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If buyback has become so counterproductive, it should be cancelled. Receptacles could be left around for responsible volunteer collection of recyclable trash.
Another hidden cost is at the grocery store. Market carts are expensive. We probably pay for the stolen ones every time we shop for food. When I see one go by I resent the cost to all of us at the same time as I deplore a wealthy country like ours having no better solution to desperate poverty.
Ruth Bird, Berkeley
Don't Wanna Dig
As a graduating Berkeley High School student, I am particularly worried about my job prospects in the future. I like Ben Bartlett's idea of a National Employment Initiative. Maybe young people like me could help rebuild the country instead of digging for cans.
Frank Carter, Berkeley
Even the topic of who gets dirty old cans and bottles can benefit from a little history. In the mid-1970s, recycling was a badge of honor. There was no pickup so people did their own. Neighborhood and "ecology" (new word) groups rented vacant lots to collect bottles and cans, then used the proceeds to fund their programs.
Government only became involved when commodity prices took off late in the decade. Citizens were asked to separate their garbage into various bins. Some people objected: "Why do I have to rummage through my garbage?" Thus our modern practice of putting recyclables into one big bin so Mr. and Mrs. Prim wouldn't have to get their hands dirty. Now Waste Management does the sorting with big machines that cost $600,000, staffed by minimum-wage workers in danger of cutting themselves on sharp metal or broken glass as the materials whiz by. The whole process is expensive and both labor- and capital-intensive, thus the impetus to make it (finally) pay.
In Berkeley, you can still deliver your cans and bottles directly to the site and sort them yourself, bypassing the machines. I do. The point of requiring citizens to sort was so they'd start taking responsibility for their garbage. Those who complain about paying are the same people who would not do this before. Now they're guarding their garbage as if it were the Kohinoor diamond.
To stop the theft, those complaining should organize a neighborhood patrol. Neighbors can take turns walking their blocks, especially at night, watching and listening. Pickup is only once a week, so it should be easy to get neighbors out on the night shift. That's the least people can do to make sure garbage justice is done.
Steve Tabor, Oakland
Caitlin Esch's article on Berkeley's curbside program problems is mostly on the mark but with a few errors.
1. To speak of "catching those who steal what most people consider garbage" (page 16) is demeaning to the millions of people nationwide who every day manage their discarded materials so that those materials can return to the stream of commerce and not end up in a landfill or incinerator. If recyclables were in fact garbage, we could put them all in that black can and save ourselves a lot of trouble.
2. Your author fails to recognize that there are three reasons why people recycle: some for the moral virtue (recycling saves immense quantities of virgin resources, energy, landfill space, untrammeled environments, etc. — all scarce resources), some do it for the money (business people pay small amounts to collectors so they can sell the stuff to Fortune 500 companies and their worldwide trading partners for more money than they pay out), and some do it because it's convenient. Long before Berkeley had curbside, it had drop-off (for the morally upright) but a lot of folks didn't come; curbside collections were invented by the just to make recycling easy for the lazy.
3. Nobody is compelled to participate in a curbside program any more than anyone is compelled to go to the public library, to vote or do a lot of other useful things. Berkeley doesn't even compel people to keep recyclables out of the garbage; cities push but they only push so hard.
4. When I was the chair of the Waste Reduction and Recycling Commission in Oakland in the early 1990s, I suggested we enfranchise the indigenous haulers of the flatlands as our city-sponsored collection team; I was laughed off the podium. "It would be demeaning to flatland residents to be served by a guy on a $500 pedi-truck instead of a $200,000 behemoth," they said. I replied, "It works all over Asia, Africa, South America, but not here?" "No sale," they said, "won't fly." We are now reaping the grumblings of a program for the bourgeoisie that doesn't fit the society as more and more people recognize the growing value of some of our discards and are taking things into their own hands to put some bread on the table.
5. When Oakland started its curbside program in 1991, in the previous year, over $5 million had been paid out by existing buyback centers in Oakland under our then-new state bottle bill to collectors bringing in containers for a state fee (then) of one cent each. When the city got us residents to pay for curbside, we put big business with big trucks in competition with a private system that, despite its fraggedness, worked (more or less). To call these collectors thieves or shabby is offensive; it's as bad or worse than telling Native Americans to move over because Europeans or Africans or folks from anyplace else are here to take over.
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