by Carol Denney
Superheroes or purveyors of neighborhood blight? Heroic environmental stewards or thieves and junkies? There’s room to meet in the middle, given the misconceptions about recycling as a business and recyclers as a group.
Most would agree that the potential demise of one recycling business won’t resolve all of Oakland’s litter and crime issues. And the State of California is required by law to reduce the amount of waste headed for landfills, a mandate which is not going away.
The City of Oakland reached an agreement with Alliance Recycling after conflicts bubbled over with some of its neighbors whose complaints about blight and crime may or may not have had any connection to the business itself. The recycling center will close its doors on the 3400 block of Peralta Street in August 2016 by a settlement’s decree — or face daily $1,000 fines.
The successful 30-plus-year-old business bought by Jay Anast in 1992 was recently sold to two new owners, Joe Zadik and Lance Finkel, whose plans for the building on Peralta are uncertain, but who remain dedicated to recycling. Finkel owns Lakeside Recycling on Madison Street between 4th and 5th Street in Oakland, just a stone’s throw from Jack London Square.
Lakeside Recycling is spotless. Well-organized bales of crushed plastic and metal wait for transport, sorted bins of materials wheel easily across the clean floor, and walk-in recyclers get their goods weighed and paid in record time. Just as there is at the Alliance Recycling site, you’ll find intriguing sculptures of recycled material, including a decidedly female pirate presiding over the entrance.
Lakeside Recycling has been in business since 1936 — 80 years this year without a single complaint. There’s less shopping cart trade, perhaps ten carts a day as opposed to the approximately 100 shopping carts per day that Finkel estimates arrive at Alliance. But there are plenty of new neighbors in the high-rise condos nearby, a lot Finkel’s father sold two years before his death twelve years ago for a value his son estimates has increased five times by today’s real estate prices.
“Oakland is on fire,” Finkel puts it simply. Lakeside Recycling is close to Jack London Square, but also close to the freeway and the Port of Oakland, which might mitigate the usual gentrification pressures, or increase them, depending on the city’s willingness to harbor and honor businesses with solid track records like Lakeside’s.
Finkel is trying to negotiate a new recycling permit for a property near the Oakland Coliseum, enlisting assistance to help expedite matters with the city. Finkel and Zadik had thought when they bought the Alliance Recycling business that the permit for the property on Peralta was “written in stone,” but discovered that was not the case.
Finkel’s health suffered from worry about fines from the city, threatened at $1,000 per day, and also from worry about the impact on recyclers who depend on recycling for their income, and are now at imminent risk of losing work and becoming homeless. He hits the gym six days a week to help with the stress, but still worries about the reaction to Alliance’s impending closure this coming August.
“Those people are going to be angry,” he says plainly. He knows a lot of the recyclers, and trades jokes with them easily as they trade in materials for cash.
He knows a lot of the neighbors near Lakeside Recycling, too, and has a track record of working out potential conflicts, but shakes his head over the City of Oakland’s most recent move: a city fine for using the forklift to move furniture out of a nearby park to its edge in an effort to assist the city’s anti-blight clean-up.
But Finkel has been working in recycling since he was 15 years old. His pride in the sparkling premises and good relations at Lakeside is well placed, and he remains determined to preserve the recycling option for the low-income people who need it.
“I think it’s absurd that we got fined,” comments Finkel. “Now we’re going to have to appeal it.” His explanation for the trouble near Alliance Recycling is simply that “they got all new people in here.”
People in Oakland who complain about trash and crime aren’t making it up. There’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of people in the neighborhood who complain about trash, people camping in nearby parks, or the theft of their garden tools.
But as true as it may be that some people might bring stolen materials to a recycling center, or use their proceeds to buy drugs as some neighbors claim, most people concede that the majority of recyclers at any facility do not.
And no one has had more incentive to address complaints than Jay Anast, who organized a bus full of recyclers to attend a City Council hearing about his permit in the hope of dispelling misconceptions and illustrating the compelling stories of people, many of whom are his neighbors and friends, who need to supplement their income.
The recycling center was established in 1978 and Anast bought it with full neighborhood support in 1992. His community involvement includes helping finance the new construction of Ephesian Baptist Church, creating a scholarship program for local students, donating computers and networking systems to community churches, expanding to the business’s current size with unanimous Oakland Planning Commission approval in 1998, and receiving a Special Recognition award from the City of Oakland for his business’s “longstanding dedication to the West Oakland community” in the year 2000.
His efforts to address later community complaints have included fencing to discourage loitering, video surveillance, sound baffling equipment to reduce noise, and financing regular clean-up of a neighborhood park.
Many people in the Bay Area recycle through city pick-ups, in which the city retains any benefits from recycled materials, or they recycle containers in small amounts, paid by the count instead of the pound if they have less than 50 individual bottles or cans. Since 49 ten-cent containers is at best about five dollars, making the effort to recycle worthwhile requires a lot of materials which can still be culled from locations like school campuses or restaurant dumpsters.
One gardener on the University of California’s Berkeley campus, Hank Chapot, blew the whistle on UC’s practice of taking the campus’s sorted bottle and can containers and mixing them back in with the unsorted garbage before being trucked to a Richmond solid waste-management in a detailed East Bay Express article written by Ellen Cushing. An enormous amount of recyclable waste goes unsorted and unsalvaged despite incentives from the city and the state.
People with expertise in bulk recycling stand out in any neighborhood setting. A fully loaded cart or car is bursting with the bulk of hundreds of containers, and causes the same stir going down the road as a tall ship does when it enters the bay. Recycling experts have tips and techniques for safely navigating through crowded streets and specialized knowledge about salvage opportunities, some of which is highlighted in the film, Dogtown Redemption.
One rarely wears one’s best clothes to a dumpster dive. While some recyclers are indistinguishable from the casual scruffiness of any average Bay Area resident, some are dressed in protective layers of clothing reflective of recycling work, or their condition as homeless people, or both.
The mere sight of homelessness, or the appearance of homelessness, is often enough in the Bay Area to inspire complaints attired in the specialized language of prejudice. And race, inevitably, plays its own unique role.
Kamau Bell, a prominent local stand-up comic, was standing in front of Berkeley’s Elmwood Cafe in January of 2015 speaking to his wife, who was seated with friends, when a cafe employee attempted to dissuade him from speaking to her. Bell is black, his wife is white. It happened to be his birthday, and the couple had breakfasted there earlier that day.
Bell famously initiated as much thoughtful community discussion over this incident as he could in the hope of helping inspire conversation about race, gentrification, and the assumptions we make about others as we go throughout our day, but no one in the Bay Area would seriously suggest that we live in a world where these issues are past.
The poorest people in the Bay Area are disproportionately people of color, whether they are homeless or simply struggling against rising costs on fixed incomes. The disproportionate impact of gentrification on communities of color, as home prices and rents skyrocket in the Bay Area, is as undeniable as the dearth of effective responses from cities watching their historically black communities and the priceless cultural resources harbored within them ripped away.
A community-run recycling center which had operated for over 30 years near the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park — the last community recycling center in the area and the oldest in continuous operation in all of San Francisco — closed three years ago after conflicts with a neighborhood group under then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration. The San Francisco Chronicle celebrated the closure, saying “the need for the center has passed.”
But the State of California’s recycling website offers its own frank perspective on the availability of recycling opportunities in various neighborhoods, an availability the state is obligated to maintain by law. San Francisco’s recycling opportunities are concentrated in Hunter’s Point. Oakland’s are all in West Oakland, as far from the hills of Piedmont as one can get. Both areas are disproportionately black, formerly industrial, and rapidly gentrifying.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson once spoke in support of the need for recycling opportunities, as does former Congressman Ron Dellums in the film Dogtown Redemption. In October of 2015, Johnson stated, “I urge city officials to find an adequate, accessible industrial spot where homeless recyclers can continue to ply their trade legally—with little impact to the surrounding community—because it’s unfair to deny anyone willing to work for his keep the opportunity to do so.”
Rena Rickles, the local attorney who has assisted Alliance Recycling in its effort to address neighborhood issues over the years, estimates that the business’s closure will affect approximately 400 to 600 recyclers who depend on it for survival, citing a survey finding that 63 to 70 percent of the recycling customers are renters who depend on recycling for income. The closest alternative recycling centers are miles away — easy for drivers, but not so easy for people who navigate the streets on foot in cold weather, rainstorms and in the heat of summer.
“I don’t think there’s a way forward for Alliance at that location,” states Rickles. “The only hope is finding an alternative location. The city has dug in so deeply… it’s going to take a groundswell from people. A real movement. “
Rickles sees a need to work harder to head off homelessness for those who lose recycling income and help those who already live on the streets, noting that the shelter crisis state of emergency declared by the Oakland City Council over three months ago, has yet to produce any site to house or shelter people.
“We’re looking at hundreds more homeless people,” she says. “What I would like to see is a very orderly but nonstop conversation on this so it’s a very clear message that has to be listened to: more beds, not just shelters, but programs. The groups that go to Alliance are smart. We have this terrible disconnect between social workers and the ACLU and getting something done. This population is adamantly independent and they work extremely hard.”
Rickles is a board member of Bay Area Community Services (BACS), which was organized in 1953 by community members to respond to the growing need for social services for people with complex needs. BACS provides behavioral health and housing services for teens, adults, older adults, and their families. Rickles estimates that at least 300 people a year are housed through the BACS program. “If we had more of those we could really make a difference.”
“The intentions of the majority of people are good — it’s just turning it into meaningful action,” Rickles says, noting the willingness of a local developer to help with entry-level work, the new partnership with Thunder Road, and the need for a mobile crisis unit in Oakland. “We’re kind of doing it informally,” she says. “It takes a long time to build that trust.”
Rickles also emphasizes the need for more communication and understanding between all parties, something the Dogtown Redemption film accomplishes with patience, craft, and poetry. “Those customers are not dangerous — they’re victims,” she says. “They’re afraid.” The prejudice in place against street recyclers runs the risk of following recycling businesses to any new location.
“It’s putting on a new pair of glasses,” Rickles says, “to really see the humanity.”
Those who appreciate this green, community-serving, income-producing cooperative miracle that turns garbage into gold need a celebration for it that will rattle the walls at Oakland City Hall. Recycling, mandated and regulated by state law, is influenced by changeable elements like the worth of plastic (currently 13 cents a pound) and the willingness of neighborhoods to see recycling as benefit or blight.
Street recyclers and the recycling businesses that work cooperatively with them are under pressure from skyrocketing land prices, city hurdles, and community perceptions which can make or break the razor-thin margins of even the strongest and oldest of Oakland’s traditional businesses. Community support is crucial.
The City of Oakland itself has an opportunity to meet the recyclers halfway. Closing Alliance Recycling runs the risk of making recycling more difficult for people who depend on it, creating more difficulties for the businesses that work with the street recyclers, and making it much more difficult for the East Bay to step up to the state’s recycling requirements.
The entrepreneurs and recycling business owners and staff are ready to help and have creative suggestions for putting homeless people to work — if the city is listening. One of Finkel’s colleagues, Sam Cohen of DAS Realty and Management, suggests, for instance, that Oakland “implement a plan for people to bring trash to special centers in special carts provided by the city and pay people to bring it in.”
Having carts designed for the purpose of collection is a great suggestion, and nobody could design them better than the people who know this business the best. Carts designed for the purpose of collection as opposed to shopping carts might be quieter and better received.
Lance Finkel attended the Parkway’s showing of Dogtown Redemption on March 1, 2016, where viewers had an opportunity not only to see the film but also hear from a panel of filmmakers, recyclers, and many others involved in the film’s creation and the ongoing issues of recycling for the business owners and their customers. “I really liked it,” he says of the film, describing it as “very fair.”
The Oakland City Council and Public Works officials need to see the film, meet the recyclers, and help, not hinder, this community tradition of re-purposing our tossed-out garbage by enlisting the experienced entrepreneurs who know it best.
Many Barriers to Effective Recycling Programs in California
by Carol Denney
If you bring salvaged materials to Alliance Recycling, you can sort your materials on the premises into the bins provided. The recyclables are then weighed and you are paid in cash. For many recyclers it’s that simple and quick.
You might make $50 or $150 a day, depending on how much you bring, and that might be enough to live on, depending on how you live. The harder work is negotiating the streets, the traffic, the neighbors, and sometimes the police — plus the mythology that often surrounds common misconceptions about neighborhood recyclers and recycling itself.
A fully loaded cart with its weight evenly distributed is not just heavy; it is wide, and drivers can be as impatient with its course through the streets as neighbors can be with its clattering sound.
But curbside recycling, such as is provided in Berkeley and San Francisco, only diverts a small fraction of recyclable waste from the waste stream. Neighborhood recyclers go places where curbside services won’t go, and collect materials no one else is organized to retrieve.
One example of the odd controversies that can surround recycling is the Oakland City Council’s fresh contract with Waste Management, which didn’t seem contentious when they signed it.
It was an ambitious effort to incorporate composting and recycling, but many Oakland residents were furious to find service fees jump, sometimes tripling between fee increases and “ancillary costs” such as a $931 charge to push a large dumpster 100 feet to a curb.
The State of California encourages recycling by identifying “convenience zones” within a half-mile radius of listed supermarkets with sales of at least $2 million annually. Any convenience zone not specifically exempted by the state must have a recycling center, otherwise each dealer inside the zone is obligated by the state to redeem containers.
The state offers a website where one can type in a zip code and find out the closest recycling center to a particular location. But the state doesn’t own the recycling sites, which are independent, and is spotty at best in ensuring the access guaranteed by state requirements. The State of California recycling website says:
“Centers are required to be open a minimum of 30 hours per week, at least five days a week, and at least one weekend day. If you would like to report a recycling center closure or file a formal complaint regarding a certified recycling center, please email CalRecycle or call 1-800-RECYCLE.”
Pat Colby is among a handful of Santa Cruz residents trying valiantly to report local compliance issues to the state and enlist help from the Santa Cruz City Council, and she echoes many of the same concerns about prejudice raised in the film Dogtown Redemption.
“It’s a dual thing,” she says, citing prejudice against recyclers as affecting closures and sporadic services confounding local recycling efforts, but pointing out that the city makes money off the operations whether they function as required or not, stating flatly that “the city wants the money.”
Some Santa Cruz recycling locations closed after being hit with requirements such as posting obligations, video cameras, hours, and permanent buildings as opposed to moveable trailers. The more recycling centers shut down, the further people have to travel to recycle, and the fewer actually do.
“I had to travel to Capitola,” she says. A recent effort to help someone recycle required a trip to two nearby cities. “If you have to spend five dollars in gas to get there…”
She tells a story of a Santa Cruz resident’s grandson who took his bottle and can collection to Whole Foods and was told that they don’t accept recycled materials. “Can I quote you?” he asked, at which point they suddenly changed their minds.