Digging for Dollars : Recycling Trash Is One of L.A.'s Few Growth Industries


In the deindustrialized economy of South Los Angeles, where the disappearance of unskilled jobs is routinely blamed for so many social ills, Ralph Littlejohn has his hand in what may be the area’s only growth industry: trash.

Littlejohn is a strong, diminutive, 52-year-old man who pushes three shopping carts, tied together with ropes and old rags, scavenging for bottles, aluminum cans, newspapers and other recyclable materials.

He’s not a crack head, desperately collecting enough for his next fix. He’s an independent businessman who on good days can pull in $50, substantially more than a minimum-wage job pays. He’s the face behind a usually invisible, disorganized army of South-Central scavengers whose labor is changing the face of recycling.

So many poor people are now supporting themselves by recycling--often racing ahead of city trash trucks to clean out residential trash cans--that private recycling centers in South-Central take in five times the volume of centers in the west San Fernando Valley, a similarly sized region.


“It’s hard work, it’s filthy work,” Littlejohn says. “How much money you make depends on how much work you are willing to do.”

But scroungers such as Littlejohn are under attack. Los Angeles city officials, who say they are losing millions in municipal recycling revenue to scavengers each year, are cracking down on curbside thefts. Neighbors are complaining that scavengers--particularly those who use the money to buy drugs and alcohol--are part of a cycle of decline infecting their communities. Other cities are hearing the same message. Santa Monica has redesigned some of its recycling receptacles to make it harder for people to pull materials out; Long Beach is using plainclothes police in residential areas to cite scavengers.

In more affluent neighborhoods, recycling is a commitment to the environment, or a way to defray the cost of trash collection. In poor communities, it’s one of the increasingly few ways to make a buck.

Littlejohn’s workday begins before dawn. Last Wednesday he was a lone figure, dressed in jeans, work shoes and a blue jacket, walking east from his rented room on Normandie Avenue across 49th Street, pulling his three-cart “train” behind him. The shopping carts, their wheels freshly oiled, moved smoothly over the rough road through the neighborhood. Everyone seemed asleep except the emaciated prostitutes standing outside a Figueroa Street motel.

He kept walking east, under the Harbor Freeway, and suddenly the landscape changed to residential. In front of each house was an oversize black city trash can. Next to some homes was a yellow city recycling bin. As Littlejohn knew, Wednesday was this neighborhood’s trash day.


He was not the first to arrive. A couple in their 40s were already working the opposite side of the street, searching through the bins for bottles, plastics, newspapers and cardboard. It was 6:30 a.m. These were valuable minutes. The city garbage trucks were preparing to make their runs. In the distance, their engines roared, gears shifted and beeping sounds echoed.

Littlejohn asked the couple what block they planned to move to next.

“There is a code of honor out here,” he said. “We don’t want to be bumping heads, going into the same cans. The only way to survive is to cooperate among ourselves.”

Wearing thick leather gloves, Littlejohn reached deep into the black cans, ignoring the smell and poking around for treasure. “The problem is you can’t always see what you’re reaching for,” he said. “I’m always afraid I’ll cut my hands. Once I put my hand in it and thought I got pricked by a hypodermic needle--but I was relieved to find it was only a crab leg.”

In one can he found a hidden cache of soda cans and beer bottles, which bring in the most money when exchanged at the recycling centers.

“You can learn a lot about people going through their garbage,” he said. “I can tell whether someone is neat or sloppy, whether someone is an alcoholic or drug addict.”

After about an hour’s work he was separating his refuse--the front cart held the bottles, the second was for newspapers and the third was stacked with cardboard. Metal cans, plastic milk containers and clear plastic soda bottles were stored in plastic bags hanging over the sides of the carts.

This, many economists say, is what low-skilled labor has become in the inner city. The better-paying jobs at large factories such as Goodyear and Firestone disappeared decades ago and countless smaller manufacturing companies fled the urban core in their wake.

In recent years, about 70 recycling centers--far more than any other region of the city--have opened in South-Central to a desperate market.

“The recycling centers go where the need is greatest,” said Mark Miodovski, recycling marketing manager for the city’s Bureau of Sanitation. “If they went to Beverly Hills, they wouldn’t find a lot of people willing to recycle for cash. In low-income areas people are more apt to turn in recyclables for money than in higher-income areas, where people are concerned about convenience.”

As Littlejohn moved down the block pulling his carts, he began to pick up his pace. His competitors, the trash trucks, were here.

He was hoping familiarity would aid him. He tries to work the same pattern of streets each week so residents don’t take offense.

Today on 48th and 49th streets he drew a mixed reaction. Some handed him bags of newspapers and cans to take on his journey. Others stood guard over their cans.

“I don’t want anybody going through my trash,” snapped 80-year-old Tom Jones.

“They tear up the trash and cause me more problems than they are worth,” said Alice Gaither.

Nonetheless, Gaither allowed that she admired the effort Littlejohn put into his work. On hot days, she said, she sometimes hands out fruit or water to the hard-working scavengers.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “Some of these people couldn’t stay on a job for eight hours, but they could work all day rummaging through trash.”

Conflict between homeowners and scavengers are inevitable because there have been no controls on how many recycling centers can be built in a community, said Karen Bass, executive director of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment.

Too often, she said, the centers merge with the worst elements in the community, becoming magnets for drugs and alcohol addiction.

Alton Brewster, one resident in a neighborhood Littlejohn works, has seen it happen. Brewster, 40, a cable company manager, said a recycling center at 89th Street and Figueroa Street has become a “one-stop supermarket” of the worse kind. Scavengers leaving the center with money in their pockets are greeted by drug peddlers, prostitutes who work outside a motel across the street, and a liquor store nearby.

Brewster is angered by increasingly brazen scavengers.

“People are stealing screens off doors and windows, batteries out of cars and taking them to the recycling center for cash,” he said. “These are the people pushing the baskets.”

Newspaper theft from city recycling bins is costing Los Angeles half of the $4 million a year it expected to earn when it introduced a program of residential recycling.

In response, the City Council voted earlier this month to hire police officers and reserve officers to work overtime to curb scavenging. (Stealing from the recycling bins is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 and six months in jail.)

The effort is largely aimed at the Valley, which is plagued by organized groups of scavengers who work with trucks and vans.

Police say their crackdown will not target the homeless or people who are collecting newspapers in shopping carts. But these assurances are not enough to persuade Littlejohn that he too won’t eventually be targeted by the police.

“This is too much of a good thing,” he said as he continued his morning collections. “Eventually they are going to come after the small guy, but I don’t care. I’ll find work.”

By now it was 8:30 a.m. The garbage trucks were passing him. With his carts more than half full, he decided it was time to head to a private recycling center a few blocks away, one of several he uses. The carts moved slowly under the weight of the heavy load. He complained of being sore. Once he had his cash he would go home and rest for a few hours, then take a bath in disinfectant.

At the recycling center, he pulled his carts over the curb and got in a line of other scavengers, some with carts, others who had used their cars. A sign on the center listed the redemption prices: Glass 6 cents a pound, plastic 40 cents, cans $1.05, newspaper and cardboard 2 cents a pound.

He separated his recyclables into barrels and lugged them onto the scale. The total weight was calculated--150 pounds--and he was given his day’s pay for three hours work: $9.07.

“That’s bad, that’s real bad,” he mumbled to himself.

“If I don’t pull in at least $5 an hour, I’m not doing well. I should be doing $20 to $25 a day.”

Times have been hard. The day before he only pulled in $12.95.

The solution: Get up earlier Thursday.

“I’ll do better if I can get a bigger jump ahead of the trucks,” he said. “I’ll do better tomorrow.”