In the late 19th century, Italian immigrants scavenged through San Francisco's garbage in an ad hoc trash collection service. The free agents eventually formed into companies that have now merged under the city's curbside recycling Goliath, Recology. So it is ironic and oddly fitting that, come 2011, Recology is waging a little-known war against those taking recycling from city trash cans. For at least the last year, the company has been paying police thousands of dollars in overtime for the Recycling Theft Abatement Operation, hoping to catch poachers of Recology's monopoly.
You've seen the guerrilla recyclers — often Asian or Latino immigrants who load bottles and cardboard from bars and restaurants into their pickups with wooden walls built up the sides and then zoom away to sell their stash to private scrapyards. You've probably heard them, too. Recology spokesman Robert Reed says the truck drivers often pay cash to people with shopping carts, who pilfer bottles and cans right out of residents' bins.
A few years ago, Recology paid private investigators and police to stake out the poachers and create a list of the high-volume offenders. In 2009, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Charlotte Woolard issued an injunction against 11 of the usual suspects.
Reed argues that theft hurts consumers as much as it does the company. Recology sells its haul to mills and other recyclers, reinvesting that money into its curbside service. He says the less product Recology has to sell, the higher your bill. Plus, the company is working toward a city-imposed goal of recycling and composting all waste by 2020, and the thieves are taking recycling out of that ratio.
Enter the enforcement, authorized by the city's garbage rate board. Recology technically owns the recyclables in your bins, and stealing them is punishable by a fine and possible jail time. In 2010, Recology paid plainclothes cops $66,000 in overtime for stings, and $3,700 so far in 2011, according to the police records. Just this year, the police have made three arrests and given out 27 citations.
The District Attorney has charged at least nine cases to date, according to Recology's attorney, Bill Goodman. But is the crackdown having any effect? "It's just almost impossible to control," Goodman says. "It's like Whac-a-Mole. You knock down one, and another one pops up."
Knocked down? Hardly. Many times, the poachers are back at it the next day. As one recycler who was busted twice last year in the operation tells us, "You've gotta eat."