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Honor among scavengers

With more money paid for recyclables, competition among trash-can pilferers has increased. Still, there is an unwritten code.

May 28, 2007|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

Bottles and cans clanged in Richard Hart's half-full shopping cart as he pushed it toward the next block of houses in Sherman Oaks.

He didn't expect to cross paths with half a dozen other recycling scavengers -- people who, like him, on trash days collect discarded containers to cash in on their 5- and 10-cent deposit values. Other people's trash, in their eyes, is like nickels and dimes.

But on this tranquil Wednesday morning, the unintended convergence of shopping carts soon turned into a tense negotiation. With raised voices and hand signals, the scavengers determined who had already picked what blocks clean, and what areas of the neighborhood were still stocked with glass, plastic and aluminum.

"I've never seen that before," said Hart, 53, who lives below a nearby freeway underpass. "Those people must be out-of-towners who heard the canning was good here."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Scavenging recyclables: An article in Monday's California section about people who scavenge for recyclables stated that the redemption value of bottles and cans had increased 20% on Jan. 1. The increase was 25%, from 4 cents to 5 cents for 12-ounce containers and from 8 cents to 10 cents for larger sizes.

As he turned his cart around to try another street, he said, "There's too much competition out here today."

With newly increased values for recyclables, many long-time scavengers are running into more rivals in what was already an intensely territorial line of work.

Still others are starting to collect bottles and cans for the first time, as the practice becomes more attractive to both the homeless eking out an existence and families seeking supplemental income.

On Jan. 1, the California redemption value for a 12-ounce bottle or can went up from 4 cents to 5 cents. Larger containers are now worth 10 cents, up from 8 cents each. That works out to about $1.55 a pound for aluminum, an all-time high. It may seem like pocket change, but for those who make a living collecting the containers, it's a 20% raise.

City officials expressed ambivalence about scavengers. On one hand it means that bottles and cans are diverted from valuable landfill space. On the other, the city loses money -- how much is not known. Currently, more than 85% of city residents put their recyclables in separate blue bins, which are collected alongside household trash. In 2006, the city earned about $3.3 million for the bottles and cans that were not scavenged.

"Somebody is making that money. It's a loss to the city, but our main concern is diversion from the landfill," said Miguel Zermeno, the city's curbside recycling project manager.

Neighborhood reaction

Residents, too, expressed mixed feelings about scavengers.

Mother and daughter Dorothy Elise Wilcox and Kathy Wilcox, 40-year residents of Windsor Square, said they sympathize more with the scavengers than with the city.

"It doesn't bother us, and no one's ever left a mess," Kathy Wilcox said. "If they make money that way, so be it. It's better than panhandling."

Yoli Sheridan, also of Windsor Square, leaves her bottles and cans in a cardboard box outside her trash bin to make it easier for scavengers to get to. She usually finds them gone hours later, with the box neatly folded.

Rafael Garcia, 42, walks to Windsor Square from Hollywood every Thursday to scavenge through the trash bins. He said the recent rise in the deposit prices makes the time he spends on the endeavor more worthwhile, but it doesn't entice him to make it a full-time job.

"If I had money, do you think I'd be here picking up trash?" he said in Spanish. "They're like coins thrown on the ground. Of course I'm going to pick them up."

But city officials regularly receive homeowner complaints about scavengers' sometimes noisy late-night and early-morning forays into peoples' dumpsters and curbside trash bins, though they keep no statistics, said Jose Garcia, refuse collection superintendent for the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation.

"Scavenging is a multi-tiered problem," he said. "Not only are they taking the recycling out of the bins, which belong to the city, but they're also invading people's personal space. People get offended by that."

Yet city officials acknowledge that the misdemeanor law against taking others' trash is largely unenforced. Only police can issue citations, and it's rare for them to catch people in the act. And going after scavengers is far from one of the LAPD's top priorities. The most common infraction scavengers face is a $50 fine for removing a shopping cart from a parking lot.

Inglewood has taken a harder line, hiring three full-time employees to stop the practice, which officials blame for lost revenue and a "poor aesthetic," said Angela Williams, environmental services manager for Inglewood.

Armed with radios and digital cameras, they started earnestly enforcing laws against scavenging in 2005 and have since ticketed 135 people. The penalty can be up to $1,000 or six months in jail. But no one has been fined more than $100, and no one has been jailed.

"When we started, we were seeing 20 scavengers a day, and now, we're lucky if we find three a week," said Kenneth Henderson, one of the city's community services inspectors.

Income redistribution

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