The sight of people carrying trash bags and gathering aluminum cans probably no longer surprises most Isla Vista residents, but many may not realize that can collecting is a full time job for many of their neighbors.
Although a Santa Barbara County ordinance prohibits it, and the county loses several thousand dollars from it, the removal of recyclables from residents’ bins is commonplace in Isla Vista. The ordinance is rarely enforced, and profits made by recycling the containers are small, but the work provides some collectors with enough money to pay for food and rent.
In an interview conducted in Spanish, I.V. resident Santana Ventura said she works more than 50 hours a week collecting cans to support her family. She estimates that 60 other people also roam the streets for cans, as she has done for the last decade.
“I have been collecting cans for about 10 years now,” Ventura said. “I would say that there are about 30 people who do it part time and about 30 others who work full time throughout the neighborhood.”
The amount of money earned in a day depends largely on the students, and how many cans are available to be picked up, Ventura said.
“I work anywhere from six to 10 hours a day, depending on whether it is a good day or not,” Ventura said. “It is a lot of walking but I can make up to 60 dollars on a good day.”
Others such as Claudia Upalia make an average of 25 dollars per day. In an interview conducted in Spanish, Upalia said she collects cans to support her husband who cannot join the workforce due to an injury.
“I only work part time because my husband is unable to because of a disability,” Upalia said. “He used to trim hedges and trees, but right now he cannot.”
According to Code Enforcement Officer Brad Spencer, the county loses tens of thousands of dollars a year due to the “scavenging” of recycling containers; the potential money the county could earn from the recyclables goes into the residents’ pockets. The controversy arises, Spencer said, when the legality of the issue conflicts with livelihood of community members.
“It is a question of where we draw the line,” Spencer said. “If someone steals a gallon of milk to feed their family, would people agree that it’s wrong? Would you allow this to continue if it feeds and clothes people?”
Although it violates chapter 17 of the county code, Spencer said he does not see citations being issued in the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, a coalition of groups such as Associated Students Environmental Affairs Board in conjunction with the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District are currently working with the county to increase the amount of available recycling bins and discourage people from “scavenging” through containers, said Jessica Van Leuven, the IVRPD Adopt-a-Block supervisor.
Van Leuven said the extraction of recyclables from containers creates a problem in that trash frequently spills into the street or onto people’s properties without getting cleaned up.
“On one hand it is how many people make a living,” Van Leuven said. “On the other hand, the way they do it causes more street litter.”
Students groups, the county and the IVRPD all agree that more recycling is needed in Isla Vista and thanks to a $5,000 grant from the Shoreline Preservation Fund and the collaboration of various community members, 118 new blue recycling bins should be on Del Playa Drive by early April.
Fortunately for the many I.V. residents who rely on recyclables for their earnings, the new recycling containers will not be locked to prevent scavenging, said Scott Bull of the Shoreline Preservation Fund.
Bull said he is hoping that the new color of recycling bins – the easily recognizable blue – will help promote recycling and prevent contamination of the contents.
“Too often, good recycling gets contaminated and has to be thrown out,” Bull said. “When someone tosses old pizza or trash in, it ruins the newspaper and everything gets wasted.”