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As Economy Worsens, More Cash In on Recyclables

26 September 2008 No Comment

By Casey Miner —

The Berkeley police call them “recycling bandits” – the people who dig through curbside bins and pile shopping carts high with bottles, cans, cardboard and metal.

The managers of local recycling centers call them “recycling professionals.” And the worse the economy gets, they say, the more professionals, and amateurs, they see.

“We’re getting more working people, homebodies, non-professionals trying to collect a few extra dollars,” says Jay Anast, owner of Alliance Metals in Emeryville.

Anast and the managers of several other area recycling centers say that over the past few months they have noticed a significant increase in the number of new faces at their businesses. They say that job loss, along with steep increases in the price of staple groceries and gasoline, have pushed even comparatively well-off people to begin redeeming recyclables themselves, rather than relying on curbside pickup.

“Why throw away $20 every week when you could keep it for yourself?” says Anast.

Anast estimates that he normally sees about 500 people each day. In the past six months, he says, that number has jumped to 600.

“A lot more people are coming in with smaller amounts of stuff, people who are not professional street collectors,” he says.

“Now, we get a lot of people in cars, bringing to us and not using the curb.”

Jerman Figurea, an employee at Berkeley’s recycling center, says he’s noticed a change as well.

“It’s not just people in the poverty range – we’re seeing high middle class, lower middle class,” he says.

“People drive up here in Mercedes-Benzes, in BMWs. They’re not shy.”

According to the California Department of Conservation, last year commercial recycling centers collected roughly 85 percent of the state’s total recycled materials. Curbside recycling made up the other 15 percent.

“Curbside is nice for middle-class people who want to feel good about themselves,” says Anast. “But the landfill diversion is in the hands of professional collectors.”

Both managers and collectors said that an experienced professional recycler can earn over $100 each day. Because the state of California considers the money from buybacks to be a refund, those earnings are income-tax free.

Most of his regulars, says Anast, are not homeless, though many receive welfare or veterans’ benefits.

Many of the newcomers, he says, are “people we suspect have dropped out of the job market and are using this as a bridge or a crutch, an income supplement.” Still others, he says, earn money through recycling while looking for a full-time job.

Garfield Carter, 47, has been redeeming recyclables at Alliance since he was nine. He says he sees new people at Alliance “every day.”

“There’s always new people coming, especially towards the end of the month,” he says. ‘It’s money.”

Rudolph Wilkins, 62, has been coming to Alliance for 20 years, and says he uses the money to supplement his income as a longshoreman. He, too, has noticed the new recyclers.

“Every day, there’s guys that come that have families and can’t find work right now,” he says. “They make $25-125 a day. It’s not much, but it beats $325 a month on assistance, or $125 a month on food stamps.”

“There’s many people that come in now, who never did before, just to keep driving their vehicles.”

None of the recyclers interviewed for this story expressed concern about competition from the influx of new people.

“If there’s a crunch, you just step up operations,” says Tad Dellinger III, 47, a self-described “regular” at the Berkeley recycling center. According to Figurea, Dellinger “comes here religiously, like church.”

Dellinger says he doesn’t worry about new people on his turf, who he calls “pretenders.”

“Get out earlier. Work harder,” he says. “It’s all manageable.”

Brian Thomas, 20, is a business student at UC Berkeley and the president of the campus chapter of the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity. While in the past he has scorned “homeless” dumpster-divers, he says his fraternity has recently begun to see the value of recycling.

“We were proud that in one month we could turn in our cans and bottles for 36 bucks,” he wrote in an email.

“Now I know why they collect so many cans.”

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