He also insists that "most of the people that use the recycling center don't camp in the park."
Homeless people certainly do use the center, but it's not clear whether its presence truly "enables illegal camping and illicit and unhealthy activity." Dunn finds it laughable to say that "the center creates homelessness." It's a lot of work to cart around recyclables all day, he says, and the dedicated recyclers are generally not the same people that ask tourists on Haight Street for spare change.
There is a great diversity in how homeless San Franciscans spend their days, and recycling is in many ways a specialized, committed way of life. In her 2010 ethnography of homeless San Franciscans, Hobos, Hustlers and Backsliders, Teresa Gowan focuses on the "recyclers," the segment of the homeless population who have made a habit of collecting bottles and cans as a way of getting by.
"The phenomenon that captured my interest was the steady stream of shopping carts loaded high with glass, cans, cardboard, and scrap metal rolling past my door," she wrote.
Some of her interview subjects show disdain for the recyclers, who work hard all day and don't get much cash out of it. Dealing drugs, stealing, or panhandling can be more lucrative and less backbreaking. One subject, a man named Del who, according to Gowan, mostly stayed in the Tenderloin, thought the "20, 25 bucks on a big load" that recyclers usually made was pathetic. "'And that's for heaving around a big old rattling buggy all day,' Del said pityingly. 'I can make 15 bucks inside'a two minutes.'"
But many of her interview subjects prefer to recycle anyway. Gowan describes another subject, Sam, as "a champion recycler, muscular and persistent, who often put in nine, ten hours on the trot." She quotes Sam saying, "Without this, I'd kill myself. Couple a days, I'd do myself in.... You get some guys, seems like they can deal with homelessness. I'm not one of them."
The book argues that "pro recyclers" included a "large core group who had created an intense web of meaning around their work as a kind of blue-collar trade."
Recycling for cash may not be a respected or taxed job "blue collar" job. But it's certainly green.
Since the center began operating in the 1970s, mainstream attitudes towards environmentalism and sustainability have shifted dramatically. The HANC recycling center was a product of the environmental movement, and helped usher in the widespread support for recycling.
Now, with curbside recycling fully functional in San Francisco, many call the recycling center's work obsolete. But HANC argues that the city needs all the help it can get if it is to reach its goal for zero waste in 2020. It also employs 10 people, and Dunn argues that it would be foolish of the city to eliminate those stable green jobs.
HANC has also helped move along the trend towards community gardens that RPD is now embracing so thoroughly that, ironically, it could lead to the recycling center's demise. HANC helped underwrite the Garden for the Environment project as well as the Victory Garden planted outside City Hall in 2008. Dunn says that the staff enjoyed the challenge of building the garden, and would be interested in helping the city by creating more gardens without city money.
Gaar says he's committed to continuing to work for a healthier planet, regardless of what happens to the center.
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