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The Blue Bin Scavengers —Recycling And L.A.'s Lost Treasure

A look at the current recycling program and its un-mined riches in debt-ridden Los Angeles.

We have all seen it. the ubiquitous street person pushing the overloaded shopping cart full of recyclables down the street. In L.A., it seems to be epidemic. With the economy still in limbo, and hard financial times faced by many, the trend toward raiding city-owned trash containers-- and by default the recyclables placed within them-- is on the rise.

The homeless have been doing it for a long time-- dumpster diving both for the sustenance found in scraps of discarded food, and for the recyclables which provide a few dollars for whatever they fancy. Although technically illegal in Los Angeles, it is still a common practice.

Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) Chapter 5, Article 6, Sec. 66.24. Replacing Fallen Material indicates:  "No person other than the owner or the operator of the premises on which the market waste containers are located...shall tamper or remove any material from a market waste container."

Many chain supermarkets and family-run markets secure their trash containers to prevent unwanted intrusions both for safety and legal reasons. Despite these measures, the homeless continue to "dumpster dive." Unfortunately, it is an good indicator of America's indifference to this social ill, and an understandable practice. Only the most cruel-hearted person would protest or actively prevent a person from rummaging around in the trash for a few scrapes of food, or a few soda cans to exchange for nickels. This is not what I am addressing. I am talking about professional scavengers who sweep through the city on trash days and raid the recycle containers. 

A new trend seems to have emerged whereby individuals and groups of individuals are marking out territories and traversing established trash routes to scoop up anything of recyclable value before the homeless can even get to it. As for the city-- forget about it! It is an urban-rooted, look-the-other-way, untaxed, financial rewards program; it is a completely visible-- totally invisible-- informal welfare system. And in many cases, it offers some people gainful employment, but without the necessity to report to an employer, or "to render to Cesar what Cesar is due"-- at the taxpayers and homeowners expense, of course.

Citing a March 2009 "Waste & Recycling" article, the L.A. Dept. of Public Works, Bureau of Sanitation, Solid Resources program boasts that they annually collect over 240,000 tons of recyclables with the goal of surpassing the state-mandated 50% target for landfill diversion. On the current Bureau of Sanitation website, a "City of L.A. Rate Update," from June 2009 reveals that L.A. is ranked #1 out of the 10 largest U.S. cities for recycling. They claim a 65% recycling rate for it's 3,834,340 residents. www.lacity.org/solid_resources/recycling/index.htm 

A March 10, 2010 Los Angeles Times (LAT) article, "Los Angeles is banking on recycling," touts this interesting fact. "A ton of recyclables brings the city $25 of revenue rather than costing the city $30 to dispose of it." The same article provides an overview of a city-sanctioned, 12-month pilot program starting in April 2010 called "RecycleBank." I discovered the same information in a city letter sent to residents in the targeted areas, and in a city press release-- "Los Angeles is Largest City To Partner With RecycleBank." The idea is that 15,000 homes in the West Valley and in the North-Central areas of L.A. will be eligible to have their Blue Bin recyclable containers bar-coded and micro-chipped for proper identification. On trash day, containers will be weighed. The payout will come as "rewards points," up to $400 per household per year. The reward points will be evenly distributed among households along the route rather than by individual participation. They will be redeemable at participating businesses. The program is expected to have 745,000 households involved by April 2011, with the ultimate goal of 1.2 million participants.

As of April 2012, although I do find a website for "RecycleBank," I cannot find any recent information about the program and Los Angeles. Is it still in effect? Was it cost-effective? Did they reach their intended goals? I put in a request to Media Relations, RecycleBank, Melody Serafino. Mserafino@groupsjr.com. To date I have not received a response. I also contact City of L.A. Dept. of Public Works, Jimmy Tokeshi. Jimmy.tokeshi@lacity.org He responds and states, "The RecycleBank pilot with the city expired in January 2012." He does not answer my other questions. Was it successful? Did they meet their intended goals?

Getting people to actively recycle by providing financial incentives seems like a good idea. Whether it is economically viable in the long-term is up to the experts, and I expect the recycle market. I recycle my aluminum cans and glass and plastic bottles at a local recycle center. It requires about 30 minutes of my time, loading, unloading, and driving to and from. It provides me with between $12-22 per month, which I use to help offset my solid resource fee of $73 per two month billing cycle. This is not an astronomical amount, but the downside is L.A. will not let me opt-out and hire a less expensive private contractor. The city holds me hostage in order to support their over-paid union workers, and to continue their inefficient management of the city. The rest of my recyclables do go into the city-owned Blue Bins. My hope is-- naive perhaps-- is the money earned from the city's recycling program will help defray the cost of trash pick-up. To date, I am wrong. During my tenure here, the rate has increased from from $9 to $36 a month. The reality-- sanitation service rates will only increase.

In January 1990, Mayor Tom Bradley signed into law the Los Angeles recycle program. It made its way to the San Fernando Valley in 1991. The effort to prohibit scavenging from trash, specifically recyclables, began in the mid-90's. By 1995, the theft problem was deemed so serious a scavenger task force and "Scavenging Hotline" were established.The state's Dept. of Conservation awarded $100,000 to Los Angeles to help expand an anti-scavenging program in the west San Fernando Valley. During a six month period, police issued 200 warning letters and 22 citations. Bureau of Sanitation revealed that this effort reduced scavenging in this area, and it added "$8,000 per month in revenue from the resale of recyclables."

In a November 6th, 1995 letter to the LAT, it was estimated by City Councilwoman, Laura Chick-- a future City Controller and State Inspector General-- that scavenging was costing the city two million dollars a years towards the effort to offset the costs of complying with a state-mandated recycling program. Citizens were urged to get involved and to document the license plates and descriptions of scavengers and to call the hot-line. Letters were sent to offenders, and L.A.P.D. officers responded to areas of high activity and issued citations. Additional funds for the increased enforcement program came from the Dept. of Sanitation recycling budget. A decade and a half later, this pro-active type of program seems to have itself been scraped. Well, it is Los Angeles, and when it comes to our civic leaders serving the best interests of the people, the people usually lose-- at least, the taxpaying people.

From what I have observed, without active enforcement, the city doesn't stand a chance of recouping much of anything monetarily from single-dwelling residential customers who pro-actively separate items for recycle, especially as it pertains to aluminum cans and plastic or glass bottles. In my area-- in fact most of L.A.-- we have what I term-- "MyBank." Privately initiated, it is manned by individuals called "The Professional Scavengers." These individuals utilize cars, trucks, shopping carts, converted bicycles, push wagons-- actually, almost everything but donkey carts. They scour the area looking for recyclables. Do not be mistaken, the majority are not homeless. It is easy to tell the difference. The homeless are threadbare. They push overloaded shopping carts piled with tarps, blankets, garbage bags, all surrounded by small, plastic grocery bags attached to the sides and stuffed with stuff. The Professional Scavengers are an altogether different group with an altogether different agenda. Trash day brings a horde of these scavengers-- Creatures of the Blue Bins. They invade the neighborhood and spread out as locusts do when descending upon a fertile wheat field. They wreak unabated havoc, ravaging the area of all aluminum, glass, and plastic-- an onslaught absconding with anything of value discovered in the city-owned, Blue Bins. This activity is illegal. It is "petty theft."

LAMC Sec. 66.28. "Refuse-- Rubbish And Salvage-- Tampering With" prohibits this activity. "No person other than the owner thereof, his agent or employees, or an officer or employee of this city...shall tamper with any refuse, rubbish or salvage, or refuse, rubbish or salvage container or the contents thereof...."

A first offense is punishable by a $500 fine and/or up to to six months in jail. The warning is located on the inside lid of the Blue Bin. The law doesn't seem to matter to either The Professional Scavengers or to the city leaders mismanaging our debt-ridden city. Actually, I have never seen the law being enforced. Personally, I would feel kind of stupid calling the police because someone is rummaging through my trash. I understand they are busy with other, more serious, quality-of-life issues these days. But I do think the problem should be addressed somehow. It seems like a code enforcement issue. Other cities have code enforcement officers who actively monitor things such as street vendors, yard sales, food trucks and carts, posting signs of city property, on-street car sales, on-street car repairs, overnight camping, trash-strewn yards, etc. As an example, Burbank is often touted as an ideal city-- clean, orderly, well-managed, financially stable. They also have code enforcement officers. Perhaps, it is because their citizens demand that their representatives care? Whatever it is, in Los Angeles, it is most certainly a financial concern for the City Controller. City leaders keep warning us the city's coffers are empty. So fill them.

Don't be fooled. Los Angeles city leaders are not completely in the dark. They know they have a problem. They know they are losing money, and they realize they are not operating effectively, or in the best financial interests of the public. In fact, some of the trash trucks are equipped with signage stating that scavenging is illegal-- both in Spanish and English. They also offer pro-active tips to thwart recycle thieves. Ideas such as-- lock your containers, and place the Blue Bins out the morning of trash day, prior to the 7:00 A.M. pick-up. The problem for me is my trash man is inconsistent. Sometimes he arrives at 6:24 A.M. I hear the bang and clatter coming down the street. Unfortunately for me and my final moments of slumber, this city employee is apparently personally exempt from the LAMC "Noise Ordinance" prohibiting loud noises prior to 7:00 A.M. Conversely, he sometimes doesn't show up until late in the afternoon-- which more or less thwarts the idea of the city actually getting the recyclables before The Professional Scavengers do. It really is a crap-shoot, and I mean that literally-- which you will soon understand.

It is the night before trash pick-up-- when it seems all the residents of my street place out their trash bins, like me, also unwilling to arise at 6:00 A.M. on trash day to do so. A lady comes by three to four times over a period of several hours to clean out the containers as they are randomly placed out. She is equipped with a gas efficient vehicle. She dons a protective outfight, including mask and gloves. This is apparently undertaken in an effort to protect herself from any vile contents. She shows up like clockwork. She knows her client's habits-- exactly who the prolific beer, bottled water, and soda drinkers are. She is both goal-directed and extremely persistent. I often muse she would make a good employee for someone.

In between her forays, several other individuals vie for position trying to hit the recycle jackpot by scouring through the Blue Bins. Such is the allure and the draw, I have even witnessed territorial skirmishes. One guy arrives in style. He drives a new Cadillac Escalade, shiny chrome wheels and all. He brings his young daughter along. She stands beside watching his back as he digs into the bins assuring that speeding traffic doesn't run him down in the darkness before it does her. Undeterred by the reckless, inattentive drivers, this recycle family kills two birds with a single stone. They are spending quality family time together, and they are cutting into the Escalade's horrific gasoline bill. Of course, this family's foray is at taxpayer's expenses, but isn't that what all publicly subsidized, financial assistance programs are about anyway?

Mostly, people such as this, and those that arrive after the Trash Lady has made her rounds, are wasting their time. It doesn't seem to matter. They have Gold Fever. There has to be something of value in those bins-of-hope. There must be! The worst of the recycle offenders, or perhaps the most frustrated, finding nothing of value left in the Blue Bins, dive relentlessly into the Black Bins reserved for solid waste. This of course creates a mess, and it also assures that things which were properly bagged for disposal-- things such as dog feces-- are no longer in compliance. In fact, because of the lack of care from these individuals, a lot of waste is no longer even contained. It has now found its way onto the street, and eventually into the storm drains, and then onward into the ocean. There is an ordinance pertaining to this.

LAMC Sec. 66.24. Replacing Fallen Material-- "No person removing or conveying any refuse, garbage, food plant waste, market waste or rubbish shall fail, refuse or neglect to replace immediately in any container any refuse, garbage, food plant waste, market waste or rubbish that shall have fallen therefrom, in or upon any street or in or upon any premise."

Apparently, the Black Bin scavengers are unaware of this regulation and the logical health and safety reasoning behind it. But some localities are not unaware. In fact, they take the matter seriously. Cities such as Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Monterey Park, and West Hollywood have similar ordinances on the books, but, unlike Los Angeles, they attempt to enforce those ordinances. Many cities have enforcement officers who actually engage and educate offenders. Although difficult to enforce, this pro-active approach tends to dissuade most of the individuals who are purely profit motivated. It assures the cities will profit from the recycle programs while helping to defray sanitation costs. It seems pretty straightforward and logical. But then, it's not Los Angeles. I don't actually know what Los Angeles' civic leaders are currently thinking when it comes to scavenging, but I do know they keep warning us the city's going bankrupt, so they need to cut services across-the-board, layoff employees-- except for the mayor and city council-- and, of course, raise taxes on education.

I have a suggestion. Perhaps the city should send out their own teams of "City Scavengers" to raid their own recycle bins before The Professional Scavengers beat them to it. It would be like thieves stealing from thieves. They could cull the workers from convicted, non-violent criminals. Instead of erasing incipient graffiti and cleaning the sides of freeways, they could dumpster dive their community service hours away. It could clear out the "drunk tanks" and reduce jail overcrowding. Talk about a deterrent! Alcohol Diversion classes would have nothing on the psychological imprint that six months of dipping one's hands and nose into a smelly garbage container would. I'd sure drink my beer at home-- and recycle the bottles! And since the city no longer impounds certain individuals' vehicles-- a sure loss of revenue-- this recycle windfall could help fund the city's operation. It's clearly a win-win situation for all.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Lori San Martin June 24, 2012 at 06:26 PM
If I put recycling items in my blue gin *I* am intending them to go to the city for recycling. ANYONE who takes them out of my blue bin is stealing. I understand there are less needy and good people doing this but still it is stealing.
Gerald Elekes June 24, 2012 at 07:39 PM
@Lori San Martin. You're absolutely correct. Unfortunately that makes two of us seeing it this way. Our public officials certainly do not. It's ok for them to steal (taxes/ rate hikes) from us; as long as they can continue to do it unhindered, losing tens-of-millions of dollars in recyclables is chump change. I think we're actually the chumps? I notice not many people commented on this subject; not one city official tried to explain or to rebut it. But when I criticized the Fire Dept. for not responding to window shattering, commercial fireworks blasted in a residential area on Memorial Day, they were all over my butt on this public form-- eventually stating that LAPD is the appropriate First Responders based upon the inherent danger of explosive devices. What? Too dangerous for them to respond, but ok to shoot-off in a congested residential neighborhood. The bottom line is that LE could care less-- a low priority call. Talk about Kafka's World. And we are paying for it-- dearly. So here we are... for all intent and purposes, stuck with managerial ineptness and fiscal and social irresponsibility. LA city life. Personally, I take the time to recycle all bottles, aluminum, and plastic. The rest is put in the blue bin, which I do not put out until 6:30 AM of trash collection day. This month's reward $29. And, of course, now that I've announced it, the tax man will line up demanding his cut for my hard work. Still, thanks for caring, for reading, and for your insightful comments.
robert June 25, 2012 at 08:32 AM
Great article, but the reality is that an overwhelming majority of people simply do not care. I never complained about people going through my trash because I do understand that other people are less fortunate. I am concerned about people making it a business but I'm pretty sure its scarce. People will use the, "Its a business" excuse to to try to get what they really want, to get major enforcement of trash digging; people have a right to not want people in there trash. However, like I say, most people just don't care nor does the city. Rex, I'm mean no harm but I'm disappointed in you for posting that video and calling the guy a scavenger. Very cold hearted. Its stuff like that that cause people to be ignored because its comes across as arrogant and just another NIMBY who's complaining about something virtually no one cares about.
Gerald Elekes June 25, 2012 at 04:58 PM
Thanks for reading and your reasoned comments. I feel as you do. I would not spite a hungry, down on their luck person a chance to eat or a place to sleep if it meant rummaging through the trash. Although I touch on that topic, that is not what I'm actually addressing in this essay. What bothers me are the persistent scavengers. All I can go on is what I see with my own eyes. All one has to do in my area is go to the local recycling centers after trash day to see it is a business for many. The same pick-up trucks are piled high with the goods. No one family can garner that much recyclable material week after week. Secondarily, I have personally observed some storage facilities in this area being used as a makeshift sorting area for recyclables. Random trucks deliver the goods, dump, and a person actually sits, sorts, and separates the material-- then stores it in a rented container. If that's not a business, I don't know what is. I have also seen residences used for the same thing. Truck after truck pulls up, day after day. This cannot just be one industrious family working a corner "lemonade stand." And you're absolutely right-- no one seems to care. And that is too bad to because it is a good source of "untapped revenue" for the city. But their fiscal incompetence is tolerated because they have us blind suckers to bleed-- and more coming-- so what's the difference. They still make a salary. They will raise our sanitation rates. Those commandments are set in stone.
Melody Lee July 26, 2012 at 06:31 PM
I'm a manager of a mobile home park and the resdient is upset becuse non-Residents are coming into our park and going thru the Blue and Black Bins. Is there a law that they cannot do that? Is there a fine or Jail time for that? This is a private community we have signs posted up in front of the park that say's This property closed to the public No Entry without permission L.A.M.C. Sec. 41.24. The Lead officer told me to get that sign for our property.Thank you for your time.

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