By SHALWAH EVANS
Gordon is just under six feet tall, a little on the thin side and distinct in the grime dug into his fingernails. He wears a T-shirt and baggy, faded black jeans, wipes the sweat from his face and fishes out a Coca Cola can from a trash bin on 19th Street near Valencia.
He has been successful so far. Most of the recyclables were picked up hours ago, but already there are new finds.
Robert Reed of Sunset Scavenger, a company responsible for picking up and reaping the rewards of what recycled coke cans, glass bottles and aluminum will bring, said that their business is being hurt by professionals who take the loot before they get there. But many of those who live off the city’s detritus are much like Gordon, a gentleman in his mid-30s who wants his anonymity, but offers a view into the world of the men and women who residents often see or hear rifling through their garbage.
As he pushes his cart topped with cans and bottles, Gordon veers off the cracked sidewalk—too difficult to maneuver, he explains—and into the middle of the street.
At one point a car honks, swerves to miss him and peels down the street. Gordon barely takes note.
As he pushes his cart and talks, he tries to take water from one of two gallon-size jugs that sit on the seat where mothers usually put their children. He swallows one gulp and then puts it back. It’s more than 80 degrees and the water’s nearly hot enough to make tea.
“There are a lot of people who do underhanded things,” he says, referring to the different groups that pick up recyclables. He counts three categories: the homeless like himself, the junkies who do it for a fix and sometimes try to steal unattended carts, and the bootleggers who cruise the city in pick-up trucks and increase the depth of their flatbeds by siding them with plywood.
But even the latter, he says, “generally do it to support their families.”
Gordon supports only himself and on a good day he will make as much as $40. A bad day, he says, is earning less than $15 and being harassed by residents, he says.
Another man who would identify himself only as “I” confirms the amount. He collects to supplement his General Assistance check of $52 every two weeks. Some days—bad days—he’ll make as little as $12 and others—good days—he’ll get $40.
Gordon prefers taking his loot from recycling bins because the boxes are full of trash that’s worth money at recycling centers scattered throughout the city.
“It’s not illegal, is it?” he asks, looking around and talking to no one in particular.
It is a misdemeanor, according to the Municipal Health Code Sec. 293.1, to remove items from a recycling bin. But 24th Street beat Officer Adam Kujath says police usually only “admonish” the offenders and in very rare cases will fine them.
If Gordon knows the law he clearly doesn’t care, and proceeds to pry open a private gate hoping to find the home’s recycling bins.
“Come on a—holes,” he murmurs when the gate doesn’t give. Once inside Gordon discovers nothing, turns around, closes the gate as he found it and continues on with his search.
Later in the day, Gordon and many others in the Mission District will end up at Paper Rush Co. on Jerrold Avenue. But now, at 1:30 p.m., he decides to stop at a drop-in center on South Van Ness near 22nd street. It’s closed, but one of the workers recognizes Gordon and invites him in for a meal. It’s likely, he says, to be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Gordon says, and enters the center.
He stays. His companion leaves.
For most people, the trip to Paper Rush means taking the 14 Muni to the 24 to the 9 and then walking several blocks to a huge, outdoor dump where cardboard, bottles, and plastic all separated into piles.
But when Gordon and other recyclers go, they push their carts almost two miles, a distance that seems longer because they have to get around the James Lick Freeway. On hot days, Gordon says, he and others use the smaller recycling centers in the Mission that pay less, but are more convenient.
Neighbors say they also sometimes see several shopping cart pushers convene on a side street at night and put everything into a truck.
“They want to keep it on the down-low so they’re usually quiet in that respect, for their own interest,” says Thomas Jenkinson, who lives on San Carlos, a small street between Mission and Valencia.
At Paper Rush, a scale that can weigh an entire truck sits in the middle of the organized dump. Outside a sign reads: WE BUY ALL TYPES OF WASTE PAPER & ALUMINUM CANS. A price list hangs above the cashier window. Aluminum has one of the highest payouts at $1.57 per pound. Glass bottles make the least amount of money at only .10 per pound, and they are one of the heaviest items for someone to carry on a shopping cart.
A handful of men who look like Gordon unload their shopping carts with help from Paper Rush assistants. Paper Rush is short one employee on Wednesday and no one has time to talk. One employee quickly confirms what Gordon has said—that they make most of their money from aluminum and most of their cargo goes to China.
Neighbors Say Recyclables Theft Is a Bother
Though San Francisco has laws prohibiting the removal of goods from recycling bins, neighbors say it often happens right in front of their homes. They weigh in on what they see and hear, showing that while some are indifferent, many are displeased.
Arturo Durazo, a staff member at the Boys and Girls Club on 17th near Guerrero, says that many homeless people used to rifle through the club’s bins before staff started locking the gates. He says now that they keep their five bins secure, they haven’t had issues with theft of recyclable goods.
Jo Catcher has had a different experience. She lives on Lexington Street, a small block between Mission and Valencia, and says she hears people digging through her bins constantly.
“Last night it was insane!” she says on a Tuesday afternoon. She could hear bins crashing, glass breaking on the ground, and in the morning found garbage left all over the streets. She says garbage is often left on the streets after the recycling bins are put out and street sweepers and residents clean up the mess. For her it has been both a street pollution issue and a noise problem.
“We’ve had to tell people to quiet down,” agrees Erin Katgely, Catcher’s neighbor up the street.
Katgely explains that a variety of people go through the bins and the noise happens mostly at night. She identifies Latino immigrants with pick-up trucks looking for cardboard as some of the main culprits of recyclable theft.
South Van Ness resident Art, who declined to give his last name, sympathizes with bin-sifters, although he said they destroy his block with garbage. He suspects they are sometimes looking for credit card statements. He says many of the people he sees going through them are drug addicts, but some are clean folks who simply need money.
“Some people make a living out of that. Some get peanuts and come to the dealers with the dope money,” he says, sitting with a neighbor who acknowledged that he sold drugs to people who sift through bins. Because the recycling bins from his building are placed on the curb near 24th street, they are often ravaged.
At a local bar, a bartender called A.M. says no one would get anything from the bar’s bins because she lets a friend take what he wants from them before they’re put out. She says her friend of 12 years lives on the street, but works and uses recyclables as additional income. She describes him as a good guy who “never smells, wears good shoes, showers and is always happy.” Speaking almost in a whisper, she says she’s glad to help him.
“He walks me home during the twilight hours,” she adds.