Trash Pickers Are Key Suppliers To California's Recycling Industry

A small army feeds the state’s billion-dollar recycling industry.

Dalano Scranton starts his routine each day at 7 a.m., pushing his cart to the dumpsters outside of the Shrine Collective Apartments in South Los Angeles.

He combs through the trash to pull out glass bottles worth 15 cents per pound, PET #1 plastic bottles for $1.17, and aluminum cans for $1.65 — hot commodities for trash pickers. Scranton continues on his route for another mile and a half, pulling more than 130 pounds of material from dumpsters.

Around noon, he hikes another mile to A1 Electronic Recycling Center, where he trades his haul for about $40 to $50.

“Recycling money is my day-to-day survival,” Scranton says. “It goes towards hygiene products and food and helps me to survive.”

Scranton depends on this money to get by, but his labor supports something far larger. He is among a small army of a largely overlooked underclass who make up the backbone of California’s billion-dollar commercial recycling industry. Every day, Scranton and others like him spread out across the city, preening through trash for high-grade recyclable materials they can sell.

At commercial recyclers like A1, this steady supply of pre-sorted plastic, glass and aluminum provide the volume necessary to keep the businesses afloat. And the city of Los Angeles ends up keeping thousands of tons of trash out of landfills, helping it avoid additional fees and allowing it to hit its state-mandated environmental targets.

“The trash pickers are your everyday [suppliers],” said Anthony Collins, A1’s owner, “They'll keep you afloat, keep you busy, keep your employees working. The key to all of this is the turnover, the sending of this stuff out; they'll keep your bags full.”

Dalano Scranton poses with his cart after cashing in at A1.
Dalano Scranton poses with his cart after cashing in at A1.
Tashina Fleming

California, along with a number of other states, first enacted a rebate program for recyclables in the 1980s. Initially, it was a way to keep trash off the streets and out of landfills, but what it has evolved into without any planning is essentially a working welfare program for thousands of homeless people.

These trash pickers could not make ends meet without the state’s recycling program. However, the recycling program would not be as successful without them either.

Trash pickers account for around 90 percent of the redeemable material – aluminum cans, bottles, etc. – and 75 percent of all the material processed at A1. In September, this totaled 750 pounds of aluminum cans, 1,125 pounds of PET 1 plastic and 11,250 pounds of glass bottles.

On a recent Monday, a steady stream of trash pickers, many who appeared to be homeless, traipsed through the center, dropping off their cans in exchange for about $5 to $6.

Scranton began recycling three years ago when he became homeless. He used to pull two daily recycling shifts, bringing in almost 300 pounds of material and upwards of $100 a day. But the grind became too much for him and now he turns in before noon.

A cart filled with cans pulled from trashcans during a USC football game is one of many surrounding the Coliseum.
A cart filled with cans pulled from trashcans during a USC football game is one of many surrounding the Coliseum.
Tashina Fleming

Teddy Porter, another trash picker who frequents A1, has been homeless and recycling in the same locations around South Los Angeles for the past 30 years. Porter, who calls himself a “master” recycler, says he knows all of the “hot spots” where he can find copious amounts of cans and bottles in the area. His favorites include in the dumpsters behind Greek Row, where the University of Southern California fraternities and sororities dump their trash, restaurants located off the commercial district of Figueroa Street, and the USC campus. An especially good area is the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during football games.

An average haul for Porter can fetch between $70-$90. He and Scranton are two of the center’s biggest producers. Most trash pickers only make a few dollars a day.

While thousands of tailgaters flood into the Coliseum for a USC football game, Jose Arebalo, equipped with only a cart, no gloves or mask, begins his routine.

Arebalo has been living illegally in the U.S. since 1993 and was fired six months ago from his restaurant job. He now comes to the Coliseum to collect enough trash to trade for a few dollars. It will take him an entire day to fill his cart, which will provide him with around $8 to buy a drink and sandwich.

Teddy Porter cashes in his haul just in time before A1 closes.
Teddy Porter cashes in his haul just in time before A1 closes.
Tashina Fleming

Scouring trash for recyclables is a dirty job. But for Tee it’s a way of making a clean living until he completes school to become a medical biller.

“It's what I do to make money the clean way because I have a long past in my lifetime as far as gang banging and all that,” Tee says. “This is a clean living I can make until I finish school.”

Now 33, Tee has been recycling on and off since he was 15 years old. He first began doing it to escape a rough home environment.

Tee hasn’t been able to find a regular job, so he recycles instead, pulling in around $24 a day. The money helps him feed his 7-year-old son.

It’s difficult, almost impossible, to determine the number of trash pickers who work in the city. Collins at A1, sees around 15 to 20 a day. Basic Fibers, a processing center in South Los Angeles that processes a million pounds of material a month, sees 30 to 40 a day. According to CalRecycle, there are over 500 recycling centers in L.A. County. A ballpark estimate would put the number of trash pickers somewhere between 7,000 and 15,000. The total number of homeless people in Los Angeles county is estimated at more than 44,000.

“I told myself I wasn’t going to work for anybody else, so it’s a means of supporting myself,” Scranton says. “Even though I may not have a business license, this is still a form of doing business with another business by selling them recycling.”

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