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OUT THERE

Santa Ana neighborhood locks up trash to thwart scavengers

Residents are putting their recyclables into containers designed to withstand the brute strength of bears.

June 16, 2009|Tony Barboza

They didn't hold up to the bears of Alaska, but they just might be enough to discourage the scavengers of Santa Ana.

Fed up with urban foragers who root through neighborhood trash in search of plastic and aluminum, residents of one Santa Ana neighborhood are locking up their recyclables in a container designed to withstand the brute strength and cunning of brown and black bears.

So it is that Paula Faccou now keeps a key -- right on the same chain with her house key -- to lock up her trash. And when the hauler drives down the street and upends the cart over his truck with an automated arm, the gravity-driven lock pops open.

Now there's hope on Van Ness Avenue that the bear bins will drive off people like the man Faccou nearly bumped into on her driveway one day as she was carrying in groceries.

"It just scared the living heck out of me," said the 67-year-old retiree. "A complete stranger, standing outside. It was very brazen, and that's pushing it too much. They have told me, 'What's your problem, lady? It's just trash,' but I pay for trash service. . . . I should decide where it goes."

City officials said they've seen a recent uptick in complaints about scavengers prowling the night before trash day, when bins are full of bottles and cans.

"It was pretty much a given that the economy was driving the increase in scavenging," said Mary Gonzales, the city's project manager, who is overseeing the program.

"People wanted some sort of solution to this."

Scavenging has become a source of frustration in the Wilshire Square neighborhood, where Faccou and others complain of the late-night noise and abandoned shopping carts.

So residents in this community of wide lawns and Revival-style homes began to push back. After several public meetings to devise an anti-scavenger strategy, the city proposed a lockdown in the neighborhood -- mostly to prevent the scavengers' late-night expeditions but also out of a belief by homeowners that they alone should control the destiny of their garbage.

The pilot program by Waste Management is being tested this summer at a dozen homes on two streets. The neighborhood is just one of a few nationwide that have started locking up curbside bins.

As in other cities, it's against the law in Santa Ana for anyone but the property owner or trash hauler to remove items from recycling carts once they are curbside.

Signs atop bins spell it out: STOP. It's against the law to take recyclables out of the containers and Scavenging is a crime!

For Faccou, scavenging is degrading her quality of life.

"They come through at 10:30, 11, 12:30 at night with this clankety clankety clank clank, and they get the dogs going," she said. "We used to turn a blind eye to it, but for the last three years it's been escalating."

Whereas she used to wait until she heard the rumble of the approaching truck before wheeling her gray bin to the curb, "now I feel more secure," she said.

Locks are often used to protect commercial recycling and trash containers from dumpster divers and scavengers, but only recently have they been engineered for residential purposes.

The locking bin used in Santa Ana was first designed as a bear-proof container, said Shawn Kruse, a product development manager for supplier Rehrig Pacific, but "it couldn't stand up to that level of abuse."

San Bernardino is testing locks to keep trash from spilling out of containers at a dozen homes in a particularly windy neighborhood.

The city of Los Angeles has considered locks to curb scavenging but hasn't found anything practical. Oceanside has installed anti-scavenging locks on the receptacles at its beaches and harbor, albeit reluctantly.

"We don't want to be known as the city that locks public recycling containers," said Colleen Foster, management analyst for Oceanside's solid waste and recycling division. "What's important is diversion, getting it away from landfills."

Not everyone in the Santa Ana neighborhood is sold on the idea.

Rigo Castro, a 42-year-old carpenter, doesn't see what the fuss is about.

He sees scavengers pushing grocery carts at night, but "I don't mind," he said. He doubts whether most people consider the scavenging enough of an intrusion to put their recyclables on lockdown.

Scavengers, for their part, seem to shrug it off. Or adapt.

Jose Santos, 36, a homeless man who collects bottles and cans in the neighborhood, said the locks haven't deterred him. If he encounters one, he just moves on to the next house or digs through the trash, where people sometimes mistakenly toss glass and plastic.

On a recent trash pickup day, he was pushing a grocery cart with about $15 worth of bottles and cans -- a night's work -- on his way to a recycling center.

"There are plenty of good people that even help us out" by leaving bottles and cans out for him or giving him money to eat, Santos said. "So I'm not concerned."

Lucy Bateson, 62, one of Santa Ana's anti-scavenging crusaders, hopes the locks result in a calmer neighborhood, one where she isn't afraid of strangers coming onto her property to score bottles or cans.

"Maybe the locking cans will be the answer. It gives you a level of comfort putting it out there," Bateson said. "No matter what anybody says, it's not trash. It has value."

--

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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