LONG BEACH — 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.