The warning letter from the city’s recycling office weighs on Roberto like a ton of aluminum cans and glass bottles.
Stop scavenging from city-issued recycling bins, it says, or face a $500 fine, six months in jail and the impounding of your car.
What is all the fuss about? asks Roberto, a full-time gardener who earns minimum wage. How could people get mad at him for taking what was discarded?
Roberto, 56, and his wife, Maria, 49, who asked that their last name not be printed, scavenge to help support their four children. The $100 or so they make a month by redeeming cans and bottles helps pay the rent for their one-bedroom apartment on Broadway.
They are scared and say they will stop. But how will they make ends meet? “This trash I gather and sell is to support my family, not to buy drugs,” Roberto said. “I have to find a way. What am I going to do? Rob people?”
For years, hundreds of people, mostly the homeless and the working poor, have scoured Long Beach every day in search of a pauper’s bounty.
But the rules of the grimy trade have changed. Scavengers who were once tolerated are being reported by indignant homeowners and ticketed by police.
The change has come with the city’s new recycling program. Each week on trash day, huge green trucks pick up bottles and cans from purple curbside bins, as well as cardboard, newspapers and used motor oil. Residents are charged $2.65 a month for the service.
Some residents and officials are angry because scavengers take the most valuable cans and bottles, make noise and sometimes leave a mess to boot.
Scavengers cash in their materials at independent recycling centers in the Long Beach and Wilmington areas. Aluminum cans fetch the best price at about 90 cents a pound. Newspaper is about the least valuable at $10 a ton.
City officials say they must find a way to curb the scavenging before residents defect from the program and start throwing everything in the trash again.
Long Beach began recycling last December to comply with state law. Cities must reduce their trash flow 25% by 1995, and 50% by 2000, to conserve scarce landfill space. Cities that don’t meet those goals could face fines of up to $10,000 per day.
“If people don’t participate because of scavengers, then it’s a problem for us,” said James R. Kuhl, the city’s recycling coordinator.
Technically, it has long been illegal to pick through trash in Long Beach. The maximum punishment is a $500 fine and six months in jail. But the law was rarely enforced before the new recycling program.
City officials say they do not usually cite scavengers who take cans and other recyclables from trash cans, but those who pilfer recycling bins do so at their own risk, said recycling spokeswoman Rita Hooker.
Police recently began writing $135 citations, although no one has kept track of how many. So far, no one has been arrested and jailed, officials said.
Some of the scavengers begin as early as 3 a.m., but most start around sunrise.
Guadalupe Estrada, 68, moved down the street on a recent morning seeking his livelihood in the trash cans and recycling bins of a central Long Beach neighborhood.
Estrada, wearing a straw hat and hauling a bag of cans, bypassed the bin in front of Betty Marshall’s home. She was out watering her lawn at about 7:30 a.m. and Estrada wanted to avoid trouble.
Some people yell at him as if he were a common thief. Some may even call the police. Marshall just watches Estrada pass.
“I am a very humble man,” said Estrada, who lives alone and buys food and other necessities with the money he earns scavenging, about $5 a day. “I’m old and I don’t work. That’s why I gather cans.”
Juan Medina headed out at 5:30 on another morning in search of recyclables with his daughter and 13-year-old grandson. The three hurried through the alleys behind the homes surrounding Junipero Avenue. Medina and his daughter used tools made from broom handles to fish bottles and cans out of the trash. The boy, out of school for summer break, pulled a homemade plywood wagon.
They stopped to search a large trash bin while a transient covered with flies slept a few feet away. A trio of kittens nipped at scraps and darted in and out of drain pipes.
Medina said he was unemployed, and the $5 to $10 a day they received for their efforts helped keep a roof over the family’s head and food on the table.
“We’re not working right now,” said the daughter, who declined to give her name or details about how they make ends meet. “It’s very difficult to get work. Right now, there’s no other way to get food.”
On another morning, in another alley a few miles away, Fleming Robinson scavenged to supplement his $315 monthly welfare check. Robinson, 57 and unemployed, said he has worked the streets of Long Beach seven years, taking in about $100 a week.
Robinson knows the tricks of the trade. Trash bins are usually full of bottles and cans after Friday, which is payday for many people. The first to the 10th of the month also is prime time--just after welfare and Social Security checks arrive.
Robinson drives to neighborhoods throughout Long Beach and then sets out on foot. He usually avoids affluent areas like Belmont Shore.
“I go there once in a while,” said Robinson, who lives in an apartment on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. “But you have to watch where you park, and people think you’re doing something wrong. So I don’t go there too much.”
The scavengers interviewed by The Times said they resist taking cans and bottles from recycling bins. It just takes too many cans to cover a $135 citation--about 3,900 at current recycling rates.
“It puts fear in people,” Robinson said.
Many Long Beach residents sympathize, leaving bags of bottles and cans for them to pick up, the scavengers said. But other residents are furious.
Nearly 500 people have called the city’s recycling hot line since December to complain about scavenging in general, and to report pilfering from recycling bins, according to city records.
While the data is still being analyzed, most of the complaints apparently come from North Long Beach and the Belmont Shore area, Hooker said.
The callers describe scavengers roving in cars and on bicycles. Two people called one morning to report a scavenger pushing four shopping carts. One woman carries a bag of recyclables on her head when it gets heavy, one caller reported.
The callers complain about the clank of cans and the trash that scavengers leave strewn about.
Barbara Fox was so mad she wrote a letter to the local newspaper.
“They come through clank, clank, clank in their carts,” Fox said in an interview. “They’re out there going through it (the garbage) and throwing the trash all over the alley.”
Fox also said scavengers should not make off with the most valuable recyclables, especially since she and other residents are paying to support the recycling program. She suspects that much of the money scavengers make pays for alcohol or drugs.
“They raised our trash rates to pay for these beautiful trucks to pick up nothing,” said Fox, who shuns the city program and cashes in her bottles and cans. “It’s just a waste of time as far as I’m concerned.”
But many people agree with Marshall, the woman who was out watering her lawn on a recent morning.
“They can have it,” she said. “I don’t care what they do with it.”
Recycling officials say it is virtually impossible to know how much scavengers take from the city program. But it is apparent they take plenty in some neighborhoods.
Michael Griffin drives one of the green recycling trucks in the city program. By the time he starts his route at 7 a.m., few bottles and aluminum cans remain.
“A lot of scavengers realize you can’t get started until 7 ‘o clock,” Griffin said. “The way I see it, these people have had a recycling program going a lot longer than we’ve been here.”
Kuhl, Long Beach’s recycling coordinator, said scavengers are not threatening the viability of the program so far. The city hires a contractor to pick up and sell the recyclables.
Long Beach is on pace to meet its goal of 15,000 tons of recyclables a year, Kuhl said. Revenue, including the monthly charge to residents, has just about covered the $1.2-million cost of running the program, and officials estimate that participation ranges from 35% to 85% depending on the neighborhood.
But city officials worry that scavenging could get out of hand. It happened in Redondo Beach, where officials said trash picking eroded public support for that city’s first curbside recycling program. It was halted in 1986 for lack of participation.
When another program was started in 1990, four detectives were assigned to crack down on scavengers for several weeks. The city now has a recycling ranger who polices the bins.
“We cite people. We’ve arrested people. We take it real seriously,” said Tami Piscotty, Redondo Beach recycling coordinator.
In Long Beach, citizen complaints are forwarded to the Police Department for investigation. But, officials said, scavenging is a low-priority crime that does not get much police attention. The city also sends warning letters to scavengers who are identified primarily by the license numbers of their vehicles.
To improve enforcement, Kuhl said he is talking to police officials about empowering parking officers to ticket scavengers.
But most scavengers need not worry about stronger enforcement measures--larger fines or jail time, according to Deputy City Prosecutor John M. Fentis.
Fentis said he would not hesitate to prosecute a sophisticated scavenging operation, which has not surfaced so far. But sending the poor to jail is a different story.
“I certainly do not want to make a living off prosecuting someone who makes a living off cans from a trash can,” Fentis said.
But City Councilman Les Robbins has been pressing city administrators to crack down on scavengers, big and small, in his 5th District, which covers the northeast part of the city. So far, he has not taken the issue before the City Council.
One of his constituents reported what appeared to be an organized effort: Several scavengers in a truck took the recycling bins from a neighborhood, emptied and returned them.
“It’s theft. It’s a crime, and I think it’s going to get really out of control,” Robbins said.
Long Beach Recycling Facts
Average amount of trash collected: 18,273 tons a month*
Average amount of recyclables collected: 1,176 tons a month
Monthly cost of recycling program: $250,000
Monthly income from recyclables: $10,000**
*Includes refuse from a small number of businesses served by the city. Independent trash haulers serve most Long Beach businesses, which are not included in the recycling program. **A monthly charge of $2.65 per residence pays for the remaining cost of the program. Source: Long Beach Recycling Office.