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.
If Maher's estimate on the amount poached each year is right, and you don't count the off year of 2009, that means poachers are stealing between $70,000 and $152,000 in recyclables — at least — each year from Berkeley residences. And so even if those numbers are overly conservative, and they very well may be, the amount lost to poaching in Berkeley each year doesn't appear to be a primary cause of the city's $4 million refuse collection hole.
But it's not loose change either. Though it's definitely not the norm, vigilant and organized poachers with vehicles can comb an area and collect about $500 in one day, Bourque said. In an interview with Terrain magazine in 2003, Dave Williamson, the Ecology Center's recycling operations manager, estimated that one major poacher was netting about $40,000 a year in stolen materials.
And lately, poaching-related complaints appear to have reached an all-time high. The scavenger demographic also seems to be shifting. Locals regularly report bands of organized poachers raking through bins, covering a block within minutes. One resident said her middle-class neighbor regularly drives around collecting recyclables, filling up her Honda Accord with bottles and cans. "We're starting to see more and more people [poaching] — those who have lost their jobs," Maher said. "Hell, they have nicer cars that we do in some cases."
Councilman Darryl Moore said the community's perception that stolen recyclables are sinking the city's program — regardless of whether or not it's true — and is creating friction. Moore, who recently spearheaded a city commission on poaching, said his office receives between thirty and fifty e-mails per week from constituents complaining about scavengers, up from about ten e-mails per week in the past. "As soon as you put your trash out, you have a line of poachers coming through your bin," Moore said. "So when the city said they'd institute a cost, my constituents said: 'Before we do that, why don't we get better control of poachers?'"
Mario, who agreed to be interviewed for this story if his last name was not used, has many tales from his tri-weekly poaching trips. Some remind him of the kindness of strangers, others have been a bit scary. One time, a group of young people saw him digging through a bin and slipped him a $20 bill. He said he protested, but they insisted. Another time, a woman chased him down the street, threatening him, after he unsuccessfully tried to raid her bin.
The city discourages people from confronting poachers. But fed up with the city's disinterest in curbing scavenging, residents like Ann Riley of West Berkeley have taken matters into their own hands.
Riley has sent letters to council members, reported poachers to the police, and hidden her recycling cans on the front porch until the last possible moment. But nothing has stopped her bins from getting ransacked every Wednesday. "The Ecology Center really hasn't gotten any bottles or cans from this neighborhood in many years," she said.
Scavengers, she said, have become so emboldened that they trespass on private property in search of recyclables. One time, she chased down a poacher and took his cart when his back was turned as he was digging through a neighbor's bin. Then she locked the shopping cart — brimming with poached materials — in her backyard and called the police. "Well, he was frantic," she said of the poacher. "And I said to the police, 'I have the evidence right here,' but they didn't come."
Riley said she understands that catching poachers is a low priority compared to fighting violent crime. Still, she said she would like to see a sort of "deputized poaching cop" that would patrol the neighborhoods at night, levy fines, and confiscate recyclables. Riley finds it unfair that the city is considering charging residents more for materials they lose to poachers. "The idea to charge residents for everything they bring out to the curb is ridiculous," she said. "They're charging me for the revenue the thieves are getting."
But it isn't just the financial toll that worries locals. Many also are concerned about noise, litter, and trespassing. Some residents even feel bullied by poachers, according to Ben Bartlett, a member of Berkeley's Zero Waste Commission. He owns Bartlett's Organic Coffees & Teas, a coffee shop in downtown Berkeley, and heads up the subcommittee on poaching requested by Councilman Moore. Through a series of meetings with community members, the Ecology Center and the Berkeley Police Department, Bartlett found that poaching is a bigger problem for residents than perhaps anyone realizes. "There seems to be an overall pattern of increasing aggression," he said.
Scavengers, in particular, have become more confrontational. He recalled one resident who was upset over a recent encounter with a team of poachers. The group of men had driven a truck up on the sidewalk, right up to her front lawn. She heard noise, came to the door, and saw poachers dumping her recyclables into the back of the truck. When she asked the poachers to leave, she said they swore at her and knocked over her cans before speeding off.
Examples of brazen poaching abound. The Express hired a private investigator in 2007 after receiving numerous phone calls from locals warning of possible paper poaching, according to editor Stephen Buel. The investigators were able to sniff out the scavengers who were trailing Express delivery trucks, scooping up stacks of papers hot off the press. The poachers were eventually caught with 1,381 copies of fourteen different publications including Diablo Dealer, El Mensajero, and Jobs & Careers.
The poachers were confronted as they tried to trade in their bounty at KMC Paper on Poplar Street in Oakland. Because of outstanding parking tickets, the police confiscated the vehicle and the stolen goods and issued a $250 citation. "It's very tough to get the police to take this seriously," Buel said. "A: They have more important things to do, and B: Though the law is very clear that theft of more than one free newspaper is theft, to a police officer, a free newspaper is free."
Anti-poaching laws have long been unenforced. Though technically a misdemeanor that carries a $146 fine, catching those who steal what most people consider garbage is not at the top of most people's to-do list. Berkeley issued only 26 citations for poaching in the past two years, and even city officials historically have taken a "live-and-let-live" attitude toward small-time scavengers hauling garbage bags and carts.
When the economy went sour a couple of years ago, more people hit the streets in search of bottles, cans, and other materials. Rates for some things — like cardboard and paper — dropped with the recession. But the state sets a fixed redemption rate of 5 cents for small bottles and 10 cents for large ones, up a few cents from what it was three years ago. So even though people are buying less — and consequently recycling less — poachers like Mario with cars and recycling schedules can make more money than ever. "Right now," said Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, a spokeswoman for the City of Berkeley, "we're really focused on the trucks; the larger-scale things are of bigger concern."
Illegal backyard recycling operations also can be a problem. The city cited one address — 1636 Grant Street — $6,500 for operating a large-scale poaching business over a two-year period. Organized scavengers sometimes pay small-scale poachers with shopping carts for their materials, saving them the long walk to the redemption center. Poachers also appear to be carving up territories. Neighbors report scuffles between scavengers laying claim to certain bins.
Bartlett said they're ready to recommend that the city "pursue a strategy of police action against organized poachers." That is, issue more citations. He believes tickets that tie poachers to vehicles, like a speeding ticket, would more likely be repaid and thus help the city's bottom line. He also thinks the fee should be much higher than the current $146.
The group considered other strategies, such as blanket strict enforcement of anti-poaching laws, but ultimately decided against it because it might lead to the targeting of homeless people. The group also considered incorporating poachers into the city's recycling collection system, but in the end, it proved difficult to envision how such a set-up would work and seemed impossible to administer. It also could have proved costly.
And even though the ticketing strategy might raise revenues for the city, it may not stop people like Mario from scavenging. He was caught poaching and was slapped with a ticket, but he paid it — though he could barely afford to — and he's still a regular in the poaching scene.
Berkeley, of course, is not alone in the struggle against poaching. Officials from the City of San Francisco estimated earlier this year that they received 1,500 calls from residents complaining about poachers in the month of December alone. Oakland, meanwhile, has targeted the thieves who steal copper wire and manhole covers, and has all but given up trying to stop those who poach curbside materials.
So why is the poaching debate suddenly so heated? No doubt it's because of the new fee under consideration by the Berkeley City Council. The council already passed a 20 percent refuse collection rate increase last year (and a 1.72 percent inflation increase on June 1, which amounts to 46 cents per month for a 32-ounce bin). The waste diversion fee is scheduled to go before the council at the end of this month, with a goal of generating $1.5 million annually, according to Bourque. It's still not enough to patch the $4 million hole — the rest of the money is likely to be saved by route consolidation and worker reduction from two people per truck to one in some areas.
Residents like Ann Riley, who has watched recyclables disappear from the sidewalk for years, said if the city institutes the new fee, she and her neighbors will probably stop recycling curbside and instead drive their recyclable to a recycling yard in Oakland to redeem them for cash.
But Bourque notes that people who are upset about the new fee don't realize that curbside recycling has never been free. Residents are billed for trash pickup, but the recycling program costs have always been embedded in that bill. The bill, however, isn't itemized so residents mistakenly believe they aren't paying for recycling. Bourque said perhaps it's time to start listing the costs on the bill, so people can see exactly where their money goes.
In contrast to Berkeley, most cities contract waste and recycling collection to private companies. Bourque said only ten other cities statewide have city-run waste collection programs. Waste Management and California Waste Solutions share recycling pickup in Oakland, where residents also receive an un-itemized bill. That's because when recycling was first integrated into waste removal services, the city feared people would try to opt out of recycling if they thought they were paying for it, according to Becky Dowdakin, Oakland's solid waste and recycling program supervisor. "We're realizing we need to stop hiding the cost," she said, "and tell people: 'This is what it costs, this is what you have to pay. I'm sorry you thought it was free. It isn't.'"
Still, for residents who have watched hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of recyclables slip through the city's fingers, the fee system is a matter of semantics. And residents simply don't want to pay more. A 32-gallon waste can in Berkeley now costs a single residence $27.10 a month — more than in Alameda, Richmond, Albany, Fremont, Hayward, Livermore, Dublin, and San Leandro, but less than in Oakland and Piedmont.
Still, the poaching problem will never be solved as long as people are raiding blue bins to pay their bills, Bartlett noted. "We need a national employment initiative; we need it really bad," he said. "This poaching thing is a naked degeneration of our quality of life."
For his part, Mario said he won't stop making the rounds until he can afford to live off his wages again: "You don't make that much money [from poaching], but you can still get something to eat."