From Dogtown Redemption: A recycler named Jason takes a break from hauling with his bicycle and cart.
Beyond the Film

How Homeless Recyclers Make a Living Redeeming Recyclables

May 13, 2016 by Carolyn Abate in Beyond the Films

It is 7 a.m. on a clear spring morning in San Francisco and the lines at Our Planet Recycling SF are already 25 people deep.

The customers, queued up in rows of four, stand among a collection of rubber garbage cans, shopping carts, and large garbage bags, filled with glass and plastic bottles, and aluminum cans.

It will be another 30 minutes before the center opens, yet the crowd, a mix of elderly Asians and homeless people of all backgrounds appear content to wait. They are, after all, here for one reason — cold hard cash.

“This is how I eat,” said Johnson, a 52-year-old-man standing toward the back of a line. “It gets us lunch, cigarettes, coffee, cat food; the basic necessities. It’s better than nothing.”

For many people living on the streets in the Bay Area, the process of collecting and redeeming recyclables is their go-to method of income.

The film Dogtown Redemption [which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday, May 16 at 10pm; check local listings] dives deep into this world, following three homeless people in West Oakland who frequent the Alliance Metals redemption center. The filmmakers, Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush, expose viewers to the intimate details of what it’s like to spend days and nights scouring the streets for any can or bottle that will bring in money.

Our Planet Recycling Center in San Francisco
Our Planet Recycling Center in San Francisco (photo by Carolyn Abate)

The Bottle Bill

Recycling in California got its start nearly 30 years ago, when state legislators passed Assembly Bill 2020. Known as the “Bottle Bill,” the legislation was designed to encourage recycling and reduce litter in the Golden State. For incentive, lawmakers instituted redemption values on beverage containers, also called CRV, which are printed at the bottom of plastic and glass bottles, and aluminum cans sold in California.

Today, Californians redeems more than 85 percent of all recyclables within the Bottle Bill guidelines through CRV centers. This equals more than 5 billion units annually, and accounts for one-fifth of all recycled containers nationwide.

What the legislature did not envision however, is that recycling would eventually become a means for homeless people to earn money. Aside from panhandling, it’s become the only form of income for many who live on the street.

“These people are on the street all day long, they don’t get any respect,” said Ors Csaszar, who owns and operates Our Planet with his brother. “What are they going to do for money? Steal? This is how they get money.”

Man rides bike with dog collecting recyclables in Oakland, CA
Most recyclers work at night

On average, a person who recycles at Our Planet brings in anywhere from $15 to $35 a day, Csaszar calculates.

According to CalRecycle, all beverage containers that weigh less than 24 oz. carry a 5 cent redemption value; above that is 10 cents. By law a person can redeem 50 items of each and receive the per unit value in cash. Any amount more and redemption is calculated by weight, and then limited to 100 pounds each of plastic and aluminum, and 1,000 pounds for glass, per person, per day. Rates vary by weight; this allows for redemption centers to remain competitive.

Research shows that aluminum clears around $1.50 to $2 per pound, while plastic fetches $1.21 per pound for clear containers, and 66 cents per pound for cloudy. Glass gleans roughly 10 cents per pound, and must also be separated by color.

At Our Planet, customers must first dump their recyclables into plastic trash cans in order for everything to get weighed. Most of the people in line here are surrounded by anywhere from 3 to 10 bins each.

One garbage can filled with plastic bottles is about 8 pounds and nets close to $8; glass equates to roughly 80 pounds and is worth about $7. A bin topped with aluminum cans weighs roughly 8 pounds, and yields $8; however, crushed cans tend to quadruple the weight and price.Homeless people carrying around their recycling on the streets of Oakland, California

Johnson declined to reveal how much he earns by recycling. He does admit that some strategy goes into his collection route; big events with huge recycling output such as the Super Bowl are mission critical.

“I work at night, primarily,” he said. “I stick to what I know.”

His partner Jackie, 50, is a little more forthcoming. “[Johnson] heads out on Friday around 11 and is back at home by about 7[a.m.],” she said.

These are fairly standard hours for the homeless who redeem. They scour the streets during the wee hours of the night. Some tour the neighborhoods and sort through the blue bins that line the street for impending trash collection. Others drain the public garbage cans and private dumpsters for recyclables.

Most homeless tend to maintain work in one neighborhood.

Rick Yeager’s territory, so-to-speak, is the Marina, located on the city’s north shore. On this particular morning, the 50-year-old San Francisco native went through the weighing process and now waits for his money.

Yeager, who has been homeless for about seven years, said he usually works the swing shift, and follows a similar path each night, although occasionally mixes it up. It usually takes him a day or two to collect what he wants. Then it’s another two or three day trek to Our Planet. That’s because the center is located on the opposite side of town, in industrial southeastern San Francisco.

Last night he stayed with a friend who tents nearby to be at the center, bright and early. His receipt showed a total of 150 pounds of glass, plastic, cans, and scrap metal, with a net of just $25. “It’s about half of what I had,” Yeager said. “The other half got stolen last night.”

Living on the Streets of San Francisco

Yeager said he also collects social security, but it’s not enough to live on, so recycling supplements that income.

“It gets me coffee, cigarettes, booze,” he said. “It’s hard to live in San Francisco on $900 a month.”

There is no question that San Francisco is an expensive place to live. A minimum wage job brings in about $2,000 a month. Yet a conservative estimate puts the cost to live at around $4,800 a month. This includes $4,100 in rent for a two bedroom apartment, plus another $700 for utilities, food, and car insurance, or a public transportation pass.

That same kind of numbers story plays out within the other major cities in the Bay Area. In San Jose, a minimum wage jobs adds up to $1,600 a month. A two bedroom apartment hovers around $3,000 a month, with utilities, food, and insurance adding another $700. Oakland is more of the same. Minimum wage is set at $12.25, and a two bedroom apartment goes for about $3,800.

According to AB2020, a person has the potential to clear about $400 day, as per the maximum daily amount allowed for redemption. Using a standard workweek model, the most a person could bring in is around $2,000 for five days of effort, or $8,000 by the end of the month.

But that amount requires a number of assumptions. The first one being that one person can collect enough recyclables in one night time go-around to achieve the maximum redeemable amount.

As Dogtown Redemption shows, that is next to impossible. Seen in the clip below, Jason Witt, the film’s most prolific recycler, submitted nearly a ton of product – his shopping cart loaded with overflowing garbage bags and other items tied down – and only raked in about $150.

Even if a determined recycler had the means to secure $400 worth of recyclables every day, they would be hampered by accessibility. Our Planet is only one of two certified bottle and can redemption sites that remain in the city; both of these are just blocks from each other in what is considered the last industrial neighborhood left in San Francisco. There are no large recycling centers on the North or West sides of town.

At one time, the city had about 30 redemption sites, according to Kevin Drew, residential zero waste coordinator at the San Francisco Department of Environment. About four years ago that started to change.

In 2012, the city shuttered Kezar Garden recycling center, located near the Haight-Ashbury area, due to neighborhood complaints about drug activity and crime (the center itself was transformed into a community garden). The grocery chain Safeway soon followed suit, removing all of its recycling centers in the city. Some Walgreens and CVS stores do redeem bottles and cans, but it varies by location.

With so few places taking recyclables these days, Csaszar now runs a recycling bus for his clients. Six days a week the converted school bus snakes through the city during the early morning hours to pick up people who live too far from Our Planet.

“If the people can’t bring it here, I’m going to bring them here,” he said. “It’s a convenience for the people.”

Note: For perspective from an Oakland-based formerly homeless person, read the first-person piece “Oakland Recycler Discovers New Hope on the Street.”

Carolyn Abate

Carolyn Abate is a freelance journalist with more than 15 years experience. She covers a wide range of topics including health and wellness, architecture, and technology, having written for Reuters, The New York Post, Metropolis, Women 2.0, the Christian Science Monitor, and Healthline. She lives in San Francisco with her family. When she's not writing, Carolyn moonlights as a child chauffeur (to her own kids, of course).