The recycling poachers fanned out across West Oakland on a recent morning as usual, sifting quickly through the blue and yellow bins and filling their shopping carts with bottles and cans, all the while making sure to stay a block or two ahead of the recycling trucks.
Such scenes have played out on weekday mornings for years throughout Oakland. The scavengers, many of them homeless, say they make $20 to $50 a day taking bottles and cans from curbside bins and selling them to small recycling outlets. No doubt some use their earnings to feed drug habits, while others are merely trying to cobble together a meager income. Over the years, poaching has developed into a sort of underground social program for the poorest of the poor.
But under a new city program, the gritty task of scavenging bottles and cans has become far more difficult. “It’s gotten tough,” said a man who gave his name as J.D. as he pushed his overloaded shopping cart toward Alliance Metals and Scrap on Peralta Street, a popular West Oakland recycling destination. “And I think it’s going to get tougher.”
For his ilk, yes, but the recent makeover to the city’s recycling program has made things easier and more profitable for a pair of politically connected companies. For years, Oaklanders — especially in the tony hills — have complained about the homeless invading their neighborhoods and rifling through recycling bins in front of their homes. The poachers and their shopping carts often arrived late at night, or just before dawn. Some residents would attempt to foil them by waiting until the last minute before putting out their bottles and cans for the recycling trucks.
But these cat-and-mouse games made little sense. The scavengers, after all, weren’t stealing from the residents. They weren’t even stealing from the city of Oakland. When bottles and cans are placed in bins at the curb each week, they become the property of the two companies contracted to pick them up — California Waste Solutions and Waste Management Inc. In theory, the poachers are stealing from the companies, but even that is open to interpretation. That’s because the contracts the two companies have with the city ensure they get paid in full regardless of how many bottles and cans they pick up.
And they’re paid handsomely. Oakland is expected to hand over $2.57 million this year to California Waste Solutions for recycling pickup for the northern half of the city, while Waste Management stands to haul in $2.66 million for the southern half, according to figures provided by Becky Dowdakin, Oakland’s solid waste and recycling supervisor.
But that’s not all. The two companies get paid a second time when they sell the bottles, cans, and paper in bulk to the plants that do the actual recycling. This is where the poachers cut into the companies’ profits, since the amount the big haulers receive from the recycling outfits depends upon how much stuff they collect.
Last year, Oakland City Council members came under fire when they voted to extend contracts with California Waste Solutions and Waste Management for the next eight years without putting the deals out to bid. Critics argued that Oaklanders may be paying too much for recycling. The only way to know for sure, they said, was to open the game to competitive bidding. But council members argued that they wanted to protect the contract for California Waste Solutions, an Oakland-based company with about two hundred union employees, many of whom live in Oakland. The city has been subsidizing California Waste Solutions for years by insulating it from outside competition. The company also happens to be owned by David Duong, a close friend of several council members and a top donor in Oakland political campaigns.
By protecting California Waste Solutions, the council also allowed Waste Management to escape competition for its part of town. The company hardly needs the favor. Waste Management is the nation’s largest trash hauler. Last year, the Texas-based giant reported $12.5 billion in operating revenue, according to a filing last month with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. It is also a generous campaign donor in Oakland, throughout the state, and the nation. Along with the recycling deal, the city also extended Waste Management’s monopoly contract to collect all residential garbage in Oakland.
Embedded in the new contracts is the program that targets poachers. Known as single-stream recycling, it features large new bins in which residents can stash all their recyclables. Single-stream was marketed — legitimately so — as being more convenient, because people no longer have to separate bottles and cans from paper. It also is billed as a litter-reduction measure because the new gray bins have lids, unlike the old blue and yellow ones.
Its proponents quietly acknowledge another, less-politically correct advantage — the new program promises to put many of the street-level scavengers out of business. The height of the new bins makes it difficult for people to reach in and pull out bottles and cans, and the scavengers are forced to comb through paper to find what they want; most won’t take paper because it brings in little cash for its relative bulk. “It definitely makes it harder,” said Joe, a West Oakland recycling poacher, of the new containers.
Besides the increased profits, the main attraction for large haulers such as Waste Management is that single-stream recycling cuts down on their biggest expense — union drivers. The new containers, which have wheels and resemble the company’s garbage cans, increase driver productivity, so Waste Management needs fewer drivers. The company saves money by employing lower-paid sorters to later separate the bottles and cans from the paper.
More and more cities and recycling haulers are embracing single-stream programs, but there are some holdouts. The Ecology Center, which handles all residential recycling in Berkeley, opposes single-stream because the paper becomes contaminated by tiny shards of glass when bottles break, notes Dave Williamson, the center’s recycling operations manager. The bits of glass get stuck in the paper and make it expensive for paper mills to clean. Companies such as Waste Management, however, are large enough to dictate their own price terms to the paper mills regardless of the contamination problem, he says.
While it’s clear single-stream will be a windfall for the trash haulers, Oakland and its residents won’t share in that revenue. Under the revised contracts, they get nothing in return if the number of bottles and cans the companies pick up increases, Dowdakin acknowledges.
The effect on poachers, on the other hand, has been immediate. Some neighborhoods that used to teem with scavengers on recycling day are now mostly quiet. Much of Oakland already has received the new bins; only a few pockets of North and West Oakland have yet to receive them, but they should in the next few weeks, Dowdakin says.
Many, perhaps most, local residents will say good riddance to the poachers. There are, however, social issues to consider, such as where the poachers will now turn for money. For his part, Alliance Metals owner Jay Anast expects burglaries and robberies to increase in the city. “I’ll be surprised if these people get jobs at Bank of America,” he says.