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In San Francisco, Making a Living From Your Billionaire Neighbor’s Trash

SAN FRANCISCO — Three blocks from Mark Zuckerberg’s $10 million Tudor home in San Francisco, Jake Orta lives in a small, single-window studio apartment filled with trash.

旧金山——在距离马克·扎克伯格(Mark Zuckerberg)的1000万美元都铎式大宅三个街区远的地方,杰克·奥尔塔(Jake Orta)住在一个只有一扇窗户的单间小公寓里,里面全是垃圾。

There’s a child’s pink bicycle helmet that Orta dug out from the garbage bin across the street from Zuckerberg’s house. And a vacuum cleaner, a hair dryer, a coffee machine — all in working condition — and a pile of clothes that he carried home in a Whole Foods paper bag retrieved from Zuckerberg’s bin.


A military veteran who fell into homelessness and now lives in government-subsidized housing, Orta is a full-time trash picker, part of an underground economy in San Francisco of people who work the sidewalks in front of multimillion-dollar homes, rummaging for things they can sell.


Trash picking is a profession more often associated with shantytowns and favelas than a city at the doorstep of Silicon Valley. The Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, counts more than 400 trash picking organizations across the globe, almost all of them in Latin America, Africa and southern Asia.

作为一种职业,捡垃圾通常是与棚户区和贫民窟联系在一起的,而不是一座位于硅谷的城市。非盈利研究和倡导组织全球拾荒者联盟(Global Alliance of Waste Pickers)由全球400多个拾荒者组织构成,它们几乎都位于拉丁美洲、非洲和南亚。

But trash scavengers exist in many U.S. cities and, like the rampant homelessness in San Francisco, are a signpost of the extremes of U.S. capitalism. A snapshot from 2019: One of the world’s richest men and a trash picker, living a few minutes’ walk from each other.


Orta, 56, sees himself as more of a treasure hunter.


“It just amazes me what people throw away,” he said one night, as he found a pair of gently used designer jeans, a new black cotton jacket, gray Nike running sneakers and a bicycle pump. “You never know what you will find.”


Orta says his goal is to earn about $30 to $40 a day from his discoveries, a survival income of about $300 a week.


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Trash picking is illegal in California — once a bin is rolled out onto the sidewalk the contents are considered the possession of the trash collection company, according to Robert Reed, spokesman for Recology, the company contracted to collect San Francisco’s garbage. But the law is rarely enforced.

在加州,拾荒是违法行为——根据承包旧金山垃圾收集的公司Recology的发言人罗伯特·里德(Robert Reed)的说法,垃圾桶一旦推到了人行道上,里面的东西就被视为垃圾收集公司的财产。但这条法律很少执行。

Orta was born in San Antonio, Texas, one of 12 children. He spent more than a dozen years in the Air Force, loading aircraft during the Persian Gulf war of 1991 and was dispatched to Germany, Korea and Saudi Arabia. By the time he returned to the United States, his wife had left him, and he struggled with alcoholism and homelessness. He moved to San Francisco, and five years ago qualified for a program assisting chronically homeless veterans.


On the six times Orta went out with a reporter, he followed a variety of circuits, but usually ended up exploring his favorite alleys and a dumpster that has been bountiful. (The first rule of dumpster scavenging, he said, is to make sure there’s no raccoon or possum in there.) In March, the dumpster yielded a box of silver goblets, dishes and plates, as if someone had yanked a tablecloth from underneath a feast in some European château.


“How do you say it?” William Washington, one of Orta’s trash-picking colleagues, remarked one night. “One’s man trash is another man’s treasure.”

“怎么说呢?”一天晚上,奥尔塔的拾荒同行威廉·华盛顿(William Washington)说。“一个人的垃圾是另一个人的财富。”

Orta’s other recent discoveries: phones, iPads, three wristwatches and bags of marijuana. (“I smoked it,” he said when asked how much he got for the pot.) In late August or September, as participants return from the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, Orta said he often finds abandoned bicycles covered in fine sand.

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Orta said he only takes what people have clearly thrown away, although 14 years ago he spent a few months in jail for breaking into someone’s garage in Sacramento and trying to steal a wrench for his bicycle. “It was a dumb mistake,” he said.


Trash pickers fall into several broad categories. For decades, elderly women and men have collected cardboard, paper, cans or bottles, lugging impossibly large bags around the city and bringing them to recycling centers for cash.


The city is most concerned about the battered pickup trucks, known as mosquito fleets, that buzz around San Francisco collecting recyclables on an industrial scale, depriving Recology, and ultimately the city, of income, said Bill Barnes, spokesman for the city administrator’s office.

旧金山市政府发言人比尔·巴恩斯(Bill Barnes)说,该市最担心的是那些破旧的皮卡车,它们被称为“蚊子车队”,在旧金山开来开去,进行工业规模的可回收物品收集,减少了Recology的收入,最终也减少该市的收入。

“That’s a significant challenge for residents because it results in higher garbage rates,” Barnes said.


Trash pickers like Orta are in yet another category, targeting items in the black landfill garbage bins whose contents would otherwise go to what’s known as the pit — a hole in the ground on the outskirts of the city that resembles a giant swimming pool, where nonrecyclable trash is crushed and compacted by a huge bulldozer and then carried by a fleet of trucks to a dump an hour and a half away. The city exports about 50 large truckloads a day.


Orta sells what he retrieves at impromptu markets on Mission Street or at a more formal market on Saturdays on Julian Avenue. Children’s toys very rarely sell — parents don’t like the idea that they have come from the trash. Women’s clothing is iffy. But men don’t seem to care as much where the clothing came from, and jeans are easy to hawk for $5 or $10 a pair.


In the blue recycling bin marked with Zuckerberg’s address, there were A&W diet root beer cans, cardboard boxes and a junk mail credit card offer. In the black landfill bin were remnants of a chicken dinner, a stale baguette and Chinese takeout containers.


Orta pulled apart a garbage bag in the black bin.


“Just junk — nothing in there.”




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