Cruising around Berkeley in a beat-up old van, Mario squints his eyes, straining to see whether the recycling bins have already been emptied. The first two stops are a bust — another poacher beat him to the booty. At the third stop, Mario spots a cop parked down the street, and so he nervously speeds off. He sighs. He's upset about wasting gas; he says he's ready to give up and go home. But after circling the block a few more times, the police car disappears and Mario moves in for the heist.
It's 11 at night, and there's not a soul within sight of the upscale Japanese restaurant, where a city-recycling bin stands curbside. It's overflowing with bottles and cans begging to be poached.
Mario drags the bin to his van and dumps in his prize. Bottles and cans come crashing into the back of the vehicle, which is seat-less and lined with wood. After about an hour and a quarter-tank of gas, Mario has collected thousands of containers, and his car smells of stale beer. He estimates his haul will net him somewhere between $20 and $40 at a recycling yard in Oakland.
It hasn't always been this way for Mario, but 2008 was a bad year. First, his hours were cut at the restaurant where he cooks breakfast, and he had to pick up another job waiting tables. Even though he was then working about fifty hours a week, he could no longer pay his mortgage and he lost the Berkeley home where he lived with his wife and two children. Things got so bad that putting dinner on the table was no longer easy.
So he started poaching on the side. Three nights a week, he scours the streets of Berkeley in search of recyclables that he trades in for cash, earning an average of $60 a week. In doing so, he joins the ranks of the "mosquito fleet," organized scavengers who illegally raid recycling bins.
Loathed by residents and ignored by law enforcement, the once-invisible poachers are increasingly in the spotlight as the city deals with a $4 million deficit in its refuse collection program. City officials say they've never calculated just how much Berkeley loses to recycling theft each year, but public records and interviews with recycling officials indicate that poachers steal up to 20 percent of curbside recyclables, reaching costs of up to $150,000 annually. And that's just residential recycling.
Earlier this year, Berkeley made headlines when the city began talking about charging residents for curbside recycling — a service that has long been advertised as free. The proposal sparked immediate outrage from residents who say they shouldn't have to pay to watch their recyclables get poached. But in truth, the recycling program has never been free.
The cost of curbside recycling is just one of the hidden charges in your monthly garbage bill. The amount of money refuse collectors make from selling recyclables is not enough to pay for actually picking up the stuff in the first place. So an unknown portion of your monthly garbage bill pays for the recycling program. It's unknown because most cities, including Berkeley, don't parse out the actual cost of the curbside services: garbage, recycling, compost, and large-item pickup. In short, curbside recycling in Berkeley, and elsewhere, isn't free. But just how much it costs is unclear.
What is clear is that curbside recycling is an off-the-books jobs program for the unemployed, the underemployed, and the homeless in Berkeley and other cities nationwide. Some Berkeley residents have no problem with that or with allowing poachers to dig through their bins. But others are angry. And as the city considers raising the cost of curbside pickup by instituting a so-called "waste diversion fee," tensions between poachers and neighbors are at a boiling point.
The Ecology Center, a nonprofit organization under contract with the city, began offering curbside recycling to Berkeley residents more than 35 years ago. Billed as "free," the program was the first of its kind in California and was one of the first in the nation. It helped launch America's recycling boom and served as a model for recycling programs that followed. Unfortunately, poaching, higher program costs, less trash overall, plummeting rates for recyclable materials, and decreasing consumption (leading to fewer items in the recycling bin) has rendered the current fee structure unsustainable.
No one is certain of the role poaching plays in the refuse deficit, but officials agree it takes a toll. In an interview several months ago, Daniel Maher, the Ecology Center's recycling director, estimated that poachers take five to seven tons of recyclables per day in Berkeley. In a more recent interview, Martin Bourque, the center's executive director, backed away from Maher's estimate, and said it was unverifiable. "It's impossible to know what you're not picking up," he said.
Some residents say the actual number of tons poached each day must be much higher, insisting that they've been poached so consistently, for so many years, that the poachers might even be netting more than the Ecology Center. Overall, the center picks up about 30 tons of recyclables daily, Bourque said. So if Maher's estimate is correct, poachers take at least 14 to 19 percent of the recyclables from city residences.
Once the Ecology Center picks up the recyclables, it transfers them to a third party, Community Conservation Centers, which sells them in the worldwide recycling market and gives the proceeds to the city. According to Bourque, Berkeley collected about $800,000 in net revenue from recyclables in 2008. In 2009 — an especially bad year, the city pocketed only $200,000. And this year, Bourque estimates the city will earn around $500,000.