In rich San Francisco, the trash pickings are good
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.
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.
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.
Against the law
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.
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 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.
Orta’s other recent discoveries: phones, iPads, three wristwatches and bags of marijuana. (“I smoked it,” he said.) 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.