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Meet California’s Most Underappreciated Eco-Warriors: Can Collectors

Meet California’s Most Underappreciated Eco-Warriors: Can Collectors

Liz Biscevic

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images News / Getty Images
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images News / Getty Images

The blocks between 32nd and 52nd streets in Newport Beach, California, belonged to Maria. Or, at least that’s what she told me. I met Maria four years ago on a particularly ambitious Sunday morning when I was picking up a friend for a sunrise hike. I jumped when she popped up from underneath my friend’s patio table—the one that doubled as beer-pong table—where she’d been collecting empty cans and bottles from last night’s party. My friend wasn’t bothered by her presence on his porch; in fact, he appreciated Maria for helping get rid of the weekly evidence of his hard-partying lifestyle. Before we left he bagged up the cans and bottles around his kitchen and gave them to Maria, introducing her to me as the “neighborhood’s favorite recycler.” 

While plenty of people use their street bins for household recycling, collectors like Maria help prevent stray recyclables from ending up as litter or in landfills. They also separate the recyclables in order to receive payment for the materials, saving a processing step. I came to think of her as a sort of environmental foot soldier, recycling the waste that otherwise might not make it to a recycling bin. What struck me the most was how ingrained she was in the community—my friend and his neighbors knew her by name. Originally from Mexico, she moved to Santa Ana—the city adjacent to Newport. She’d drive to Newport around sunrise every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to collect aluminum cans and glass bottles from alleys and trash bins, sometimes even sneaking onto people’s front porch if it was obvious there were bottles to be had. She favored Newport Beach because it’s full of vacationers and college students, both of whom drink a lot of beer. 

Fast forward four years, and I’m not in Newport Beach anymore—I’m in Santa Monica and, unlike in Newport where can collectors seemed to have a designated area in which they work, here it’s a much rougher business. The dense population makes for competition—in the past three months, I’ve met six collectors all within a one-block radius from my house, and I’ve seen maybe a dozen more. Their sheer number fascinates me, but also their methods: There’s a couple that drives a pickup from block to block—the woman drives while the man collects cans and throws them under the tarped trunk bed. Some push shopping carts around the alleys during the day, and one time, I saw a man riding a bike with bags of cans piled so high I couldn’t help but imagine the disaster that would ensue should he make a sharp turn. 

Santa Monica only has one active recycling center, and all around California recycling centers are shutting down. In 2016, more than 20 percent of California’s centers closed, and more are expected to follow as the state’s subsidy payment program has remained the same while the market value of recycled plastic, glass, and aluminum continues to fall—in the last three years it’s decreased around 40 to 50 percent. This is mostly due to the falling cost of oil. If the price of oil drops, so does the cost to produce virgin materials. When virgin materials become cheaper than the price of recyclables, recycling centers—which are all privately owned in California—can’t afford to keep their doors open.

Recycling in California started in earnest 30 years ago with Assembly Bill 2020, also known as the “Bottle bill.” It was designed to encourage recycling and reduce waste by implementing redemption values (known as CRV) for recyclables—plastic, glass, and aluminum. Collection centers were created around the state so people could redeem their recyclables for money. Today, recycling centers in California receive more than 5 billion units each year—about 20 percent of all recyclables nationwide, but the bill also unintentionally created a steady stream of income for all sorts of people on the margins of society. 

For the people who collect cans for a living, these recycling centers are their livelihood and a means to remain independent in spite of difficult circumstances. “When they take this away from me, I’ll have to go on welfare,” a recycler in San Francisco told the Guardian. For immigrants who aren’t able to use government programs to stay afloat, the financial pain could be more profound. 

It’s not just the collectors who are being affected. Susan Collins, the president of the Container Recycling Institute, told the Mercury News that the shrinking number of recycling centers comes with a hefty price tag for consumers of all stripes who have fewer opportunities to collect bottle deposits. “The extent that consumers give up and put containers in trash or recycling bins, those are people who were denied the opportunity to get their refund. And we know that is affecting consumers to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.” The Institute estimates that around 3 million people are affected by the redemption centers closing. 

The decline in recycling centers could also negatively affect California’s goal to reduce waste by 75 percent by 2020. Steve Weissman, a lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, told the Mercury News that government intervention could “help maintain that stability and predictability of the market [and] help balance out issues like fluctuating prices.” A steadier market could help centers keep their doors open, which would benefit the people who rely on the redemptions as an important source of income.  

***

I wanted to know more about these surreptitious collectors of others’ careless waste, who scrape by capitalizing on a state incentive program that was almost certainly not created with them in mind. There was a problem: they did not want to talk to me on the record. 

One woman looked terrified at the thought of speaking to the press, and asked to be “left out of it, please.” One man told me he didn’t “want any trouble from the enforcements.” While there’s no law barring collectors from taking items out of residential recycling bins, there is some conversation about whether items in curbside bins are still considered residents’ “property,” or if they become public property once they hit the street; in both cases one could argue these collectors are stealing. Some municipalities, like Santa Monica, are more laidback about considering these “thefts” than others, though it’s still not something to which the collectors want to draw attention. 

So, I took a new approach and started collecting plastic bottles myself. I didn’t rummage through trash bins, but I did take home the many half-empty water bottles I found lying around my yoga studio every day. In just two weeks I had about five dollars’ worth of plastic bottles that I could use as an ice breaker when introducing myself. 

The recyclers I met come from a wide range of backgrounds—from homeless men and women to retired professionals who can’t survive solely on their pension. 

I met Mike first. He’s in his mid-30’s a first-generation Mexican-American. He collects just enough to buy a pack of cigarettes or a six-pack of beer and averages around $10 a day. He drives to “this side of Santa Monica” to amass the cans and bottles in the recycle bins that line the alleys. “It’s an honest work,” he told me after I offered some of my collected water bottles, “but it’s not a career by any means. I’m looking for a permanent job somewhere.” He’s worked at TGI Fridays, Target, and a few other local restaurants. He told me he’s sent his resume to “more than 3,000 agencies, but they just tell me they don’t have anything yet.” 

Mike explained that for him, collecting cans was a temporary side gig that let him keep up his lifestyle while he waited to find a steadier income. “Things are slow right now, so until then, you have to do the best that you can. For me, this is easy. It’s not a difficult thing to do, and I can make my own hours,” Mike said. He said Santa Monica is a good area for him. “It’s pretty light. There’s only about 20 of us in this whole area. More serious recyclers tend to go to Van Nuys or Downtown L.A., but I live right close to here, so it’s just an easy thing for me to do while I wait for a job.” 

It might be an easy way for Mike to get his cigarette fix, but collecting enough cans or bottles to earn a subsistence is a tedious task. Recycling centers generally pay anywhere from $1.50 to $2.25 per pound for aluminum cans, 20 to 40 cents per pound for bimetal containers, 50 cents to a dollar per pound for plastic, and 10 cents per pound for glass. It takes around 50 empty water bottles to make a pound. 

Photo by Liz Biscevic

Photo by Liz Biscevic

Anne* is 74, but she looks much older. She wakes up every morning before sunrise and collects recyclables around the alleyways near Montana Avenue—one of the more affluent streets in Santa Monica. She lives a short walk away in a rent-controlled apartment that she says she can hardly afford. Even though she receives some government assistance—“government money” she called it, which if she’s talking about social security, would give her $1,341 per month at most—the checks just barely cover the cost of rent. To afford food and other necessities, Anne collects cans up to six days per week—she usually takes Sunday off to attend church and relax. 

Anne makes about $60 on a good week, and that’s enough to buy groceries and pay the bills. “Sometimes I order out,” she said, when I asked her if she ever has money left over. Anne has two kids and they visit sometimes. They don’t know she collects bottles for a side gig, and she has no intention of telling them. When I asked her why, she said, “I don’t want them to worry. I’m able to support myself.”

Juan* is a 42-year-old homeless immigrant who “can work and wants to work.” However, his undocumented status, lack of housing, and a stiff language barrier have made finding a regular job particularly difficult. To earn enough money to buy food, he prefers collecting cans to panhandling for spare change, but said people still seem annoyed by his work. “I don’t hurt anyone,” he told me in Spanish, “But people still act like I’m stealing something. It’s in the trash. You don’t want it anymore, but I’m stealing.” Juan said that he’s been questioned by police before when out collecting cans, though he believes it has more to do with his lack of papers than his recycling activities. 

Juan, a night owl, collects cans after dark. “There are less people so less danger,” he said. Collecting at night also helps him beat the lines at the recycling center in the morning.   

***

When I visited Santa Monica’s primary recycling center, the lines were shorter than I anticipated. On a sunny Friday afternoon, it was only about a 20-minute wait. Claudia, a Mexican-born immigrant standing in line told me, “There’s only one center here, so lines are long. Today it’s not so bad.” 

I was impressed by how many bags Claudia had managed to carry. She had a cart that held two large black garbage bags filled to the brim, and another two on each side. When I asked her how much she thought it was worth, she looked proud. “Sixty or 70. Maybe 80. It’s not bad.” She tries to fill five to six garbage bags per day. Sometimes she does more, but she wants to get to the recycling center before it gets too late. “Lines get longer if you wait (until later in the day),” Claudia told me while I waited with her in the line, which indeed grew just in the time we talked. 

I asked Claudia how she felt about recycling centers closing around California—the news panicked her. She hadn’t seen the headlines in 2016 about the many centers closing around the state. Claudia asked me who would do the recycling in the city, she was dubious that the city and private citizens could match the care she and other collectors take in separating recyclables from garbage and further sorting them into plastics, glass, and metals.

Today, Santa Monica’s recycling center has no plans to shut down, but Claudia still seemed nervous at the thought of centers closing in other cities. 

“If they shut down (here), what would we do?” she asked.

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