.What a Waste

Oakland has launched a crackdown on illegal dumping, but the effort doesn't address the needs of many city residents, and it's not sustainable.

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.

“You’re going to see a lot worse,” Gallo told a cameraman from KTOP-TV10, the official channel of the City of Oakland, which was working on a segment about illegal dumping. “Are people living under there?”

A short while later, five homeless residents emerged from inside the dark interior of the former fast-food joint, which was filled with stained mattresses, old restaurant appliances, and human feces.

“This is Oakland,” Gallo declared later that day, standing amid a pile of construction debris on a nearby sidewalk. “We let it happen and it continues.”

Illegal dumping doesn’t just plague residential neighborhoods, it also impacts Oakland businesses. Earlier this year, the hundreds of artists and businesses that inhabit American Steel Studios, the six-acre warehouse facility on Mandela Parkway in West Oakland, had to deal with one of the worst illegally dumped construction items: an abandoned porta-potty. Their team efforts to remove it were challenging, to say the least. It sat for weeks near the intersection of Poplar and 20th streets and created a mess when some tried to move it out of the way. “It was really gross,” said Anne Olivia, outreach and partnership director for American Steel.

There are many ways to measure the toll illegal dumping has on the operators and tenants of a space like American Steel — beyond the unenviable task of getting rid of a porta-potty. Olivia estimated that her staff spends 25 to 30 cumulative paid hours a month cleaning up trash on the street. American Steel has hired a private security firm, Diehard Security Solutions, which monitors the street and tries to catch dumpers — and graffiti taggers — in the act. The presence of security officers is deterring dumpers, said Joseph Bando, owner of the company. “Word is getting around.”

But the frequent dumping greatly damages outsiders’ perception of the neighborhood. “This is not the image we want to give visitors, investors, or school kids that walk through every day. We want it to be beautiful, not something crawling with rats,” Olivia said.

When American Steel completed one of its first major cleanups in January, volunteers and staff lined up the refuse in neat piles for the city to claim, but because there was such a high volume, the removal didn’t happen for weeks, she said. During that time, dumpers added to the piles, scavengers spread it around the street, and a lot of their cleanup progress was essentially undone. “It was a huge disaster.”

After that mess, American Steel began working with city council staffers, who were able to provide Olivia with large dumpsters for cleanups, but those supplies are limited and she is not sure she will be able to secure one for her next cleanup.

The office of Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who represents West Oakland, has fielded concerns from at least six businesses that were considering leaving Oakland because of illegal dumping, said Casey Farmer, her policy analyst. “The worst call is: ‘We are moving our business. We can’t handle the illegal dumping. It’s leading to a dangerous situation for our employees,'” Farmer said. “It’s tragic that children see it in our neighborhood. This is taking a mental toll on our community.” There is also the loss of potential business from merchants who consider West Oakland but go elsewhere after visiting and observing trash heaps, she said.

Some business owners eager to curb dumping will chase after violators and try and photograph their license plates — itself a time-consuming and anxiety-inducing endeavor. “We get in little tiffs with these guys,” said Michael Herling, chairman of the West Oakland Business Alert, a merchant group, and chief operating officer for Consolidated Cleaning Services on Willow Street. “They’ve been doing this for so long that they think it’s legal.” Sometimes they shout at him when they see his camera, he added. “It’s a tense situation.”

Johnson, the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council leader for the Prescott area, who also owns a West Oakland public relations business, said that an illegal dumper once displayed a knife to scare him off — and others will sometimes make indirect threats with their pit bulls. “There’s not a week that’s gone by that I haven’t challenged somebody.”

And it’s depressing. “We are not sending the message as a city that we care at all about the people who live in the poor parts of Oakland,” Olivia said.

David Pellow, sociologist with the University of Minnesota and author of Garbage Wars, said that officials should also consider the longer-term impacts of illegal dumping in low-income neighborhoods. “We see a decline in psychological health,” he said. “People feel disempowered. People feel marginalized. People feel their city, county, state, and federal government is not looking out for them.”

The strain on the city is very real, too. On a given day, twelve public works crews may be working simultaneously responding to as many as eighty requests. It’s the most common complaint to the department’s call center.

“We see it every day, but we never get used to it. I don’t,” said Dexter English, public works senior supervisor.

“These are taxpayer dollars that we are spending on picking up garbage,” added Kristine Shaff, public works spokeswoman. “This is taxpayer money that we could be using for so many other things. This is like throwing away money.”

Keep Oakland Clean and Beautiful — the public works arm that oversees illegal dumping — could spend its resources on other work, like graffiti abatement, street sweeping, weed management, and more, said Frank Foster, operations manager. At the departmental level, funds diverted to illegal dumping could be better used for pothole repairs, road maintenance, and larger street projects, public works officials said.

Oakland has tried — and mostly failed — to curb illegal dumping for years with a range of marketing campaigns, cleanup initiatives, and enforcement programs. In 1992, the city council approved funding to create dedicated crews to remove debris and mitigate illegal dumping. And in 2001, Oakland established a so-called Litter Enforcement Program that included eight litter enforcement officers, or LEOs, trained to conduct enforcement and outreach, backed by a $500,000 state grant. “They had a special patrol,” recalled Preston Turner, who represents the Melrose High Hopes Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council.

It seemed promising at first. Oakland identified dumping “hot spots” and reduced garbage in those areas with enhanced lighting, signage, fencing, and targeted enforcement. Between 2002 and 2006, according to a 2007 Public Works report, the city logged 2,284 cases of illegal dumping, which added up to more than $2.1 million in fines. The city, however, dismissed nearly four hundred of those cases, totaling more than $460,000 in potential fines. And while city officials billed violators for a total of $1.7 million, Oakland only collected a little more than $200,000 during that period. Meanwhile, the cost of illegal dumping to the city during that time frame — which included personnel, equipment, disposal fees, and more — was $5.1 million each year.

Simply put, a large majority of the reported investigations into specific cases of illegal dumping resulted in no tangible payoff for the city.

The city has a number of explanations for why it has been unable to collect on illegal dumping fines over the years. The public works report stated that many of the offenders cited didn’t own property upon which the city could levy financial penalties. Illegal dumping incidents “are among the least viable in terms of collectability,” the report said, noting that partial recovery is common due to “lack of asset value or inconsistent employment.” (Some dumpers may be homeless, the City Attorney’s Office pointed out). Additionally, the reported stated: “If these debts can be successfully collected, they typically take four years or longer to be paid.” And based on total tonnage collected, only around 3 to 5 percent of dumped material can be tied to a source, according to the report.

“I’m not sure if the approach was analyzed fully and thought through,” said English of public works. “The ultimate factor that caused the LEOs to go away was the ineffectiveness of collection.”

But Foster, operations manager of Keep Oakland Clean and Beautiful, said that the presence of these officers had a positive impact, even if the fine collection did not work. “It showed that there was some enforcement out there, so the citizens saw it.”

Parker, the city attorney, added, “Everybody that we collect from is more money in our coffers.” The City Attorney’s Office also has limited resources and has weathered substantial budget cuts in recent years. “Because we don’t have enough person power, we set priorities,” she said.

In advance of the new ordinance, the city attorney launched a pilot program to begin ramping up enforcement. Since May, the office has issued more than thirty citations and has about a dozen more in the works.

None of the offenders, however, have paid. And the City Attorney’s Office said it is close to reaching settlements with a few of the violators, but does not yet have specific details on when — or how — it will move forward with illegal dumping fine collections.

Oakland’s new legislation, co-sponsored by Parker and McElhaney, elevates illegal dumping to a misdemeanor violation of city code (as opposed to an infraction) and establishes a category of “major violations,” which includes harmful waste matter, upholstered furniture, electronic waste, and more. In determining penalties, the City Attorney’s Office has discretion to consider a variety of factors, including cleanup costs, quantity of the waste matter, the violator’s history of dumping, along with the “net worth of the person.”

The city plans to charge illegal dumpers $1,000 a day for every day the blight continues. If a dumper leaves behind multiple large items, each one would be treated as a separate violation, meaning an individual who left three mattresses on the street for three days would potentially face a fine of $9,000. The law additionally expands liabilities so that parents could be held accountable for the actions of their children, vehicle owners could be responsible if their cars are used in the act, property owners could be liable for their tenants’ dumping, and residents who give their materials to illegal haulers could also face penalties. Cars could be impounded. In some cases, the city could allow defendants who can’t pay fines to instead do community service. The ordinance also gives the city council the option of establishing some sort of “reward fund” for individuals who provide evidence that leads to prosecution. The city already encourages residents to report illegal dumping and take photos and videos when it is safe to do so. Residents can log complaints through a mobile app called SeeClickFix and online and by phone with public works. If dumping is in progress, residents can call the police non-emergency line.

At a city council meeting, Richard Illgen, supervising deputy city attorney, called the effort a “new chapter for illegal dumping enforcement,” adding that “people who generate waste matter will have what we call cradle-to-grave responsibility for that waste.”

But some city officials, including those closely involved in anti-dumping efforts, are skeptical. Do the offices of the city administrator and city attorney have time to investigate, prosecute, and collect fines? Will they have enough evidence? After all, it’s not easy tracing the source of a dumped pile to its owner — unless the perpetrator is actually caught in the act, with photographic or video proof to back up allegations. In one recent case, for example, the City Attorney’s Office connected a pile of trash that contained a lot of personal information to a family that had recently been burglarized.

Moreover, prosecuting illegal dumping has not been a priority for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office over the years. From 2010 to 2013, the DA’s environmental unit only prosecuted around 27 illegal dumping cases in the entire county — and just nine were from Oakland. Those cases typically involved larger-scale dumping of toxic and hazardous materials or the placement of materials harmful to fish and wildlife in or near waterways. (The DA’s office prosecutes littering cases as misdemeanors in its branch offices, but statistics regarding those cases were not readily available). Teresa Drenick, spokeswoman for Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, said her office is open to working with partner agencies to take on a dumping case like the ones plaguing Oakland on a daily basis. “She’s a huge proponent of prosecuting environmental crimes,” Drenick said of the DA. However, no such collaborations are underway.

It’s also unclear whether stricter enforcement actually makes a difference. The City of Richmond installed cameras in two of its fifteen “hot spots” where dumping happens on a daily basis, sometimes even twice in one day. Over the last three months, in those two locations, there have been zero incidents as a result of the cameras, said Tim Higares, the city’s code enforcement manager. “But that doesn’t mean they are not dumping in other places,” he added.

And much like Oakland, Richmond has few resources to launch full-fledged prosecutions. “We could sit there and investigate,” he said, “but the reality is we’ve got to go pick it up.” Last year, Richmond picked up 2,607 mattresses, 2,553 tires, and 1,452 tons of illegal dumped materials (Oakland collects about 5,000 dumped mattresses a year). Higares pointed to a report from the Los Angeles Police Department, which has had some success with “street service investigators” who are authorized to make arrests at the scene and book suspects into LAPD facilities. In just one location, investigators made nearly one hundred arrests over a relatively short time period by catching suspects in the act, the 2008 report stated.

But Oakland can’t match Los Angeles’ financial resources, and illegal dumping is not a priority for the Oakland Police Department. When pressed for comment as to how police respond to illegal dumping calls and what role the agency would play in increased enforcement efforts, OPD spokeswoman Johnna Watson referred me back to public works. “The city has a department specifically for illegal dumping,” she said in an email.

When first contacted by the Express, senior public works and Waste Management officials offered confusing and at times inaccurate statements about the legal options for Oaklanders who want to get rid of bulky items, like mattresses and furniture. It’s safe to say that many residents, too, do not know what the available methods are — in part, because there aren’t many of them. The biggest gap in services — one that clearly contributes to illegal dumping — is the lack of opportunities for apartment-dwellers and renters in smaller buildings or single-family homes with unresponsive landlords.

Waste Management provides a total of one free bulky pickup a year to residents in single-family homes and occupants of two to four unit buildings. Owners of single-family homes can call Waste Management directly to schedule a pick-up, but renters cannot. Likewise, in larger units, property managers or landlords must schedule an appointment. Waste Management sends out a mailer twice a year to remind property owners of this service.

As a result, the only option for most renters in Oakland is to take their unwanted bulky items to Waste Management’s Davis Street recycling and transfer station in San Leandro. The cost to drop off a mattress is $21.70. For residents who don’t have a car or truck to transport their stuff to Davis Street, Waste Management offers so-called “job trucks” and “Bagster bags” for rent. But such rentals are typically cost-prohibitive for many Oaklanders — often hundreds of dollars depending on the location of the pickup and amount of material — and thus are not regularly used.

The lack of options for apartment-dwellers also is amplified by the fact that most Oakland residents are renters. According to the 2010 US Census, renters occupied 58 percent of the housing units in the city. Moreover, a substantial portion of Oakland’s population is transient. According to the census, 45 percent of the city’s residents reported moving in the previous five years. For many of these families, there are simply not enough opportunities for disposing of household items. That’s especially true for low-income residents who do not have the time or resources to take their unwanted belongings to San Leandro.

Consequently, some people dump — or turn to illegal haulers. Rebecca Parnes, recycling program coordinator with Waste Management, explained that no individual or business in Oakland is legally allowed to be paid to haul unwanted items to the dump other than Waste Management. (The only exceptions are contractors doing a job on a home hauling incidental amounts of construction debris and tree trimmers hauling away plant refuse.) In practice, however, there are many illegal haulers who will get rid of junk for a fee, Waste Management and city officials agreed. This problem likely contributes to illegal dumping in a big way. Illegal haulers are not held accountable and have economic incentives to dump stuff at the most convenient location or in hot spots in West and East Oakland.

Illegal hauling, in fact, is something of an unregulated, underground industry in the East Bay. Search for “haulers” on Craigslist and you’ll find dozens of individuals on any given day offering their services for an affordable price. However, haulers offering very cheap rates probably have no intention of bringing the trash to the dump, explained one Craigslist hauler, who wished to remain anonymous, given that his entire operation is illegal. The man, who lives in the East Bay and is semi-retired, has been hauling for about six years on a part-time basis.

He charges $35 per hour for standard pickups — moving a couch from one location to another, for example — and offers an $80 flat rate for a so-called “dump run,” in which he’ll load up to about four hundred pounds or one-and-a-half cubic yards of items in his pickup truck to be properly disposed at a local transfer station. Part of that fee will go toward the cost of dumping, with the Berkeley Transfer Station, for example, charging him a minimum of $29.

“We’re obviously fulfilling a niche,” said the hauler, who argued that Alameda County should license haulers in order to weed out the illegitimate ones who are polluting the streets — and to give customers confidence that their trash will actually end up in the dump. “We provide a micro-service.” He does five to six jobs on average on Saturdays and Sundays, often getting paid by residents who are moving out immediately and have no other options.

The once-a-year bulky pickup option is “really to discourage illegal haulers … and to encourage folks to get materials out of their home and provide them a legal way and a convenient way of doing that,” said Rebecca Jewell, recycling program manager with Waste Management. But Parnes acknowledged that this program is not available to many Oakland residents and that it’s challenging to find an alternative option. “You have to have the initiative to actually do it. You have to have the capability to do it, and I think that capability is the biggest barrier, because the average person can’t load all that stuff up and take it somewhere.” She said that many people are more likely to put their furniture on the sidewalk with a “free” sign, which, even if the furniture is in good condition, is still illegal.

Councilman Gallo, in the anti-dumping recommendations he crafted separate from the ordinance, said Waste Management should increase its number of bulky pickups to once a month and reduce fees at the dump. And when asked about expanding these options, city council, public works, and the City Attorney’s Office staffers all said that they would be supportive. “We as a community need to have as many options as possible,” said Parker, the city attorney, “so that we can reduce the incidents of people dumping.”

“We’ve got to make it easier,” added Farmer, McElhaney’s policy analyst. Residents in apartment buildings “are really in a quandary,” she admitted. “It’s very challenging. I can see where alternative methods of dumping or paying illegal haulers is really enticing.”

However, providing more options for apartment-dwellers is not part of the city’s new anti-dumping law.

“They are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said the anonymous Craigslist hauler, who added that many residents who hire him want to do the right thing and ask if he actually plans to go to the dump. County waste officials have considered some sort of hauler registration system that would allow for fines, but no proposals are in the works for that either.

Oakland does have an opportunity to address the problems that renters face right now, however. Oakland’s waste contract ­­— known as a “franchise agreement” because Waste Management is the exclusive company handling the city’s trash — is up for renegotiation. Farmer said McElhaney plans to push for additional options for apartment-dwellers in the negotiation process. Jason Overman, spokesman for Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, said of the dearth of options, “This is an ongoing challenge that we are committed to addressing.”

But it’s unclear whether providing bulky pickup options for apartment-dwellers will actually be a top priority in the negotiations. In its request for bids last year, the city asked for one small pickup each year for occupants of buildings with five or more units. According to the census, 33 percent of housing units in Oakland are in structures with five or more dwellings. That works out to about 57,000 units. However, there is no guarantee that Waste Management will agree to provide bulky pickups to renters of these dwellings.

In addition, an increase in bulky pickup options would likely be associated with rate increases for trash pickup in Oakland, though rates are expected to rise regardless with the new contract. “The logistics of making it work are really challenging,” Parnes added, referring to bulky pickup for apartment buildings. “It’s creating a whole new program.” In large buildings, there may be residents moving out every single day, Jewell noted.

But pickups for apartments are not impossible. In fact, Waste Management provides this very service for the City of Emeryville, where, according to the 2010 US Census, 71 percent of the housing units are part of structures with ten or more dwellings. Twice a year, managers of properties consisting of four or more units in Emeryville can schedule curbside pickups or provide residents with a “roll-off box,” essentially a large Dumpster. Buildings with five hundred or more units can schedule four appointments a year, said Marcy Greenhut, environmental programs technician within the city’s Public Works Department. This service, added in 2011, is used regularly by apartment-dwellers. “It’s definitely a big help,” Greenhut said.

Mike Mahoney, a public works superintendent, said this option also has helped reduce the amount of illegal dumping in Emeryville. The agency was not able to offer specifics on the cost of this service to residents — it was one of many changes in the new contract — but said it was not significant.

During a lengthy interview inside an office at the Davis Street Transfer Station, Jewell added, matter-of-factly, “Illegal dumping is super complicated and it’s folded in with social justice and poverty and high-density living and transit and all kinds of other issues — and money.”

Negotiations in the past have not delved into this debate, in part because illegal dumping was not such a prevalent problem. Then, the economy plummeted, she said.

On a recent Thursday morning, about 6,000 used mattresses were stacked inside a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in an industrial park in East Oakland. A group of a dozen or so workers were sorting the mattresses and their various parts, stripping steel off of box springs, and handling deliveries from as far north as Redding and as far east as Truckee. The site is called DR3, and it’s the largest mattress recycling facility in the country, processing about 125,000 mattresses a year. But as big as this facility is, Oakland officials hope that a new state law will allow the company to expand even more to help solve one of the largest problems associated with illegal dumping: discarded mattresses on city streets.

“The object is to clean up the streets and get mattresses out of the landfills,” Robert Jaco, facilities director of DR3, said of SB 254, which was sponsored by State Senator Loni Hancock of Berkeley and signed into law last month by Governor Jerry Brown. Jaco expects that the new law will allow his company to grow substantially in the coming years with four or five new facilities in Northern California and an annual volume closer to half a million mattresses — a number that may grow each subsequent year.

The new state law mirrors programs already in place for recycled bottles, televisions, and other electronics, and will be funded by a fee collected at the point of mattress sales. CalRecycle, the state entity that oversees recycling, will collect the tax and develop a state system to collect discarded used mattresses, dismantle them, and recycle their materials. The state will hammer out a proposal over the next year and a half, said Hancock, meaning full implementation of the law will not happen until 2015.

“If we can establish clear ways for people to have their mattresses taken away and recycled, everybody will win,” Hancock said. “We live on a planet that is very fragile and in many places literally drowning in its own waste. Anything we can do to take that waste and reuse it — and create jobs by reusing it — is a great plus.”

DR3 is hoping to play a major role in implementation, which is especially fitting given its location in Oakland, a hotbed for mattress dumping.

The mattress-recycling law also aims to tackle the dumping epidemic in a way that has been overlooked in the city’s new crackdown on violators by encouraging more sustainable waste disposal practices. In fact, to date, there have been no serious discussions in City Hall about creating or supporting sustainable solutions to the city’s illegal dumping problems, even though Oakland and the Bay Area have long been national leaders in recycling efforts and are home to organizations devoted to sustainable reuse.

“I see so much stuff thrown out [on city streets] … that can be used and not just wasted,” said Kendra Poma, founder of Swap It Oakland, a meetup group in which residents can get rid of items they no longer need and pick up other stuff for free. “I really wanted a space where people can get together and [do] hand-to-hand exchange.”

As a “Dumpster diver,” Poma said she has observed the rise in illegally dumped materials and is always keeping her eyes peeled for items on the street that might be of interest. “It’s very much about having access to things that I couldn’t afford and also not wasting.” While such swaps would not deal with the construction debris, toxic materials, or very large dumps that plague Oakland, they could tap into a more sustainable approach to the overabundance of stuff — in a city in which many transplants need new belongings while others departing need to offload.

That is also the thinking behind Yerdle, a mobile app developed in San Francisco and used heavily in the East Bay. Yerdle allows thousands of users to give and get all kinds of items for free. Users receive credits for joining and earn more credits by giving items away.

“You would be shocked at the demand for things,” said co-founder and CEO Andy Ruben. “Cities will benefit from this not only in the avoidance of waste … but in helping constituents have access to more value for less money.”

“It’s easier to get rid of something if I know it’s going to be used by someone else,” said Emily Schnipper, a co-organizer of the Really Really Free Market in Redwood City, another local meetup exchange group, adding, “It’s a way to provide low-income people with what they need.”

There also is already an underground world of scavengers in Oakland who dive through trash — whether Dumpsters or illegal street piles — and walk away with new treasures. It’s common for residents to offer unwanted but usable items for free on Craigslist — if interested parties have the means to take it from them. Local thrift shops and organizations like the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse also help to reduce waste by accepting donations and cheaply selling recycled goods.

But at the policy level, there’s little discussion in Oakland, beyond support of the statewide mattress bill, about sustainability in the context of illegal dumping. “Reuse is beautiful,” said Jewell, Waste Management’s recycling program manager, noting that she is pleased that entities like Yerdle and Freecycle Network, another online exchange organization, are popular in the East Bay.

Parnes, Waste Management’s recycling program coordinator, said she sees her neighbors in Oakland’s Temescal district promoting this kind of reuse all the time. “I actually had to decide not to bring anything else into my home … because there’s a lot of good stuff out there,” she said, adding that such efforts are “widely used, but I think it could improve.”

But for now, Oakland is moving forward with its plan to impose steeper fines with the hope that residents and outsiders will be dissuaded from illegally discarding their stuff and that dumpers caught in the act will pay what they owe — thereby producing some revenue to offset the costs of cleanups.

And those costs are going up. The city council’s 2013-to-2015 budget allocated five additional personnel to deal with illegal dumping along with $530,000 toward more equipment.

At the same time, the exhaustive daily efforts of public works, along with regular community cleanups — all separate from the contracted garbage pickups by Waste Management ­— will remain a double-edged sword. “We’re our own worst enemy,” explained English, senior supervisor with Public Works. He noted that as his staff cleans the streets and responds to complaints, it sends a troubling message to dumpers: If you leave a mess lying on the streets of Oakland, someone will pick it up for you.

And odds are you’ll get away with it.


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