As Recycling Booms, Drugs Become an Issue

Security footage shows a bootlegger buying recyclables from scavengers in San Francisco.

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?”

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  1. Jennifer Friedenbach is the problem, a psychotic enabler who should be tarred and feathered and shown the door…

    • Jules

      She really should be required to attend Al Anon meetings every day. She doesn’t seem to understand that she’s helping keep hundreds of people on drugs with the policies she spearheads.

      • John

        And this on a day when the city revealed that we are spending over $160 million a year on the homeless.

        That’s $4 a day for every resident of the city. no wonder more homeless arrive every day. You can never solve homelessness by throwing money at it.

        We need a tough love policy.

        • marcos

          How much is the City giving away to developers by entitling billions of dollars in new housing without forcing developers to pay the full freight of costs that these tens of thousands of new residents place on existing crumbling infrastructure?

          • John

            Alice in Marcosland logic alleges that a tax and fee paying business is being subsidized by the city, while a homeless person engaged in crime is somehow a net contributor.

            Take away businesses, developers and risk-takers, and then who is going to pay the $168 million?

          • ThatGuy

            Dude, you need to come back to reality.

  2. John

    The link between recycling cash and drugs is hardly new. Half the reason that HANC was closed down in GGPark was because the guys were selling bottles and using the cash to buy and do drugs in the park. The drug dealers targeted that location and the neighbors eventually got it shut down and the space converted to a community garden.

    The situation with Alliance Metals in Oakland is similar but even worse.

    The solutions seem obvious. Put a limit on the amount any one person can receive on the same day. And pay people in a non-cash form – maybe vouchers or crossed checks.

  3. landline

    Thanks for the comprehensive report. Who would have guessed that closing down recycling centers would enable black marketeers to exploit the vulnerabilities of the army of shopping cart gleaners?

    Many people. That’s who. But not opportunistic politicians like Scott Wiener who are building their political careers by criminalizing poverty and attacking the most destitute among us.

    • John

      100% wrong. The problem isn’t that we got rid of some recycling centers but rather that we didn’t get rid of all of them.

      When everyone can get recycling picked up from your house by Recology, there is no reason for these centers.

      But if we have to have them (and there’s a law, apparently) then why can’t Safeways pay these people with store vouchers or debit cards, rather than cash will obviously will just go to drug dealers?

      • Soon

        If they get rid of CRV redemption, they need to get rid of the deposit as well. Why are residents donating their deposits to the hauler, anyway? Fools

        • John

          Convenience. Only the homeless think it is worthwhile to drag recyclables down to a center for a few cents.

          Better that it is centralized.

    • ThatGuy

      There is ZERO need for recycling centers.

    • Valenchia

      @Landline: You seem to have entirely missed the point. These people still go to recycling centers, but they just sell it to the bootleggers there. So the closing of the recycling centers is irrelevant.
      This article needs to be re titled it is not “Recycling” that is booming, it is “Theft of Recycling” that is booming. There clearly needs to be much more enforcement because what has been viewed as petty theft is clearly a much larger problem.
      I have some sympathy for some of the down and out who have to resort to this, but not for the kingpins. And, let’s be clear, stealing from recycling bins is not an “honest living”

  4. Mission resident

    Anyone with kids, this is a great way to teach them to earn a buck. Recycling cans/bottles is literally throwing money away. Have your child crush the cans to take up less space in the garage. Go to the recycling center once every couple months and let them keep the cash. If there are less cans/bottles in everyone’s recycling bins, it would deter this black market a little. Also, you make extra money!

    • landline

      Good point. Those bottles and cans belong to consumers who can redeem them if they want. That’s why state law mandates that all sellers must accept recyclable cans and bottles if no recycling center exists within a certain distance.

      Many people don’t have the time, storage space or desire to follow your plan so they choose to put recyclables into the blue bins and let Recology get the redemptions. However, this is voluntary, not compulsory, as some authoritarians would dictate.

      Closing down recycling centers enables Recology to collect more recycling fees instead of the residents who used to use those centers. Bad public policy, which pretends to address social problems by criminalizing them.

      • John

        No, the homeless are not stealing from the residents. They are stealing from Recology. Once you put your recycling out on the sidewalk, it belongs to Recology even before they collect it.

        Now I know what you’re going to say – that stealing from “big business” is a victimless crime. Except of course that Recology can keep trash fees lower by the amount of those recycling revenues. So when homeless people steal cans and bottles, it drives up your trash bills.

        That is aside from the knock-on crimes like drugs, public nuisance, public health issues and the attendant costs.

        I think it’s OK for large stores like Safeway to offer recycling centers if they want to, but the problem is paying out cash rather than a negotiable non-bearer form of payment that cannot be used to buy drugs.

        • kevin alves

          Do you really believe that recology is deciding what to charge based on how much crv material they pick up from your bkue cans? They are charging what thry can based on the law and they charge as nuch as they can. Additionally they have been scamming the state by falsifyibg the amount of crv material thry have picked up. They are being sued by the state for this. Don’t worry the multi million dollar company will survive and trash will still be picked up. So lets continue to support the real theives, recology, and throw the poor under the google bus.

  5. BellaDancer

    Good reporting (needs a little copy editing, though).
    If people go through recyclables and leave the sidewalk clean, it’s okay.

    • John

      No, it’s not OK for several reasons:

      1) They make a lot of noise often in the middle of the night

      2) They often leave a mess behind

      3) They are stealing from Recology, thereby driving up our trash costs

      4) Illegal drug use goes up

      5) It’s illegal

  6. Pamela

    This is huge problem in District 9. The scavengers drive around in trucks with either expired/no plates, probably unlicensed, uninsured; go through the recycling bins, take what they can sell, leave a huge mess; if caught by neighbors these guys are very threatening, saying ‘we’ll be make, we know where you live’; even going after someone with a knife. SFPD definitely needs to do more about this.

  7. nutrisystem

    In the richest city of the richest country in human history, there are people who work all night digging through garbage to earn a pittance and get some anesthetics.

    Pamela thinks the SFPD should “do more about this” (presumable that means put these paupers in cages).

    • John

      So stealing is OK as long as the thief is in a carefully-chosen, politically correct victim group? Or as long as you are hungry?

      By the same logic is violence OK as long as you feel angry at the time? Or because your victim is more successful than you?

      • nutrisystem

        The fact that you’d consider paupers taking garbage left on the curb for pickup to be “stealing” says a lot about you.

        • John

          Not garbage – recyclables with a monetary value. Big difference.

          Stealing is the taking of another’s property without consent. Taking recyclables is stealing.

          You want to excuse crimes committed by anyone in the various classes of people that you personally approve of.

          Most people would disagree with you.

          • nutrisystem

            Monetary value? Are you serious? I’d be surprised if this hard and dirty job pays even a few dollars per hour.

            The competition is fierce – most diggers aren’t first to a given bin and so get nothing. It takes a whole lot of walking and bin digging to get a few dollars of recyclables.

            How much do you make per hour sitting on your ass being a landlord?

          • John

            I never said it wasn’t a hard, dirty and hazardous job.

            But it’s not a job at all. It’s criminal activity.

            Robbing banks is difficult, risky work as well. Do bank robbers have your sympathy? What about muggers? Home intruders? Pickpockets? All tough, hardscrabble “jobs”.

          • marcos

            Compelling customers of a refuse monopoly to separate and deliver our monetarily valuable recycling to a for-profit corporation under threat of fine so that the monopoly can sell it and make money is theft.

          • John

            Legally the refuse becomes the property of Recology at the instant that it is put out onto the sidewalk.

            Therefore if someone takes it, that is stealing without a license or permission to take it.

            More generally, the fact that personal property is out on the street does not mean it is fair game for anyone and everyone to take. The planter boxes outside your home remains your property, as does a bike or vehicle that you park in the street.

            I am all for competition but cherry-picking the items of monetary value and leaving behind the rest is not a fair competition.

            However, if you wish to decline Recology service and make your own arrangement with a private haulier, you can do so.

          • marcos

            I do not believe that it is legal for private refuse firms that are not Recology to offer residential refuse services to San Franciscans.

          • John

            That’s true in general, but you can certainly dispose of your own refuse if you wish, and in fact one of my neighbors does that.

            In that sense, Recology do not have a monopoly but they do have a monopoly on who can collect items from their own bins on the street.

          • marcos

            They have a monopoly on convenience with is an effective total monopoly.

          • John

            If you find it more convenient to dispose of your own refuse, compost your own food and garden waste, and pocket the cash for recycling, then you can do so. In my case, I do my own composting.

            A monopoly would be something like SFWater where there is no realistic alternative.

          • marcos

            Wrong again. Water is a utility that relies on a fixed infrastructure. Refuse requires no such networked infrastructure.

          • John

            If you think trash removal requires no infrastructure you have obviously never taken a trip down to their huge waste center just off 101 by Candlestick.

            My point is that you can opt out of Recology. You cannot opt out of SFWater.

            I’d be fine with competition to Recology. It just should not come from the theft of recycling by people who really do not have any “networked infrastructure” and who, moreover, piggyback off Recology’s infrastructure.

          • marcos

            What part of “networked” does your pea brain not comprehend?

          • John

            You said “fixed infrastructure”.

            Recology has that, along with a network of fixed delivery routes and the vehicles and infrastructure to support that.

            It requires significant capital investment to be set up to collect trash from every home in SF.

            Nonetheless, you can opt out, and you cannot opt out of SFWater.

    • ThatGuy

      Dude, check your facts: this is a cartel. Yes, there are a few individual folks who take these back themselves but the majority of them “sell” them to a guy with a truck who has a bunch of homeless working them.

      Glad you support this black market. This is bullshit and NOT a solution to the problem.

  8. godzuki

    If people are really possessive about their trash, maybe they should just keep it.

    Also, my best friend is a senior HR rep for Kaiser and he said you’d be shocked about how many high level doctors, etc. have serious drug problems and go to rehab regularly. Should we stop paying doctors too?

    • John

      Trash isn’t the problem.

      Personally I put out my recyclables as late as possible before the Recology truck is due in order to minimize the risk of theft.

      The problem is that people typically put their bins out the night before, and that it makes it a target for criminals.

      • marcos

        Can refuse ever be stolen?

      • godzuki

        I guess, in SF, at a certain point, you have to ask yourself if you want to live in an urban area, which,many times, also means “dealing with homeless people” or whatever. I choose to and don’t really worry about who steals whatever I put on the curb. There’s always the suburbs if you don’t want to deal with those things.

        • John

          You can rationalize almost any criminal or anti-social behavior like that.

          Example: if tenants do not want to risk evictions and escalating rents, they should love to the suburbs.

          • godzuki

            It depends on what type of person you are.

            If you live somewhere you don’t enjoy, then you stay, you complain about it,

            I live somewhere I like so I’m fine.

            It’s not rocket science.

          • John

            I can enjoy living here without accepting everything bad that happens here.

            I can live here and fight to improve the things that are wrong. and in fact crime and nuisance incidents are gradually being reduced in the Mission as the neighborhood improves.

            Vigilance and a zero-tolerance approach can ensure that that improvement is maintained.

  9. marcos

    I could care less if someone pilfers the recycling to earn a few pennies. My concern is dumping recycling without redemption value on the streets to get to the goodies. This happened last Tuesday evening right before the rainstorm and the street was littered with soggy pieces of paper.

  10. Local Mission

    The day they enforce this is the day car break ins, breaking and entering, muggings sky rocket. Think its bad now with thugs robbing you. just wait when you have to walk down the street and keeping your eyes out for thugs and homeless’s.

    • godzuki

      I would hope you stay alert as you live in an urban area regardless?

    • John

      Yes, we should always give in to extortion, blackmail and crime because if we do not, something even worse might happen.

      Is that your logic?

      • godzuki


        There is crime in SF. That’s a fact.

        I’ve lived here for 25 years and I am very vigilant about my safety and have never been mugged, victimized, etc.

        The reason you wouldn’t walk down the street with a hundred dollar bill hanging out of your pocket…it’s just common sense.

        That’s my logic.

        • John

          I do not regard crime as inevitable and I certainly am not going to pander to it as if it was.

          Stealing is a crime and these people should be prosecuted if and when they are caught.

          • godzuki

            If you think all crime is going to go away somehow, I think you’re going to be very frustrated for a long time.

          • John

            Crime is never zero. But we can gradually reduce it. And clamping down on nuisance crimes like this can be one component of that.

            I already take steps. I put my trash out only at the last minute. I call in the license plate of any vehicle that is collecting recyclables. And I will call the cops if I see incidents of this.

            If everyone did that, things would be much better.

          • marcos

            I support the entrepreneurial initiative that these valiant small time operators are demonstrating. If they were Uber, Lyft or the Google buses, you’d be exhausting yourself making the case to the contrary.

          • John

            I support all legal competition.

            As noted, these guys are breaking the law. If google did that, you’d be whining yourself into a frenzy.

  11. Godzuki

    People of all income strata buy drugs with their income, whether it’s abused legal, illegal, alcohol, etd.

    Also, if “people stealing your recycling” is the worst problem in your neighborhood, you’re doing pretty good….LOL

    • John

      The broken windows theory of law enforcement says that we need to clean up all crime and not just the big stuff.

      Something as simple as a neighborhood watch group on your block can make a big difference. If you wander along my block and loiter, someone is going to have an eye on you. Count on it.

      Zero tolerance applies at all levels from capital cases all the way down to misdemeanors.

      • Michael Andrade

        John, just curious. Do you have a life, and do you spend every second of it posting messages here.

        • marcos

          He applies the broken window theory to chat boards as if it were a proven law.

          • John

            marcos, across all websites, you post at about ten times the rate that I do.

            Clean your own house first.

            michael, There’s this thing called multi-tasking. While making the odd comment here I am also supervising a remodel, preparing my tax return and trading the stock market.

            But if you have a refutation of my point, I’d be interested.

          • marcos

            Keeping my posts to tweet-length and commanding your time to reply at least five fold.

          • John

            So your role here is to use up my bandwidth?

            You really think i am so powerful that I have to be distracted?

  12. scum

    Dear John, please shut up and go away. Thanks.

  13. nutrisystem

    Garbage-sifters and their truck-borne garbage “kingpins” are DISRUPTIVE (especially to people trying to sleep). ENTREPRENEURS

    They are GAME CHANGERS who don’t care about Recology’s rules.

    They MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS, and are not afraid to fail.

    They have internalized and re-expressed the ethos of Silicon Valley and don’t even know how cool they are. We should celebrate these humble heroes.

  14. Bob

    Good piece. Shows some of the problems with CA’s screwed up redemption system. California consumers are funding a multi-million dollar underground economy that is killing vulnerable people addicted to drugs and alcohol.

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