Essays

Who Profits from Waste? A Tale of Two Bay Area Cities

In San Francisco, artists in residence at the city dump are valorized for their work. In West Oakland, homeless people who rely on independent recycling centers are criminalized.

Marta Thoma, “Earth Tear” (1993), rebar, plastic bottles, pictured at Recology’s sculpture garden featuring works by past artists in residence

SAN FRANCISCO — In the midst of the housing and employment crisis in the Bay Area, intrepid laborers are making the best of the waste that the rest of us leave behind. Yet while one group of recyclers is valorized and financially rewarded for their efforts, another constituency is criminalized and harassed for simply trying to live. Where do we draw the line between art and trash, between good recycling and bad? The answer to this question is at the core of the battle being fought for the soul of the region.

Makeshift sculptures and figures found by Recology workers adorn the hill overlooking the outdoor dump facilities.

This past summer, I found myself traveling between the south end of San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point district and West Oakland, to attend two very different events that were similar in their focus on city waste and the people who repurpose it. My morning was spent at the “city dump,” aka the main facility for Recology SF, alongside hopeful artists wishing to apply to the organization’s pioneering Artist in Residence (AIR) Program. Over the years, I’ve been to numerous openings for friends and colleagues whose work was supported by this residency. Awarded three months of studio space and a stipend, artists are given carte blanche to create work from any raw materials and objects culled from the dump, culminating in a weekend-long exhibition.

Weston Teruya, “Lessons Learned” (2016), paper sculpture from recycled office supplies, building paper, construction signage, playing cards, tissue paper, children’s play blocks, and holographic paper — part of The Space Left Behind, a body of work created and exhibited while Teruya was an artist in residence at Recology SF

While some residents have produced pieces that address pressing social issues — such as Weston Teruya’s recent show of delicate, paper-based works reflecting on historical and contemporary processes of displacement in San Francisco — Recology supports artists’ full range of creativity: there’s no expectation that residents will make environmental art or social practice projects, or anything beyond art for art’s sake. The very fact of their scavenging and utilizing other people’s trash is enough. Several times a week during their residency, artists meet with visitors, some of whom are hopeful residents, the majority of whom are schoolchildren and adults on public tours of the recycling facility. In this way, Recology AIR participants are valued for their artistic contributions and for their educational function — they’re meant to inspire visitors to repurpose or upcycle their own trash in creative and unexpected ways, or at least bring their nicer disposables to Recology for the artists to find and play with.

Studio space at Recology SF with materials being processed by Sherri Lynn Wood. Her show for Recology AIR, Afterlife, focused on the concept of “making do” as a “creative strategy for survival after system collapse.”

At the morning tour I attended, we learned not only about the AIR program but about Recology’s larger mission of helping San Francisco become a “zero waste” city by 2020. We visited the recycling and waste-sorting facilities and met artist-in-residence Sherri Lynn Wood, who shared her quilted works in progress with us, while describing the benefits and challenges of working with recycled fabrics and materials. In this setting, it became so very clear that Recology AIR is, fundamentally, a brilliant public education initiative about the value of recycling. The program makes recycling look beautiful, fun, and profitable, and since 1991 has been a coveted opportunity for emerging artists wishing to raise their profiles in the Bay Area art scene. What a contrast from my afternoon destination: a community screening of Dogtown Redemption (2015), a film made for and about an embattled space in West Oakland called Alliance Metals.

The panel discussion following the screening of Dogtown Redemption included filmmakers Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush (third from left and at far right), along with Oakland city politicians and stars of the film. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

There is a “war on homeless recyclers,” filmmaker Amir Soltani wrote in a July issue of Street Spirit, an argument he makes even more poignantly in his documentary Dogtown Redemption. Co-directed with Chihiro Wimbush and filmed over the course of seven years, Dogtown Redemption follows the trajectories of three individuals in West Oakland — Miss Hayok Kay, Jason DeWitt, and Landon Goodwin — who make their income from collecting and selling trash to Alliance Metals. The film unflinchingly documents their struggles with mental illness and drug addiction, their efforts to transform their living situations, and their resilience in fighting for the right to recycle, despite being criminalized and harassed by the police with the backing of Oakland’s new mayor, Libby Schaaf.

Although it sympathizes with the recyclers, Soltani and Wimbush’s documentary gives space for city politicians and Oakland residents to express their discontent with the “trash problems” in Alliance Metals’s neighborhood. In fact, such discourse, both coded and explicit, deems entire groups of people — many black, many poor — as dirty and disposable as the plastic and metal waste they carry. Similarly, the media often depicts people with insecure housing as somehow drawn to trash as a natural part of their physical or mental health “conditions” (hoarders, dirty, or packrats) and/or focuses on how they make their dwellings and their livelihoods from trash (in the form of cardboard shelters, as thieves and scavengers). In all these scenarios, homeless people are pathologized for handling our refuse and discarded materials — an irony when you consider that others, like the Recology artists in residence, are encouraged and rewarded for “choosing” to work with trash.

Even with the tireless advocacy of Soltani, the recycling community, and activists working in solidarity with them, Alliance Metals — like many other independent recycling centers in San Francisco and Oakland — has since become another casualty in the reshaping of the Bay Area into a playground for the tech elite. The community screening I attended at West Oakland Youth Center was most impactful for its Q&A session, in which local residents — both homeowners and those with insecure housing — spoke in favor of keeping Alliance Metals open, despite opposition from new, gentrifying neighbors to the plant’s sounds and smells. DeWitt, one of the recyclers featured in Dogtown Redemption, gave a rousing testimony and challenged the audience to consider recycling as a legitimate form of work for transient communities. Goodwin, also featured in the film, spoke of his struggles with addiction and how recycling had saved his life, before his sobriety and religious conversion. Sadly, none of this was enough. On August 20, Alliance Metals closed, and those who patronized it — many of them poor, many homeless — have lost their primary source of income and perhaps the last thing keeping them afloat in an otherwise brutal economy.

I left the screening that afternoon feeling frustrated and demoralized, as many others in attendance also did. We knew well, even on that day in June, that it was likely the recycling center would be gone by August. Since 2012, San Francisco and Oakland have seen wave after wave of closures of the independent recycling centers utilized by transient people, most often in areas targeted as part of larger “urban renewal campaigns.” West Oakland is one of the major battlegrounds of redevelopment in the Bay Area; it’s no surprise the police and City Hall have become more aggressive in their sweeps of homeless encampments and their attacks on places like Alliance Metals, which are seen as encouraging poor people to loiter. How much money goes into Recology’s campaigns throughout San Francisco, including its AIR program? How very little goes to support and services for those whose lives depend on recycling? This isn’t just a story about the Bay Area’s recycling and waste stream, but about who the region values as workers and who is left out with the trash.

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