for the last seven years. When residents call Sunset Scavenger—the division of NorCal Waste Management that handles recycling in the city—Rogers coordinates a team to investigate. One evening a week, he sends an officer out for a few hours to issue citations and warnings. People like Tex, he says, are not usually targeted. “We rarely get calls about the homeless types,” he explains, “except to just chase ’em out of the neighborhood.” He talks about these individual poachers with the same deliberate sensitivity you hear from every waste-management or recycling staffer in the Bay Area. “Lots of them are the ‘poor soul’ types who are out there with the shopping carts. We try to explain to them that it’s quality-of-life issues that make the rate payers call: breaking bottles, making noise in the middle of the night. We’ll just say ‘Look, we had a complaint, please don’t take stuff, please don’t make so much noise.’”
Rogers is most concerned with the big guys, the poachers with trucks or even fleets of trucks, that prowl the city for big hauls. In the late ’90s, when the market for recyclables was booming, truck poaching was rampant. But even now San Francisco officials estimate the city is losing $20,000 in materials sales per month, or roughly 3 percent of its returns from the resale of paper, bottles, and cans. The Ecology Center estimates that its Berkeley recycling program loses about $10,000 per month to poachers, mostly to those with trucks, or 14 percent of its revenue from materials sales. These bottles and cans get recycled whether they come in by pickup, shopping cart, or Ecology Center collection vehicle, but, at least in San Francisco, the drain of money from city revenue is passed on to consumers in higher garbage rates. Neither the District Attorney in San Francisco nor the DA in Berkeley has the time or money to prosecute more than a few of the truck poachers, let alone people with shopping carts. According to Inspector Rogers, San Francisco prosecutors will only proceed with a case when someone has been cited 20 or 30 times, so “some of the truck people are just paying the $75 fines as a cost of doing business.”
Dave Williamson, who runs Berkeley’s curbside program, says that his drivers occasionally take a vigilante approach: “Sometimes we catch them in a cul-de-sac, and we park our truck in the opening and call the police. They usually let both the driver and the vehicle go; they don’t even charge him. But we’re allowed to collect the recyclables from the truck, you know, just to rub it in.”
People with shopping carts are more of a nuisance to residents than a problem for recycling programs. Some of the foot scavengers even claim to be helping the environment. Walking with Tex one night, we ran into another poacher. In his forties, Miguel, like Tex, struggled to push his weighed-down shopping cart as he scanned the curbs and gutters for anything of value. His entire load, a cart packed to the top with glass bottles, would net him five dollars the next morning. “We all have to do what we can to save what little is left,” he tells me, “and I’m cleaning up the city.” He throws his arms open wide and says, “This is my home and I love it. I’m not going back to my country, so I have to help make this place better. I’m taking these bottles and bringing them back so they don’t become garbage. We all have to do something about that.”

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