A cottage industry

Gathering recyclables is a growing trend in Chico

Leon York of Fair Street Recycling says most of the canners he deals with are decent people.

Leon York of Fair Street Recycling says most of the canners he deals with are decent people.

Photo By tom gascoyne

A look into the growing society of private recyclers in Chico

Canners, collectors or scavengers. No matter how they are labeled, they are becoming a high-profile part of our society. Some bike through neighborhoods with garbage bags slung over their shoulders and/or fully loaded bike trailers in tow. Others push rattling shopping carts down sidewalks, stopping to search through recycling bins or Dumpsters in search of the aluminum cans, plastic bottles and other items collected for their recycling value.

To some they are an annoyance, if not a menace. But in fact, whether their goal is simply buying a beer or, more ambitiously, helping make ends meet, these canners can be some of the hardest working people in town. It’s also a fact that what they are doing is illegal, by Chico law, if they are helping themselves to the recycling bins that line the streets and parking lots.

Chico Municipal Code ordinance 8.12.110: “Unlawful removal of recycling containers and recyclable solid waste. It shall be unlawful for any person, other than the owner of the recycling containers or a person authorized by the owner of the recycling containers, to remove, upset or otherwise disturb such containers or recyclable solid waste placed therein.”

Chico Police Sgt. Mike Nelson said the department only occasionally gets calls and complaints about the canners.

“The calls are from people who place their recyclables in the recycling can and put it in front of their house, and complain that people are stealing the recyclables,” he said.

Nelson said he suspects the homeless still make up a majority of the recyclables collectors. He said the Chico Police Department also gets complaints about the messes some canners leave behind.

“When the transients go through the cans, they take the stuff they want and leave everything else laying on the ground,” he said. “They entirely dump out the contents of the can and the resident is left with the mess.”

Such calls, not surprisingly, are a fairly low priority, Nelson said.

Waste Management is one of the two waste-hauling companies that serve Chico. Technically, according to Chico’s ordinance, canners who take items from residential recycling bins are stealing from the company as well as the resident who wheels the bin out for collection.

Sarah Tolito, communications specialist at the company’s Sacramento office, said they are not really aware of the problem.

“We didn’t know about it until we heard it from you,” said Tolito.

She said the company’s district manager told her he hadn’t seen a “dramatic decrease in the recyclables at the buyback center or a decrease in volume either. So it hasn’t impacted us at that stage yet.”

Otelo Hernandez carries his collection into Basik.

Photo By melanie mactavish

There are at least a half-dozen recycling centers in the Chico area, including Basik Recycling off of South Park Avenue, and Fair Street Recycling, which is operated by the Work Training Center. Both places are popular with canners and are located within about a half-mile of each other. Their recycling prices are very similar. Segregated aluminum is $1.80 a pound at Basik and $1.85 at Fair Street, while segregated glass (10 cents a pound) and plastic bottles ($1.07 a pound) are the same price at both facilities.

On a recent hot afternoon at Basik Recycling, a man was pulling glass bottles from the back of a tan Ford pickup truck and tossing them into gray plastic barrels. Once he filled the barrels, he pulled them across the parking lot, sweating in the hot sun. A large beer bottle fell to the pavement and splintered into pieces. The man groaned, muttered an obscenity and then began picking up the brown shards of glass.

Meanwhile, another man was waiting for help just inside the warehouse. Eventually an employee, Garrett Hager, emerged from the back of the building.

The waiting man explained that someone had stolen a trailer parked in front of his house Monday night. He suspected a “recycling-type person” had hitched the trailer. He handed a photo of the missing trailer to Hager.

“Nope, haven’t seen it,” Hager said, turning to the man with the bottles. Hager weighed the haul and told the man, “Fifteen bucks. That’ll buy you a six-pack.”

“Whoa, that’s way more than a six-pack!” the man replied with a grin.

Hager has worked at Basik for the past year and a half. He says the business gets canners who show up on a regular basis.

“Most come on Monday mornings when the trash bins are out on the streets,” he said.

He acknowledged the effort they make.

“It’s a lot better than the guy standing on a street corner, holding a sign and asking for money,” he said.

On this warm afternoon last Wednesday (June 5), with the exit of two men, the place was empty.

“We call this Mother’s Day,” Hager said, looking around. “For the first 10 days of the month, everybody’s got their [welfare] check. Plus when it’s this hot …”

The next morning over at Fair Street Recycling, Leon York was guiding people through the recycling process. He’s worked at the center for the past four years and said the place does get its share of canners.

“Yeah,” he said, “most I know by name. I’ve seen guys who came in every day for years, and then you just don’t see them again. And new guys start showing up and you get to know them by name.

“There’s this guy named George. He works all day and doesn’t drink until he’s done. Then other guys come in here early, get enough for a beer and are gone. George is someone you can trust. Sometimes he comes in here twice a day. He’s in his mid-50s and is a real nice guy. This is what he does for a living, and I’ve spent some time socializing with him outside of work. Most of these guys are all right.”