Jul 2012

Please Move to the Next Bin

It is four o’clock in the morning and outside our window the disturbing clink of bottles rattles me out of sleep. In the silence of the soft Berkeley dawn, the noise is shocking and I rocket from deep sleep to violent outrage in an instant. Who has this right to burrow through our recycling while I am sleeping?

Leaping like a shot out of bed I ran from window to window in the dark room, trying to see the object of my wrath, but my view was blocked by the thick trees. How could I direct this anger into thin air? I needed to see my target.
Clink! Clink! Clink!

Then out of the corner of my eye I saw Luciano out on the street, tall, solitary and suddenly vulnerable, walking towards the noise. The man was about to confront people going through discarded bottles at four in the morning outside of a private home. This just wouldn’t happen in Italy; another situation he would never find himself in at home. He could see what I couldn’t, but composure oozed from his finger tips.

He spoke calmly. “Hello.”

I heard voices respond. “We are going through the recycling, sir.”

“I know. But it is 4 o’clock in the morning. Come on.”

At this point I could not contain myself and, shattering the congeniality of the exchange, leaned out the window and screamed, “What you’re doing is illegal! I’m calling the police!”

Luciano glanced up at me and then back to the scavengers. I did not see it but perhaps he gave them an eye roll towards me;
Guys, you see what I have to put up with? Gimme a break.

Out loud he said, “Can you at least move to the next bin?

“Sure.” And they did. Now it was someone else’s problem.

I sank into the bed and sleep as Luciano padded back into the house as quietly as he had left it. As always, elegant yet effective.

I know they were looking in particular for the bottles that can be returned for a 5cent deposit. While individually not a big payback, when you put together a shopping cart full of plastic soda bottles and glass beer bottles, it could represent lunch. But for the city of Berkeley that money provides a much needed subsidy to the recycling program. And wait a minute! What about me?
I pay an extra five cents plus tax for each bottle. Where does that money go?

I instituted a new no-recycle rule in the house and instructed Luciano to only toss the non-revenue bottles into the recycling bin. This he did, but then lined the others up in the hallway, perhaps to annoy me, and as the line of nickel bottles grew I researched options for keeping those scavengers out of our bins. I traveled up to the supermarket to ask how
I could get my refund for responsible recycling. I remember there being a counter….

“Hi, I would like to know where I can recycle these bottles and get this deposit back.”

The cashier hesitated, most likely wondering why I just didn’t throw it in the bin behind the house.

“You need to take them down to a center. I think there is one near the highway.”

“Really?” I knew the place. “I can’t get this deposit back here?”

“Oh, no. That is impossible.”
Wierdo. “That practice went out with milk bottle returns and S&H green stamps.”

Ok, she did not say the last part, but I got the gist. Resolved to carry through with my principals, I headed down to the Berkeley Recycling Center with my five large plastic bottles and seven beer bottles. Those street foragers weren’t going to outsmart me or the City. No way.

The Berkeley Recycling Center is a grim establishment in dire need of a power hose clean up…or a small bomb. The grubby asphalt yard is surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Battered shipping container sized bins sit in a row on the gummy glass-encrusted tarmac and cars scream passed on the nearby freeway. People moving about the yard are anonymous and grey, without features, both workers and depositors. I walked purposefully to the “Buy Back Window” with my bag of bottles, but found the window closed with a hand scrawled sign,
“Back in 5 Minites.” I stood there for a moment in indecision. A nondescript man in a hoodie walked up to me and said, “First time here?” Without waiting for my answer he went on. “Are you here to donate or sell?”


“You need to stand in line over there first and they will weigh your recyclables. They will give a receipt and
then you come back here.”

“Oh, right. Thank you.”

Forklifts were buzzing past me. There was the splintering crash of thousands of bottles being poured from one container to another. Cars screamed by on 580 as I walked across the yard, with my feet sticking slightly to the pavement, to get in line. I stood for a moment, absorbing the unfamiliar surroundings when I noticed that I was standing behind a man with a shopping cart heaped with bottles. In front of him, extending four or five deep, were men and women with flatbed carts heaving with collected containers. Everyone was anonymous, grey and staring at me with my little bag of 11 items. Then I realized I was standing in line with people who do this for a living and it was entirely possible that I was standing behind the very people at whom I was screaming from my window. I felt suddenly out of place, very suburban, and a little bit stupid. I turned and walked back to the hoodie guy who seemed to be waiting for me to return.

“Ok, how do I donate?”

Grinning he pointed at the bins lined up against the barbed wire fence. I hitched up my dignity, strolled across the filthy yard and hook shot my bottles into the appropriate containers. There, I sure taught them a lesson.

(picture courtesy of ksheehan)