The economics of scavenging

By Dogtown Commoner | Posted at 9:05 pm, July 14th, 2007 | Topic: economics

Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle reports:

Lou Brown is benefiting big-time from the lockout of East Bay garbage workers.

Brown, who is 63 and homeless, recycles aluminum cans, plastic and glass to help make ends meet, and the piles of garbage on Oakland streets are proving to be a bonanza.

“You got more now. It makes me feel good because the trash is full,” Brown said Friday near 46th Avenue and International Boulevard in East Oakland as he pushed a shopping cart loaded with bottles, aluminum cans and other junk that he turns in for cash at recycling centers.

And further down in the same article:

The trash strewn about because of the lockout “makes me look bad,” said Boyer, who says he became homeless after spending 15 years in prison for selling drugs. He repeatedly asked a reporter and photographer shadowing him Friday for some money or to buy him a taco.

Although Brown says he’s been taking in $80 a day since the lockout began, an increase of $10, Boyer says he’s been getting the usual amount of recycling.

Still, “I’m reaping the benefits,” Boyer said. Nowadays, the things he needs are right up near the top of the overflowing bins instead of wedged deep in the bottom as they usually are.

“It’s easier to get,” Boyer said. Which is good, he said, because “this is nasty stuff.”

I’m always fascinated by these examples of unexpected ripple effects, such as the recent study claiming that the drop in violence in the 90’s was caused by the earlier regulations banning lead paint (or was caused by legalizing abortion, as argued in Freakonomics). In these cases, we’re talking about positive side effects, but unfortunately there are plenty of other cases where unintended consequences can be awful.

And 70 bucks a day, even before the increase in revenue due to the lockout? Even if Brown works a 10-hour day, that’s well above the current federal minimum wage. I knew people must support themselves by collecting recyclables since I see them working hard at it, but I wouldn’t have guessed it would bring in more than $40 per day. (The $70-per-day estimate seems to find some corroboration when the reporter witnesses Mr. Brown earn $23 for two hours worth of collected recyclables.)