Bassam Almgaleh and Pascal Zeino have picked up a lot of trash from the streets of Oakland. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the two Public Works Department employees drove their garbage truck to more than a dozen sites in the city in response to residents' complaints about illegally dumped items: discarded furniture, bags filled with rotten food, the remains of an abandoned homeless encampment. It could have been much worse. They found no dead animals or human excrement on this shift.
At one of their final stops, the men pulled over on a quiet corner on 16th Street in West Oakland, a neighborhood that has become ground zero for illegal dumping. As they finished sweeping up the debris, Deana Lawrence, a resident of a four-bedroom house on the other side of the block, came chasing after them.
"Do you know how I can get rid of my bed?" she asked.
The two employees mumbled a response, telling her that her landlord should call a phone number for Waste Management, the private company that handles Oakland's trash.
Less than a minute later, she walked away, defeated, with the king-size mattress, box spring, and bed frame still leaning against her garage door. Her landlord is unavailable, she said, and it's very possible that he has already used up his once-a-year "bulky pickup" option from Waste Management. That means she realistically has no way to get rid of the furniture — other than to illegally drop it around the corner, in an area that attracts dumpers on a daily basis.
"They make it impossible," Lawrence, a 46-year-old information technology instructor, later told the Express. "I don't have any means to take this mattress to the dump." She said she would never consider dumping her mattress on the sidewalk; she is already embarrassed to invite guests over because her neighborhood is so filthy. "It's very frustrating."
Lawrence's conundrum illustrates a fundamental problem contributing to Oakland's illegal dumping epidemic: It can be very difficult to legally dispose of large trash items in the city. Residents of apartment buildings, for example, have almost no pickup options. And while the city is now devoting many of its limited resources to cracking down on illegal dumpers, some residents are questioning why Oakland, through its contract with Waste Management, doesn't give people more opportunities to properly discard belongings. When asked about the problem, some top city and waste officials themselves were at times uncertain about the legal choices available — and the confusion is widespread among residents.
Everyone agrees that dumping is on the rise and out of control in Oakland. Piles of trash — whether an entire bedroom's worth of discarded furniture or buckets of unknown, potentially hazardous materials — have become common throughout the city, at underpasses and dead-ends, and in the open on residential and commercial blocks. The garbage is concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, creating a constant public nuisance that hurts property values and poses health, safety, and environmental risks. Some piles come from negligent construction companies or illegal haulers bringing trash from all over the Bay Area to Oakland. Other times, the dumps come from misinformed tenants or irresponsible landlords. Overall, calls for illegal dumping cleanups have increased 34 percent over the last year, with a total of 16,958 service requests last fiscal year.
"It invites more crime and criminals," said Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker. "It also affects the human psyche."
Parker and members of the city council are trying to combat the problem with a new city law that establishes harsher penalties for illegal dumping. But critics are skeptical about whether Oakland has the resources to apprehend and collect fines from illegal dumpers.
The cash-strapped city already spends $3.3 million a year on contending with illegal dumping and collects close to nothing from violators, who tend to be lower-income individuals who are unable to pay fines — and difficult to catch in the first place. At the same time, the city's new initiative isn't focused on making it easier for people, especially apartment-dwellers, to get rid of unwanted stuff, even though more than half of the city's residents are renters. And sustainability advocates are questioning why a progressive city like Oakland is prioritizing punishment so heavily without any consideration for innovative green solutions to keep reusable items out of the landfill and get stuff to people who may want or need it.
"People are being foreclosed on. People are having to leave and downsize ... from houses to apartments," said Marcus Johnson, a Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council leader for the Prescott area, who said he witnesses dumping in West Oakland on a weekly basis. "You see a lot of household items that are in good condition, but they have no place for it, so they dump it."
Many can't get to the dump, he said, adding that increased penalties are likely to make little difference. "If I do get caught, even if I get a citation, so what? Where's the enforcement?"
On a Saturday morning last month, Councilman Noel Gallo, wearing a bright-green vest and brown gloves, dug his hands through a massive pile of trash that surrounded an abandoned Church's Chicken in the Fruitvale district. "We may find a dead body," he said to volunteers, only half-joking. One of the volunteers nearly vomited after discovering dozens of used diapers discarded around the building. Another one leafed through a pile of thrown-out paperwork, jotting down the names and addresses that were written on several envelopes in the hopes of later identifying who was responsible for the illegally dumped trash. A stray cat ran across the refuse and disappeared under the mountain of debris, which included tires, couches, shopping carts, paint cans, door frames, paper plates, and expired food.