Shorty’s face is glowing with sweat as he goes through a blue recycling bin outside an apartment complex near 15th and Shotwell streets. He’s mad because a neighbor told him to leave after he had just jumped a 10-foot tall fence with protruding metal spikes to get to his target: four large Recology bins full of aluminum cans, plastic and glass bottles.
The 5 ft. 6 in. man manages to get one blue bin onto the sidewalk before being kicked out of the apartment complex. He begins shoveling aluminum cans inside his black Recology bin that has the address 609 Sutter written on the top. Done, he moves west on 15th Street and spots another bin.
As he goes through it he cuts his thumb with a shard of glass and proceeds to lick it. He does this for another three hours before dragging his bin, which he says he found on the street, all the way to the San Francisco Community Recyclers on Market and Buchanan streets. It’s 1 a.m. and the center is closed, but it doesn’t matter. He’s not there to see them, but to sell to bootleggers, a pair of men who buy from people on the street for a fraction of the price a recycling center would pay.
This is a scene that plays out every night on San Francisco streets, but it is a game that has increasingly taken a dark turn. According to interviews with bootleggers, poachers, recycling experts and neighbors, some of the men in trucks are now giving poachers drugs in exchange for recyclables.
Poachers steal materials from the blue bins to sell to the bootleggers who are generally working class people in trucks. They are the middlemen who buy recyclables from the desperate to sell in bulk at recycling centers. They pay them with cash and increasingly nowadays, sometimes with drugs. Volume is the middleman’s game.
There are an estimated 400 cars — most of which are bootlegger trucks — involved in recycling theft throughout San Francisco, according to a multi-year investigation Bob Besso did before retiring from Recology. The theft costs Recology an estimated $5 to $10 million dollars a year — money that allows people to feed their addictions, Besso added.
“They get very little back except for the drugs and it keeps them on the streets and no one wins — except for the [bootleggers],” Besso said.
All of the bootleggers are illegal, but stopping them is not a high priority.
Javier, a bootlegger who is the passenger of an 80s grey Ford F150 truck, said he doesn’t deal in drugs. He started recycling full-time last year after quitting his construction job and makes anywhere from $50 to $100 a day. He’s been ticketed several times and even arrested once, but neither has deterred him and his partner from continuing their operation.
“We are just trying to make a living — that’s what the city doesn’t understand,” Javier said. “It is those who deal in drugs that ruin it for the rest of us.”
Police are aware that drugs have become a currency in the black market for recyclables, said Tenderloin Police Captain Jason Cherniss.
“People think it is just a poor person looking to make some extra money,” he said. “What people don’t understand is that it is a criminal enterprise with a kingpin.”
Cherniss, who is eight months into the job at the Tenderloin station, said he tries to pay attention to the problem but has limited resources. The San Francisco Police Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but they told the San Francisco Chronicle last year that they have other priorities.
“We see it and we know that we want to make an effort to stop it, but when you start your shift and you have A (priority) calls and B (priority) calls, you have to handle those first,” Officer Carlos Manfredi, a San Francisco police spokesman, told the Chronicle.
For Shorty, who has been recycling for 18 years, that’s a good thing.
“So this here, I don’t go to jail for,” he said. “I might get a citation. This right here is on the borderline of where they do care, and they don’t care.”
Greg Thomas, 62, who has been recycling with his girlfriend for the past six years, said they’ve gone to bootleggers before but prefer to go to recycling centers because they get full value — 5 cents for most aluminum cans and most plastic glass bottles.
“The ones that’s into the dope and stuff, they love it,” he said. “Nine times out of 10 [bootleggers] have a little money in their pocket. Most of them are illegal anyway, and if you mention the word ‘immigration’ they hurry up and pay you.”
Thomas and his girlfriend eke out about $300 a month by going to the center on Safeway, which along with his veterans check, is enough to survive on, he said.
In the end it is the neighbors who have to deal with the mess and the noise at night, said Angela Sinicropi, who lives near 16th and Folsom streets.
“This was kind of ground zero for them,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times in the morning there be like 20 bins abandoned on the block.”
Joseph Rice, of the San Francisco Community Recyclers, which was asked by Safeway to leave the premises on July 1, said he tries to mitigate the problem.
“It’s a little bit unrealistic but I try to encourage people to keep it clean, just what their neighbors give them,” he said. “That’s obviously not going to happen but we really try to discourage taking the whole container.”
He points to people like Rose Berry, a retired 64-year-old woman who went into bankruptcy and Kevin Alves, who goes to City College and uses the money to buy cat food, as those who benefit from reycling.
Berry, 64, who walks with a tiny suitcase from her rent-controlled Nob Hill apartment to the center on Church and Buchannan streets, supplements her social security check with money she gets from recyclables, which adds up to about $50 a month.
“If you need money this is a way to make ends meet,” she said.
But for every person like Berry and Alves, there are eight people who only use the money to support their drug or alcohol habit, Besso said.
“These people can’t break that cycle if we allow them to go through the carts to get the money to buy their drugs,” Besso said. “They end up dying on the streets of San Francisco or costing millions of dollars at General [Hospital].”
Besso was into recycling before it was cool; he used to hand money to people in Golden Gate Park for separating their recyclables before the California Redemption Value (CRV) law went into effect in 1987. He was in favor of the law when he implemented it while at Recology, but has since turned against it.
At his home in Santa Rosa, which has solar panels and an electric Prius, he sits at his computer and goes over a slideshow of photos he has taken of scavengers and bootleggers, whom he’s on a first-name basis with.
“He’s dead,” he said, as he moves through the photos. “He’s dead; he’s dead; he’s dead.”
Even though police and neighbors know the poachers and bootleggers, officers are powerless because they have to tend to other priorities. And while Besso managed to put one case in front of a judge, the judge tossed it out, possibly because they are inundated with cases, he said.
“Everyone is kind of frustrated with the whole thing,” he said. “That’s also kind of why I retired — I couldn’t get any traction on this issue.”
The state has tried to slow down the underground market this year by imposing a limit on the amount of recyclables any bootlegger can bring into the center to 100 pounds of aluminum or 1,000 pounds of glass per day. This hasn’t stopped Javier and others who just load up different trucks and have another family member drive it to the redemption center.
“The law wasn’t design to help people of low-income,” Besso said, adding that the law was implemented to incentivize people to separate their materials. Now that most people in San Francisco — the city has an 80 percent diversion rate of recyclables, which is the highest in the nation — know how to intuitively do that, the law no longer makes sense, he argued.
For Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director at the Coalition on Homelessness, if someone has a substance abuse issue, they are going to get their drugs one way or another. Shorty, for example, sees it as the only way to make a living without going to prison.
“It’s an honest way for me to make a living,” he said. “I don’t rob people, I don’t break into cars, you know what I mean?”
Friedenbach added that taking poor peoples’ source of income is mean-spirited and wouldn’t really solve the problem.
“People in the financial industry are known for being alcoholics, are we saying to them ‘we need to cut off your source of income?’ We are not because of their high class,” she said. “But when it’s people experiencing poverty who are using their hard-earned income for alcohol or drugs, they are suddenly under the microscope in San Francisco.”
Back at Community Recyclers, Shorty greets Javier, a short man from Mexico, and another man in a ponytail. The gathering of poachers has reached critical mass and Javier busies himself putting the recyclables in black plastic bags and lifting them up to show the ponytailed man inside the truck. The men, who speak limited English, don’t say a word to the recyclers, only flash their fingers to indicate how much money the poacher will receive.
“I come here because he pays the best,” Shorty says to the ponytailed man, who gives him a dirty look. He grabs his pair of gloves and smacks him in a very cartoonish way on the forehead. The ponytailed man turns to Shorty and flashes three fingers, meaning $3 — that’s how much money he is going to get for his recyclables.
“Sometimes they come two or three times a night,” Javier said.
Was it worth it for Shorty to work for $1 an hour, risking a 10-foot-tall jump and blood poisoning?
He needs the money right away, he said. He expresses some remorse for jumping people’s fences to get recyclables and turns to the reporter.
“If I ring your doorbell, ‘Shorty is here, do you have recyclables?’” he asked. “Would that be convenient?”