Magazine

San Francisco's rubbish - why everyone wants a share

Image caption San Francisco produces over two million tonnes of waste each year

San Francisco has one of the best recycling rates in the US, with many companies and individuals making a living by combing the streets for cans and bottles. But a racket has emerged in which the unscrupulous - and the criminal - are taking their share.

Two elderly Vietnamese ladies totter into the yard. Sticks are balanced across their shoulders with a bag of used plastic bottles dangling from each end.

As they set down their burden they smile broadly and communicate via sign language with one tracing answers on my palm. She has worked all night, raiding street litter bins, to make about $25 (£17). She is 78 years old.

It is mid-morning and San Francisco's Haight Ashbury neighbourhood waste recycling centre is filling up. People are bringing in shopping trolleys and bin bags bulging with aluminium, glass and plastic.

The night's haul is weighed and paid in an old shipping container according to a price list pinned to the metal wall.

A young man with a strong Hispanic accent strains to see the result on the calculator and seems pleased.

"$23 (£15) - useful money for two to three hours work. We'll get a meal but drink first 'cos I tell you the truth, we're drinkers," he says.

Another San Francisco resident, Edward - on the streets from age 13 - reckons he can make six to seven dollars (£4) an hour collecting bottle cans and plastic.

"It's degrading," he says. "You're not going to be picking up any chicks while you're doing it."

Most customers are collecting recycling from legitimate sources and using the cash to boost the household income. But Edward admits to occasionally dipping into household recycling bins to bulk up his load and spending much of the proceeds on heroin.

He thinks it is better for him and society to be doing this rather than his other skill - "I know how to deal drugs."

Global demand

So what has changed the contents of the bin from unwanted waste to prized resource?

The global demand for raw materials means paper, glass, metal and plastic can all find a market - frequently in Asia where San Francisco's Pacific seaboard gives them an advantage.

Image caption The authorities in San Francisco aim to send zero per cent of waste to landfill sites by 2020

On top of that comes the California bottle bill which put a deposit on bottles and cans worth about 5 to 10 cents per item. So there is real currency in trash.

And more of it is going missing before it can be collected by the City's official garbage collection company Recology.

"We lose a tremendous amount - 25%, as much as 75% in some areas. Millions (of dollars) a year," says Mike Sangiacomo, Recology's CEO.

Scavenging from the bins is illegal but what worries Mr Sangiacomo is the steady increase in a more organised form of theft, with some criminals now using trucks to increase their haul stolen from Recology's bins.

The authorities are aware of these thefts, he claims, but it's not a priority for them to take action.

Blue bins which carry recycling are the target not the green ones with compost or black for other waste.

That is not so different from many British streets but the figures are. San Francisco succeeds in keeping 78% of its waste out of landfill. In England the average is just 41%.

It is a source of pride for workers like Jose Morales, one of the city's garbage men.

But it is also a source of income for them and their company, Recology, which makes money from selling recycling.

As well as the more organised theft, scavengers from the city's poor community often get to the bins first.

"People come and they want the plastic and aluminium. Bottles are too noisy" says Jose Morales, who is out before dawn, with one of Recology's waste collection trucks on the city's rollercoaster streets.

"We can't touch them, we just say get outta here. They come back and smile and say hi.

"Everyone has to make a living but it is taking revenue from the company. We have shares, the better the company does, the bigger the piece of the pie."

Already owned

But for some, recycling waste is a flawed solution and a missed opportunity.

Dan Knapp has made this conviction his business - a multi-million-dollar business.

"The waste people tend to think of everything that's in this building as waste because it's been discarded. We think of it as a resource," he says.

His second-hand superstore, Urban Ore is an emporium of the already owned, stretching over two or three acres.

Image caption Tom Heap spent the day on a waste collection round in San Francisco

There are 9,000 doors, hundreds of toilets, aisles of electronics, families of shop dummies and an antique, tin, US Space Corps lunch box complete with a "rocket vibrometer" and an "earth to orbit control".

"Here's an old hairdresser chair. It's far from waste, it should be treasured. It's also an interesting business because all of your markets are local. There's so much more money in materials conservation than there is in wasting. It's a transformational process," says Mr Knapp.

Recycling or re-using, San Francisco is keeping its landfill use to a far lower level than many other parts of the world.

At San Francisco's container terminal, much of Recology's recycling materials are bound, baled and ready for shipping.

The aluminium is destined for Tennessee while most of the paper and plastic will cross the Pacific.

It really looks like a tradable commodity not problem waste.

And when you think that a single container of recyclable paper saves 300-400 trees, it seems worth the squabbles and tensions of getting it here.

Costing the Earth: Bottle Bank Wars is on BBC Radio 4 at 15:30 GMT on Tuesday 31 January or listen via iPlayer (UK only) at the above link.