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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If Maher's estimate on the amount poached each year is right, and you don't count the off year of 2009, that means poachers are stealing between $70,000 and $152,000 in recyclables — at least — each year from Berkeley residences. And so even if those numbers are overly conservative, and they very well may be, the amount lost to poaching in Berkeley each year doesn't appear to be a primary cause of the city's $4 million refuse collection hole.

But it's not loose change either. Though it's definitely not the norm, vigilant and organized poachers with vehicles can comb an area and collect about $500 in one day, Bourque said. In an interview with Terrain magazine in 2003, Dave Williamson, the Ecology Center's recycling operations manager, estimated that one major poacher was netting about $40,000 a year in stolen materials.

And lately, poaching-related complaints appear to have reached an all-time high. The scavenger demographic also seems to be shifting. Locals regularly report bands of organized poachers raking through bins, covering a block within minutes. One resident said her middle-class neighbor regularly drives around collecting recyclables, filling up her Honda Accord with bottles and cans. "We're starting to see more and more people [poaching] — those who have lost their jobs," Maher said. "Hell, they have nicer cars that we do in some cases."

Councilman Darryl Moore said the community's perception that stolen recyclables are sinking the city's program — regardless of whether or not it's true — and is creating friction. Moore, who recently spearheaded a city commission on poaching, said his office receives between thirty and fifty e-mails per week from constituents complaining about scavengers, up from about ten e-mails per week in the past. "As soon as you put your trash out, you have a line of poachers coming through your bin," Moore said. "So when the city said they'd institute a cost, my constituents said: 'Before we do that, why don't we get better control of poachers?'"

Mario, who agreed to be interviewed for this story if his last name was not used, has many tales from his tri-weekly poaching trips. Some remind him of the kindness of strangers, others have been a bit scary. One time, a group of young people saw him digging through a bin and slipped him a $20 bill. He said he protested, but they insisted. Another time, a woman chased him down the street, threatening him, after he unsuccessfully tried to raid her bin.

The city discourages people from confronting poachers. But fed up with the city's disinterest in curbing scavenging, residents like Ann Riley of West Berkeley have taken matters into their own hands.

Riley has sent letters to council members, reported poachers to the police, and hidden her recycling cans on the front porch until the last possible moment. But nothing has stopped her bins from getting ransacked every Wednesday. "The Ecology Center really hasn't gotten any bottles or cans from this neighborhood in many years," she said.

Scavengers, she said, have become so emboldened that they trespass on private property in search of recyclables. One time, she chased down a poacher and took his cart when his back was turned as he was digging through a neighbor's bin. Then she locked the shopping cart — brimming with poached materials — in her backyard and called the police. "Well, he was frantic," she said of the poacher. "And I said to the police, 'I have the evidence right here,' but they didn't come."

Riley said she understands that catching poachers is a low priority compared to fighting violent crime. Still, she said she would like to see a sort of "deputized poaching cop" that would patrol the neighborhoods at night, levy fines, and confiscate recyclables. Riley finds it unfair that the city is considering charging residents more for materials they lose to poachers. "The idea to charge residents for everything they bring out to the curb is ridiculous," she said. "They're charging me for the revenue the thieves are getting."

But it isn't just the financial toll that worries locals. Many also are concerned about noise, litter, and trespassing. Some residents even feel bullied by poachers, according to Ben Bartlett, a member of Berkeley's Zero Waste Commission. He owns Bartlett's Organic Coffees & Teas, a coffee shop in downtown Berkeley, and heads up the subcommittee on poaching requested by Councilman Moore. Through a series of meetings with community members, the Ecology Center and the Berkeley Police Department, Bartlett found that poaching is a bigger problem for residents than perhaps anyone realizes. "There seems to be an overall pattern of increasing aggression," he said.

Scavengers, in particular, have become more confrontational. He recalled one resident who was upset over a recent encounter with a team of poachers. The group of men had driven a truck up on the sidewalk, right up to her front lawn. She heard noise, came to the door, and saw poachers dumping her recyclables into the back of the truck. When she asked the poachers to leave, she said they swore at her and knocked over her cans before speeding off.

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