Recycling and Anxiety in Berkeley 

A proposal to increase recycling fees in Berkeley has brought the feud between poachers and residents to a boil.

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Examples of brazen poaching abound. The Express hired a private investigator in 2007 after receiving numerous phone calls from locals warning of possible paper poaching, according to editor Stephen Buel. The investigators were able to sniff out the scavengers who were trailing Express delivery trucks, scooping up stacks of papers hot off the press. The poachers were eventually caught with 1,381 copies of fourteen different publications including Diablo Dealer, El Mensajero, and Jobs & Careers.

The poachers were confronted as they tried to trade in their bounty at KMC Paper on Poplar Street in Oakland. Because of outstanding parking tickets, the police confiscated the vehicle and the stolen goods and issued a $250 citation. "It's very tough to get the police to take this seriously," Buel said. "A: They have more important things to do, and B: Though the law is very clear that theft of more than one free newspaper is theft, to a police officer, a free newspaper is free."

Anti-poaching laws have long been unenforced. Though technically a misdemeanor that carries a $146 fine, catching those who steal what most people consider garbage is not at the top of most people's to-do list. Berkeley issued only 26 citations for poaching in the past two years, and even city officials historically have taken a "live-and-let-live" attitude toward small-time scavengers hauling garbage bags and carts.

When the economy went sour a couple of years ago, more people hit the streets in search of bottles, cans, and other materials. Rates for some things — like cardboard and paper — dropped with the recession. But the state sets a fixed redemption rate of 5 cents for small bottles and 10 cents for large ones, up a few cents from what it was three years ago. So even though people are buying less — and consequently recycling less — poachers like Mario with cars and recycling schedules can make more money than ever. "Right now," said Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, a spokeswoman for the City of Berkeley, "we're really focused on the trucks; the larger-scale things are of bigger concern."

Illegal backyard recycling operations also can be a problem. The city cited one address — 1636 Grant Street — $6,500 for operating a large-scale poaching business over a two-year period. Organized scavengers sometimes pay small-scale poachers with shopping carts for their materials, saving them the long walk to the redemption center. Poachers also appear to be carving up territories. Neighbors report scuffles between scavengers laying claim to certain bins.

Bartlett said they're ready to recommend that the city "pursue a strategy of police action against organized poachers." That is, issue more citations. He believes tickets that tie poachers to vehicles, like a speeding ticket, would more likely be repaid and thus help the city's bottom line. He also thinks the fee should be much higher than the current $146.

The group considered other strategies, such as blanket strict enforcement of anti-poaching laws, but ultimately decided against it because it might lead to the targeting of homeless people. The group also considered incorporating poachers into the city's recycling collection system, but in the end, it proved difficult to envision how such a set-up would work and seemed impossible to administer. It also could have proved costly.

And even though the ticketing strategy might raise revenues for the city, it may not stop people like Mario from scavenging. He was caught poaching and was slapped with a ticket, but he paid it — though he could barely afford to — and he's still a regular in the poaching scene.

Berkeley, of course, is not alone in the struggle against poaching. Officials from the City of San Francisco estimated earlier this year that they received 1,500 calls from residents complaining about poachers in the month of December alone. Oakland, meanwhile, has targeted the thieves who steal copper wire and manhole covers, and has all but given up trying to stop those who poach curbside materials.

So why is the poaching debate suddenly so heated? No doubt it's because of the new fee under consideration by the Berkeley City Council. The council already passed a 20 percent refuse collection rate increase last year (and a 1.72 percent inflation increase on June 1, which amounts to 46 cents per month for a 32-ounce bin). The waste diversion fee is scheduled to go before the council at the end of this month, with a goal of generating $1.5 million annually, according to Bourque. It's still not enough to patch the $4 million hole — the rest of the money is likely to be saved by route consolidation and worker reduction from two people per truck to one in some areas.

Residents like Ann Riley, who has watched recyclables disappear from the sidewalk for years, said if the city institutes the new fee, she and her neighbors will probably stop recycling curbside and instead drive their recyclable to a recycling yard in Oakland to redeem them for cash.

But Bourque notes that people who are upset about the new fee don't realize that curbside recycling has never been free. Residents are billed for trash pickup, but the recycling program costs have always been embedded in that bill. The bill, however, isn't itemized so residents mistakenly believe they aren't paying for recycling. Bourque said perhaps it's time to start listing the costs on the bill, so people can see exactly where their money goes.

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