Disposable Income

In the wake of a politicized battle over garbage "property," Asian American seniors lose their right to scavenge for cans and bottles.

December 1, 2008

In the wake of a politicized battle over garbage "property," Asian American seniors lose their right to scavenge for cans and bottles.

IT IS A 93-DEGREE DAY at the University of California, Berkeley- and while many students find refuge inside, there are others who remain hard at work under the scorching sun.

Yin arrives at the Valley Life Sciences Building in the early afternoon. She is in her 70s, but far from a fragile old lady. In fact, she has come to work pushing a large, heavy cart across campus. She wears a hat and long sleeves to protect her from the sun. Her worn clothes testify to her hard work, for which she is arguably underpaid.

She leaves her cart 1 0 feet away from what she calls "her job location" and opens the door at the back of a garbage container. She pulls out the recycling bin, revealing a treasure trove brimming with soda cans and juice bottles. In a systematic and efficient manner, she transfers the recyclables into her bags and moves the bags to her cart. Once the bin is empty, she moves on to another one.

Yin, to some, is a benign and familiar feature of the local urban landscape: an elderly Asian American hauling a large bag while scrounging for recyclables. Maybe you feel a stab of pity as you pass her, thinking she could practically be your grandmother or auntie. She is old and small, and she is doing this because she needs extra cash. Maybe she is too weak to work. Maybe no one will hire her. Thus, she turns to scouring the trash.

But others see Yin as an illegitimate poacher. The criminalization of "recycling poaching," in fact, has recently become a political issue. In August, California Assemblywoman Fiona Ma proposed a bill that targets curbside recycling. This bill, signed in October by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, makes it illegal for recycling centers to buy more than $50 worth of recyclables without requiring proper identification and paying by check. Starting in January 2009, recyclers like Yin must turn elsewhere for extra income. Yin, who speaks no English, says she does not know how to fill out the paperwork that recycling centers will ask for.

The bill is aimed at large-scale, organized recycling theft. While there are no statistics to indicate how many Asian Americans are implicated in these recycling theft rings, anecdotal evidence suggests that many Asian American curbside recyclers, like Yin, simply work for themselves. And yet, somehow, the unobtrusive, grandparent-like figures who sift through trash on city streets are the ones most profoundly affected by the politicized battle over garbage.

Recycling and garbage collection companies, such as San Francisco's Sunset Scavenger, support Ma's bill. "It pertains to the worst offenders, professional recycling poachers who operate fleets of illegal trucks and steal bottles, cans and cardboard out of recycling carts and other receptacles we provide as part of San Francisco's recycling programs," says Robert Reed, a public relations manager for Sunset Scavenger.

Recycling theft is the number one cause of complaints among Sunset Scavenger's customers, according to Reed. Customers file reports about noise, litter and trespassing caused by aggressive professional recycling poachers. But the core issue is money: Customers bear the brunt of the costs of recycling theft, Reed says, when poachers sell stolen recyclables outside the city-approved collection program and force cities to raise garbage bills to make up for lost revenue.

"The law should result in more materials getting recycled within city-authorized recycling programs, which will provide more revenue to help offset increases in monthly garbage rates set by the city," he says.

I'm Not Stealing Anything

Ming, an Asian American woman in her late 50s, walks the San Francisco streets carrying a suitcase-sized grocery bag in her right hand and barbecue tongs in her left. She uses the tongs to fill her bag with recyclables that she will turn into subsistence money.

"I am not stealing anything," Ming shouts at a reporter who questions her practices. "I don't have a job. I don't have money. I don't have food to eat." She is well aware of the recent controversy relating to her line of work, fueled by resident complaints that garbage poachers trespass, leave messes and increase the risk of identity theft. Ming, however, is not part of any organized crime scheme. She is careful to leave no trace at each bin she visits.

San Francisco laws only allow city employees or authorized curbside recycling program collectors to remove recyclables placed on curbs. One who unlawfully takes recyclables can be fined $250 for the first offense and $500 for the second offense. Offenders can also face misdemeanor charges and/or six months of jail time.

The increase in recycling theft has resulted partly from a rise in the value of raw materials. At the low end, glass bottles sell for 11 cents a pound and plastic bottles for 92 cents; at the high end, aluminum cans sell for $1.57 a pound. A truck full of mixed recyclables is worth about $1,000.

But Yin rarely sees this much money in a week. For a trash bag of recyclables, she might receive $7. She picks up recycling about three times a week, and she usually leaves with about three full bags. She makes roughly $60 a week. "Enough for groceries," she says.

That Poor Mentality

May Deng's grandmother picked up recyclables "because she had nothing to do." Lin, Deng's grandmother, immigrated to the United States when she was 60 to reunite with her daughters. Without knowing how to speak English and at the retirement age, she was not able to find a job.

"She lived at a senior center, and [recycling] was like her extracurricular activity. But she didn't really make money out of it," Deng says of her grandmother. "Once she sold two rice bags full of recyclables and only got $2 for it. I remember she bought me candy with that."

Lin had been poor for much of her life, which may have influenced her willingness to do such work. "She got married at 16, had five kids, lived through World War I and II, so she still had that 'poor' mentality," Deng says. "It's like, 'At least I can get some money out of it.' She is the kind of person who always wanted to save money."

Twelve percent of Asian Americans over age 65 in the United States live In poverty, compared to almost 1 0 percent of the senior population overall and 8 percent of white American seniors. Senior poverty rates range widely among Asian ethnic groups: Hmong (29 percent), Korean and Cambodian (both 22 percent) seniors top the list, while Indian (9 percent), Filipino (8 percent) and Japanese (5 percent) seniors have some of the lowest rates of poverty. Sixteen percent of Chinese seniors live below the poverty line.

However, for Lin at least, recycling isn't just about the money; considering how scant the earnings are, it couldn't be. It is about serving the family. To recycle, especially in Lin's old age, is to engage in extra work that might benefit and please Lin's grandchildren.

Deng, who studied environmental science and has been volunteering for the San Francisco Department of Environment, believes that street recyclers are performing a public service - which, like any service, should be compensated.

"Those people act as separators - they should get money for doing that," Deng says. "People who work in landfills do the same job. They take out the recyclables because people always put stuff in the wrong bin."

Beleza Chan is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley.

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