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THE POSITIVE ROLE FOR SCAVENGERS IN THE URBAN COLLECTIONS ENVIRONMENT, BEING A LONGER VERSION OF “LONG LIFE TO SCAVENGERS” (abbreviated version shown in May, 2012 edition of Resource Recycling magazine).
By Arthur Boone
Preface: When Robert Lange attacked the little people of New York City for taking the goodies out of “his” curbside bins and offering them for private sale to enrich themselves (see his “Stealing Recycling’s Future,” RESOURCE RECYCLING, February, 2012, pp. 26ff.), he thought those scavengers were doing a terrible thing and wanted it to stop. My opinion was that he was way off base and taking the wrong road to enhanced materials recovery.
I have been defending scavenging since at least 1983 when the neighborhood recycling center of which I had become the manager was primarily staffed by general assistance recipients working off their small welfare checks. I’ve learned a lot about how the indigenous collectors of the larger cities use recycling to make a small living for themselves and over the years I’ve been in numerous debates on this topic.
The RR editor wisely rewrote this too long piece into something more suitable for the magazine but was nice to put a link to the website of our recycling association for those of you wishing to read the longer version. There were nine original points (here below) from which the article was drawn. Had I more time, this could have been polished more. Thank you for your interest. ARBoone [e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org]
1. SCAVENGING IS AS OLD AS HUMAN SOCIETY:
Scavenging is an ancient and honorable occupation; picking up what others abandon as of no value goes back to the dawn of human history. Adam was a scavenger, he took what he didn’t pay for (the apple), used it to his short-term advantage (learning about good and evil as well as good), and experienced the consequences (kicked out of his garden). The conquerors of walled cities tore down those walls and used the stones to make palaces and fortifications for themselves. Like young people today, when Mary and Joseph set up their own house, they probably took old beds and wooden furniture given to them by their parents and friends. As a boy Abraham Lincoln’s work was to straighten nails bent in use so they could be used again. As a boy in the New York suburbs in the 1940s, I made my pocket money carrying empty returnable beer bottles in my wagon for the workers building houses in my neighborhood back to the mom and pop market near our home; my wages were the nickels that the store gave me for the empty bottles. The workers gave me the money for the beer and expected full change; I only made money if I returned the bottle to the store. Throwing away the bottle would have thrown away my wages. I was a scavenger in a free market economy
2. WASTE HAULERS ABANDONED SCAVENGING IN THE MID-TWENTIETH CENTURY.
This story has been well told by others but it's well known that local governments encouraged collection programs for discards from the earliest times in this country and it was common for the collectors, frequently the newest immigrants or the least capable ones, to start collecting "stuff" and getting it to "dumps." The collectors routinely sorted the collected materials in their vehicles (mobile mini-MRFs, if you will) and hauled the separated materials (usually papers, metals, and glass) to nearby processing operations, if not to mills, foundries, and glass plants that would ultimately reuse the materials in new products. Collectors routinely salvaged reuseable products for their own or their neighbor's use, at least until what they had at home was as good as what they saw in running their routes. All of this ended with the introduction of the packer truck in the years after World War II during the beginning of this country's great era of wasting when the public didn't ask for salvage, the haulers made their money hauling stuff to the dump, and official (or perhaps a better term, “sanctioned”) scavenging died a quiet death.
3. BY THE LATTER PART OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, WASTE HAULERS HAD DEVELOPED COST STRUCTURES THAT MADE IT DIFFICULT TO OPERATE IN LOW-MARGIN VENTURES LIKE CURBSIDE RECYCLING.
During the era of wasting, with the continually growing interest in mechanization, in unionizing employees, in providing additional services to homes and businesses (bulky goods collections, HHW collections, etc.) with private haulers endearing themselves to local politicians through gifts and donations, with public haulers facing an increasingly unionized workforce unwilling to accept second class status), the costs to the public of trash/garbage collection grew much faster than the CPI but nobody thought too much about it. By 1980, garbage haulers were well established businesses with bankable contracts among the private firms and lots of work rules in the public sector.
But, for better or worse, not an industry where it would be easy to innovate; the continuing growth of per capita waste generation led gradually to an ever-more efficiently mechanized systems that fluidize discarded products to cart them all away, but, unintentionally, not an industry that would find innovation easy. (A common problem in mature industries with little competition; think Detroit before it learned innovation from the Japanese, etc.) The large volume of materials being moved daily and the few problems emerging from crackpot ideas created an anti-innovation environment in the old, often still called scavenger companies, but not really waste haulers.
4. OF THE FOUR MAJOR PROGRAMS TO GET MATERIALS INTO THE SALVAGE STREAM, CURBSIDE IS THE MOST RECENTLY INVENTED, THE MOST EXPENSIVE TO OPERATE, AND THE LEAST ABLE TO MAINTAIN THE VALUE OF THE RECOVERED MATERIALS.
In recent times, beginning at Earth Day 1970 (more or less) and going now for 40 years, we the people have developed four basic systems (elsewhere I have listed 25 systems in all (so far) but these four have emerged as the major ones) that have become popular as the era of wasting has been passing away and we now desire useful systems for getting materials out of the “waste” stream and back into the “stream of commerce.” Ideologically, the shift from burying waste to conserving resources was made sometime in the 1990s; what we are now arguing over is the cost and who gets to do the work.
Those four most-common systems are 1) drop-off, 2) buy-back, 3) sorting goodies out of the trash, and 4) curbside. Sorting trash (#3) was under the provenance of the waste haulers who couldn't stand to see all that good stuff go to the dump and did learn how to sort in fixed facilities what they had formerly done on the back of an open collection vehicle. Drop-offs (#1) were invented by the progressives who on Earth Day One focused seriously on material (not air or water) resources (a small but vocal group) and found vacant lots, church yards, etc. as a place to aggregate recyclable household materials for hauling off to the pre-existing processors or buyers. Buy-backs worked through existing scrap yards and cardboard aggregation facilities that had long served the commercial discarders and got a big boost from the introduction of the aluminum soda and beer can in 1975 and the network of buyback facilities that the aluminum industry encouraged to drive demand for their cans. The three programs that relied on the public’s participation (drop-off, buy-back, and curbside) all grew slowly with no help from the waste hauling industry. In 1985 my neighborhood recycling center in Oakland, California (gross sales, about $60,000 per year) was getting pats on the head from the president of the local garbage company (hauling contract worth $100 million plus annually) and told, “You’re doing a great job,” but still in those days beneath his recognition as a viable business opportunity.
Unfortunately, none of these four programs did much to reduce the residential waste stream; drop-offs and buybacks got 6-8% citizen participation (maybe 12-15% in Berkeley or Ann Arbor) and took 12-15% of what had been going in the garbage can; trash sorting plants (then few in number; now called “dirty MRFs”) might get 15-20% off unscreened commercial trash although the numbers by weight can be considerably higher where the best loads for recovery/diversion are identified or where generators refuse to sort at their own site and put all discards in their trash containers.
The roll-out of curbside programs in the 1990s (remember that in 1989 there were only 30 programs nationwide, 3,000 in 1999) was not done because those early programs that served as models or experiments got great participation or great diversion results; the 1990s roll-out occurred because nobody could come up with any better ideas about how to recover material resources from residences with a program that was any cheaper but just as good. Anybody who paid attention knew that drop-offs and buy-backs drew only a small portion of the residents but curbside was the only model program with some potential of broadening the base. The idea of pulling cans, bottles and newspapers [CBN] out of mixed, compacted trash seemed daunting (the few blue bag programs in the 1990s [co-collection of separately bagged CBN] in one compacting vehicle had been largely shown to be ineffective in reaching many people or in capturing many materials.
Many public works officials saw curbside the way some literacy experts (and even librarians) saw large print books; it’s a nice thing to do for a few people but you can’t really expect much waste reduction from it. (Early curbside is not to be compared with curbside programs today; it’s not uncommon today for the suburbs with full-spectrum organics collection programs (yard debris plus food debris plus soiled papers) to have more pounds per month in the green cart than the black (trash) cart; today, households with three cart programs that include mixed rigid plastics in with the CBN routinely have less than 10% of their weekly, so-called “waste,” in the trash cart.)
5. IN POORER COUNTRIES, MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF REUSABLE MATERIALS ARE DIVERTED AND RECOVERED WITH NO DIRECT GOVERNMENTAL PROGRAMS.
What about the rest of the world? In the fall of 2005, I was invited to attend a world conference on waste management in Beijing, China. While walking the streets I looked in the trash receptacles and saw lots of standard American recyclables; when I looked at the transfer stations, those were all gone. An army (literally) of local people worked their way through the area, like gleaners in the fields of biblical times, pulling PET bottles, glass, and cans out of the trash. Where did the materials go? What I saw, and a major surprise to me, was, every three or four hundred yards (not as far as a quarter-mile), a guy with a two ton truck parked out of the way (side streets, vacant lots, under billboards, like anywhere he could park his truck), weighing materials on a small platform scale and buying materials from the public, just like what Mr. Lange and his photos suggest is now happening in the Big Apple.
All the stories I’ve heard from friends who’ve travelled throughout the world is that poor people everywhere take advantage of local markets and find a way to collect and sell what their better-offs discard casually. In Cairo or Rio de Janiero (see the films xxxx and Waste Land) the pickers pull out the goodies from gathered trash left at landfills (probably locked out of gated communities where the materials come from); in China (and NYC so far) the little people of the world are free to roam and find what they can.
Here in Oakland, California where I’ve lived for most of the last 35 years, it was the little people who invented curbside recycling back in the 1980s. While there had been commercial-scale buyback facilities for mostly industrially and commercially-generated materials with large two-ram balers, buying cardboard and other papers, during the mid-1980s, before California got a bottle bill, (enacted 1986, effective, 1987) these buybacks started attracting the little people of the city who were picking out salable materials from litter cans, trash cans, commercial dumpsters, wherever. In 1988, the year before San Francisco started its curbside and two years before Oakland started its curbside, the buyback facilities in Oakland paid out five million dollars in deposit money at one cent per container (as the fee was then; now five cents) for containers covered in our then-new deposit-and-redemption law. This was all scavenging, all programs without public investment or involvement. So when curbside came along, to the indigenous hauling community, the bins of those early days (now we use carts) simply made their work easier; none of them asked for public competition.
Mr. Lange thinks that scavenging emerged in NYC after the bottle bill was enacted in 1982 and before his curbside got rolled out, starting in 1986. (pp.26-27). My guess is that scavenging got started long before 1982 and the NYS bottle bill just made it more remunerative. Like many curbside managers before him, Mr. Lange seems to think that the world should stop doing its thing when he starts to do his thing, but it hasn’t (and it won’t) work that way.
A lot of people tend to forget that most of the hard work done in this country gathering things is not paid by the hour but by what you bring in. Whether it’s picking fruit in Oregon or chopping down trees in Minnesota or harvesting lobster traps in Maine, you get paid for what you bring in, not for how hard or how long you work. Finding scrap resources in an urban environment is no less chancy than fishing in the great sea and people with a knack for the work and a willingness to take the risks will be out there doing it.
6. THE CONFLICT BETWEEN WELL-FUNDED CURBSIDE PROGRAMS AND INDIGENOUS COLLECTORS IS DELETERIOUS TO THE OFFICIAL COLLECTOR'S MORALE, DIVERTS LAW ENFORCEMENT'S ATTENTION FROM MORE IMPORTANT ISSUES, AND IN THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION, PICKING ON THE WORKING POOR (AS SCAVENGERS ARE SEEN BY THE MIDDLE CLASS) IS UNATTRACTIVE.
Establishing a curbside program in a large city sets up a conflict that is probably unresolvable and definitely unwinnable. I worked for the SF garbage collector who was also the curbside contract service provider for four years (1999-2003) and got many earfuls on the conflict between curbside drivers with an appropriately proprietary attitude towards their routes and the mostly elderly, mostly Asian, ladies with shopping carts who were pilfering the set-outs for (mostly) PET and aluminum cans (glass was too heavy and of too low a value per pound to attract attention). Drivers would resort to locking the ladies’ carts to a telephone pole with brought-along chains and locks but it was merely infuriating, like ants on the kitchen counter in a summer rental. The police would come if called but it was hard to get them to take all this conflict seriously.
Every few years, when the press got inspired to cover the story, there would be predictable public moaning on the issue, but the most notable quote ever was, “I’d rather have them take my stuff than hit me upside the head.” Those who knew the scene best found this to be a dramatic mischaracterization of the people involved in scavenging; except when the driver got apoplectic in a situation where the driver outweighed the little old lady scavenger two to one, the scavengers were like raccoons at night in your back yard, shunning both the limelight and any confrontation.
If you do a force field analysis on this issue, lining up all the scavenging eradication folks on one side of the battle line and the scavengers and their supporters on the other, the first thing you notice is that nobody cares very much and that the anti-scavengers are outnumbered and out-gunned by the scavengers and their liberal allies. My guess is that there’s too many very rich people in NYC who don’t really care about this issue for it to go anywhere in the court of public opinion. I’ll bet over half of the building janitors in NYC have a plastic bag hanging over the side of their trash cart and as they go around their buildings picking up trash, they pull out the aluminum cans for later re-sale; there’s an army of public opinion out there and it hasn’t fought yet; you can see it between the lines in Mr. Lange’s piece if you look carefully.
7. THE CONTINUING GROWTH OF THE WORLD'S POPULATION AND THAT POPULATION'S EVER-INCREASING DESIRE FOR MANUFACTURED GOODS SUGGESTS THAT THE RESOURCE SHORTAGES FORECAST FIFTY YEARS AGO ARE NOW BECOMING STANDARD.
In 1970 the proponents of ending the era of wasting proclaimed that the world was running out of resources and needed what we were throwing away; only a few prescient people in this country then believed them (the Congress hearing only fat cats still doesn’t) but over the last forty years the people sensing these shortages are growing in number. There’s two billion more people in the world now than there were in 1970 with no more air, water, trees, ores, etc. than there were then and maybe a billion more people wanting to live the resource-consuming life-style that we in the first world/Northern hemisphere, call it what you will, are (as we say) “enjoying.” A friend wondered aloud when his son recently came home from UC Santa Cruz and said he’d prefer to urinate on the plants in the yard rather than use the toilet as there was a growing nitrogen fertilizer shortage in the world and the young man wanted to do what he thought was right; the dad wasn’t sure the kid was right, but he wasn’t sure the kid was wrong either. In my opinion, the world needs all the material resources it can find and any system that works, like scavenging, should be encouraged, not fought.
8. PUBLIC-PRIVATE COLLABORATION: CAN IT WORK IN MATERIALS RECOVERY?
Usually when local government and industry get together, it’s a big deal with a lot of money for a business and a lot of headaches transferred out for the local government. To my knowledge no local government in the country has tried to work with the IC community to make them more effective, more profitable, more successful; in every case all these hard working poor people have been seen as enemies of the big truck, unionized driver, massive sorting facility operations. In 1990 I was the chairperson of the City of Oakland’s Waste Reduction and Recycling Commission; we were created primarily to help the city write some specs on its upcoming, first-ever, curbside program. At that time there were six or eight large-scale commercial-materials-oriented, buyback businesses in Oakland, employing collectively hundreds of people and serving the pick-up truck trade for papers and cardboard and the buggy trade pulling stuff out of trash, mostly CBN. (As the state gradually increased the value of the can and bottle deposit from a penny in 1986 to 5 cents by 2004, the ICs gradually dropped the papers to focus solely on the cans and bottles.) I suggested that with cell phones and pedal-powered trucks (both common in a Third World economy) we could find ICs to service an area (my ideas was 20-25 contiguous city blocks) and cart the CBN to the local buy-back. I couldn’t get a second on my nine-person commission to even study the matter and now, 22 years later, the city and its big hauler contractor are still complaining about all the C&B that get away. I’m waiting; I can see it won’t happen in NYC.
9. SCAVENGERS HAULING TO BUYBACK CENTERS RECOVER RESOURCES BETTER THAN SINGLE STREAM CURBSIDE:
Mr. Lange’s much-loved single stream curbside program turns out to be a not very efficient system to move glass to market. Elsewhere in the February issue Susan Collins of the Container Recycling Institute presents data on the relative abilities of single stream compared to buyback to deliver collected glass to the end market. 10 wine bottles in a single stream cart gets you enough glass for six bottles at the glass plant, with container deposit programs (verified by the author to include buyback programs), 10 wine bottles gets you 9.8 bottles delivered to the glass plant. Single stream may help communities get contributions from the great unwashed (and I’m not sure even that’s been proven well) but it can’t be considered “sustainable,” clearly one of the bogey words for this century. (See Resource Recycling, February, 2012, pp.16-17 on glass.)