When Johnny Jackson and Peter Dunlap began picking up illegally dumped garbage as part of their job with Oakland’s Public Works Agency, they expected to haul away the occasional scrapped TV or discarded couch. Instead, they found themselves handling a bizarre array of urban debris, from sheetrock and railroad ties to abandoned boats and trailers full of trash. Jackson once uncovered dismembered horse parts, while Dunlap recalls finding a dumped dead llama on G Street in East Oakland.
“Everybody comes to Oakland to do their dirt,” Dunlap says. “They know the police have bigger fish to fry.”
Until recently, Jackson and Dunlap say, the city’s dumping problem had been confined to a handful of “hot spots.” Most of these, like the stretch of G Street between 85th and 92nd, are industrial areas, distinguished by low foot traffic and even lower lighting at night. Now, Jackson says, that’s changed: “The whole city is a hot spot.”
In the past year, the amount of illegally dumped junk has shot up by 34 percent, according to the Oakland Public Works Agency, which logged almost 18,000 incidents in 2012. San Francisco, which has twice the population of Oakland, had just 22,000 incidents.
In the last year alone, the city spent $3.3 million picking up and disposing of illegally dumped trash, or roughly $500 per pickup. On any given day, Public Works Operations Manager Frank Foster said, there can be up to 12 Public Works crews dedicated solely to collecting junk from city streets.
Though the Agency has the goal of removing 85 percent of illegal dumping within three business days, Foster admits that goal can be hard to reach. Sometimes public work crews will clean up a spot, take the trash to the dump, and come back 15 minutes later only to find more trash left in the same spot.
On a recent pickup stop at a hot spot on Santa Rita Street and Harrington Avenue, a car passing by stopped and the driver thanked Jackson for the crew’s work. But he quickly asked if they could make it out to 105th Avenue and E Street to pick up some garbage that had been dumped in front of his grandmother’s house. “Who do I need to call?” he asked, pointing to the heaping trash pile the Public Works crew was busy cleaning up. “It’s horrific.” Jackson says requests like this happen all the time.
Though the city has lacked the resources in recent years to cite illegal dumpers, a new pilot project through the City Attorney’s Neighborhood Law Corps, the Public Works Agency, and the City Administrator’s Nuisance Abatement Division recently began identifying dumpers through their license plate numbers earlier this year. The city also encouraged citizens to send in photos of illegal dumping through the Public Works websites, or See Click Fix, an online tool that lets users upload photos and other evidence of illegal dumping. About 30 cases have been brought to the City Attorney so far.
The City Council also recently passed an ordinance that will impose stricter penalties on anyone caught dumping garbage illegally. The ordinance received its second reading and final passage at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.
Among other things, the ordinance would officially change illegal dumping from an infraction to a misdemeanor and would allow the city to fine offenders up to $1,000 a day per item, as well as seize vehicles – measures that Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who proposed the ordinance with City Attorney Barbara Parker, hopes will cause would-be dumpers to think twice.
“This is not a trashy town,” McElhaney said at the meeting. “Do not trash our city.”
Parker noted that blight in urban areas can lead to greater social problems if left neglected, by depressing property values and creating environmental health risks, and can even lead to an increase in other crimes and violence. “Making Oakland a cleaner city will make it a safer city,” Parker said in a statement.
The issue is not unique to Oakland. Californians currently discard over 2 million mattresses and box springs annually, and many of those end up abandoned illegally throughout the state – not just in vacant lots, but also in residential neighborhoods and parks. In Oakland alone, the city picks up 18 to 35 mattresses a day, according to a press release by Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley). Many residents don’t know how to properly dispose of mattresses, and there was previously no state law addressing the issue. Governor Brown recently signed a statewide bill that is designed to fix the problem by requiring that retailers and manufacturers offer free pickup and also pay into a statewide recycling program. An additional tax on mattress purchases would fund the program.
In Oakland, though, mattresses are only the tip of the trash pile.
Anne Olivia, with American Steel Studios in West Oakland, has witnessed firsthand the growth of illegal dumping in that neighborhood. “West Oakland is uniquely positioned because it is the first thing you see when you come off the freeway,” she said. “You see blight, not innovation or art. Because we don’t have the resources, that becomes invisible to visitors.”
In response, she’s been organizing monthly volunteer cleanups, and even paying someone once a week to clean the area around American Steel Studios.
Michael Herling is a longtime Oakland resident and business owner in West Oakland who has also been shocked by the amount of illegal dumping he’s been seeing in recent years. He started the West Oakland Business Alert Committee to improve the business environment and blight in West Oakland.
“When you have piles of debris everywhere and you have to slalom down the street to get to work, it detracts from the city’s infrastructure,” Herling said. “The people of Oakland are fed up and they’re not going to take it anymore.”
Some hot spots, particularly in West Oakland, have become a more serious issue because homeless encampments have formed from the trash heaps. Abandoned mattresses and furniture can make for inviting makeshift homes for the homeless, complicating the illegal dumping problem even further. At a recent cleanup of a homeless encampment by Public Works, a homeless resident of the camp watched in frustration as the crews hauled away the piles of trash and furniture that were his home. He made clear that this was not a case of illegal dumping. “I’ve been living here for three years,” he said.
There is no consensus as to who is doing the dumping and why there was such a sharp rise in just the past year. Johnny Jackson put the number at 50 percent local Oakland residents and 50 percent out-of-towners, “fly-by-night” haulers offering to take trash away cheap and then cutting costs by skipping the dump and finding a dark or empty street corner instead. “You’ll see people with their trucks loaded up going that way,” Dunlap said, pointing west. “When you know the dump is that way.” He pointed east. “And there’s only one dump in Oakland.”
Councilmember Noel Gallo said he found documentation from a construction company in Hayward at one local dumping site, while Michael Herling admitted to finding a receipt from a painting company in Petaluma, along with a bunch of illegally discarded paint cans.
All the extra trash has an impact on the economy, according to Casey Farmer, a policy analyst for Councilmember McElhaney. “Some people aren’t coming to East or West Oakland. [Businesses] are leaving and taking those jobs with them, and illegal dumping can turn off potential customers.”
Kristine Shaff, the public information officer for Public Works, believes that there needs to be a shift in how consumers think about waste. “It’s always cost money to buy things,” Shaff notes. “Now we also have to recognize that you have to pay for garbage.”
Currently, Waste Management has an exclusive franchise for waste removal with the city of Oakland. Residents are offered one free bulky item pick-up annually, but the charges at the dump can keep people away. San Francisco, on the other side of the bay, offers free pickup for the first 10 bulky items.
Councilmember Noel Gallo has been personally attending weekly group cleanups every Saturday in District 5 in East Oakland. His frustration led him to suggest a more novel solution for Oakland: deputizing city workers so they can cite offenders and also use city trucks to pick up trash. “The city as a whole needs to come together and address the number one issue,” Gallo said. “Why couldn’t every one of the 3,000 city employees work two hours a month to pick up trash in Oakland?”
On Saturday, October 19th, Councilmember McElhaney will be hosting a community cleanup in the Prescott neighborhood of West Oakland, where 90 volunteers are expected to participate and pick up trash, clean graffiti, and plant flowers.
Jorge Velasco, 22, a volunteer with the District 5 Saturday morning cleanups who lives in Jungle Hill in East Oakland, said he hoped their cleanup work would change the apathy he sees in the community to dumping. “If people are numb to violence,” Velasco said, “imagine how they’re going to feel about trash.”