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American Times: Los Angeles: Doing the rich man's dirty work in City of Angels

ONCE UPON a time Los Angelenos, like all big-city dwellers in the United States, were asked to separate their recyclable rubbish into glass, paper and aluminium cans before putting it out for collection. But that was before the advent of the Big Blue Bins.

For the past month or so, the bins have been popping up on street corners with an alluring invitation to dump everything - newspapers, bottles and even plastic - right inside without bothering to sort it all first.

This makes the whole process wonderfully convenient, of course, so much so that most people have accepted the labour-saving change without asking themselves the niggly little question: if we are not separating the garbage, then who is?

The answer, for those with enough of a conscience to listen, is that the task has been taken on by labourers at the very bottom of the social pile, who wade through the detritus in baking hot recycling centres well out of public view on the fringes of the city.

The logic of the operation is cold but simple: it is far cheaper to pay rock-bottom wages to a handful of short-term labourers and ensure that the recyclables are sorted properly than it is to rely on householders, most of whom do not do the job right and make a large proportion of the rubbish impossible to reuse.

"People come up and tell me how religious they are about separating their cans and bottles. While we certainly appreciate that, I wish I could say it for the entire city. Regrettably, it just hasn't happened," said Daniel Hackney, who works for the city sanitation bureau and spends most of his days taking coachloads of foreign municipal managers around LA's evolving network of "Merfs", or material recycling facilities, to give them their official name.

Mr Hackney insists that LA is at the cutting edge of urban waste management, and that sooner or later cities around the world will follow its lead. The economics are unassailable, he says, since the cost of labour is easily absorbed by the far higher crop of recyclables harvested - as much as 50 per cent, as against 6 per cent under the old system. Not only that, but street scavengers can no longer cream off the pick of pre-sorted recyclables, and jobs are created too.

There is, however, a less kind interpretation being offered by some of the city's more ardent self-flagellation freaks: that Angelenos are simply inconsiderate, lazy and all too ready to let others do their dirty work for them, especially if they do not have to pay for it.

There is some historical evidence for such an assertion. Part of the reason the Republican Sam Yorty was elected mayor in the Sixties was because he promised to cancel an early garbage separation programme, which he denounced as "coercion against the housewives of the city". Los Angeles is a city founded on naked free market enterprise and individual freedom, not collective responsibility or civic sense.

This was a point that even Mr Hackney partly conceded, saying it was impossible to imbue people with a sense of responsibility in a city with such vast gulfs in wealth, culture and language. "In a small, socially homogeneous city like Santa Monica [a separate entity within the LA metropolitan area that runs its own garbage programme] you can aspire to have your glass and cans and paper all neatly sorted. But not when you are dealing with dozens of neighbourhoods and language groups."

Despite this admission of failure, the authorities are not beyond reacting sensitively to negative publicity about their new garbage policy. A couple of weeks ago a Los Angeles Times reporter, Robert Jones, visited a Merf in sizzling Sun Valley and found what he called "a scene out of the 19th century" - workers bending over a fast-moving conveyor belt, furiously pulling at different items and dropping them into a bin below them. Many of them are at it for 10 hours day, few earning much more than the minimum wage of $5.75 (pounds 3.44) an hour.

So furious was the city and the private companies they employ to run the Merfs that journalists were promptly barred from witnessing such scenes again. Mr Hackney raged that the article was distorted and inaccurate, but could not fault it for more than a few errors of detail.

He did say, however, that the Merfs were growing increasingly mechanised, so that soon most if not all of the sorting will be done by machine. "I suppose Jones will then berate us for cutting jobs. Well, you can't have it both ways," he said.

But Mr Jones's argument was less with the city than it was with his fellow citizens. "We dump our mess into blue bins because we can afford to pay a certain class of desperate men to separate the mess for us," he wrote. And that, one might add, is the unlovely spirit of Los Angeles in a nutshell.