War veteran who raids Mark Zuckerberg’s bins talks treasure hunting in Silicon Valley

Friends call him 'the Finder'

Thomas Fuller
Sunday 07 April 2019 17:12
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Jake Orta peers into a dumpster in San Francisco on 25 Jan, 2019
Jake Orta peers into a dumpster in San Francisco on 25 Jan, 2019

Three blocks from Mark Zuckerberg’s $10 million (£7.6 million) Tudor home in San Francisco, Jake Orta lives in a small, single-window studio apartment filled with rubbish.

There’s a child’s pink bicycle helmet that Mr Orta dug out from the bin across the street from Mr 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 Mr Zuckerberg’s bin.

A military veteran who fell into homelessness and now lives in government-subsidised housing, Mr Orta is a full-time trash picker, part of an underground economy in San Francisco of people who work the pavements in front of multimillion-dollar homes, rummaging for things they can sell.

Rubbish 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 organisation, counts more than 400 trash picking organisations across the globe, almost all of them in Latin America, Africa and southern Asia.

But waste pickers exist in many US cities and, like the rampant homelessness in San Francisco, are a signpost of the extremes of US capitalism.

A snapshot from 2019: one of the world’s richest men and a rubbish picker, living a few minutes’ walk from each other.

Mr 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, grey Nike running trainers and a bicycle pump. “You never know what you will find.”

Mr Orta says his goal is to earn about $30 to $40 (£23 to £30) a day from his discoveries, a survival income of about $300 (£230) a week.

Rubbish 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.

Mr 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 chronically homeless veterans.

At dusk he leaves his apartment building, which is wedged between a popular brunch spot for tech workers and a cannabis shop in the heart of the Mission neighbourhood. The smell of marijuana fills the vestibule.

Walking up a steep hill lined with mature trees, he passes homes that could pass for works of art: Victorians, some with stained glass and elaborate cornices and mouldings painted in a soft palette of pastels, ochre, celadon and teal.

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A virtual tour of the neighbourhood on the Zillow site shows that homes valued at $3 million (£2.3 million) and higher are the norm.

But Mr Orta doesn’t look at the architecture. He walks the streets, slightly stooped, his eyes peeled on the ground and a flashlight in his back pocket. His friends call him the Finder.

On the six times Mr Orta has been out with a reporter, he followed a variety of circuits, but usually ended up exploring his favourite alleys and a skip that has been bountiful.

The first rule of skip scavenging, he said, is to make sure there’s no racoon or possum in there.

In March, the skip yielded a box of silver goblets, dishes and plates, as if someone had yanked a tablecloth from underneath a feast in some European chateau.

“How do you say it?” William Washington, one of Orta’s trash-picking colleagues, remarked one night. “One’s man trash is another man’s treasure.”

Mr Orta’s other recent discoveries: phones, iPads, three wristwatches and bags of marijuana. (“I smoked it,” he said when asked how much he got for the pot.)

In late August or September, as participants return from the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, Mr Orta said he often finds abandoned bicycles covered in fine sand.

Mr Orta said he only takes what people have clearly thrown away, although 14 years ago he spent a few months in jail for breaking into someone’s garage in Sacramento and trying to steal a wrench for his bicycle. “It was a dumb mistake,” he said.

For years San Francisco has been a global beacon of recycling, attracting a stream of government ministers, journalists and students from across the globe to study the sorting facilities of Recology.

But the city is also full of young, affluent people preoccupied with demanding jobs and long commutes for whom the garbage can is a tempting way to get rid of those extra pairs of jeans or old electronics cluttering their closets.

“We have a lot of trash of convenience,” said Mr Reed, the spokesman for Recology. “You’ve got more and more tech people here, and this city is moving faster and faster. These people have short attention spans. Some discard items that ought to be repurposed through a thrift shop.”

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Trash pickers fall into several broad categories. For decades, elderly women and men have collected cardboard, paper, cans or bottles, lugging impossibly large bags around the city and bringing them to recycling centres for cash.

The city is most concerned about the battered pickup trucks, known as mosquito fleets, that buzz around San Francisco collecting recyclables on an industrial scale, depriving Recology, and ultimately the city, of income, said Bill Barnes, spokesman for the city administrator’s office.

“That’s a significant challenge for residents because it results in higher garbage rates,” Mr Barnes said.

Trash pickers like Mr Orta are in yet another category, targeting items in the black landfill garbage bins whose contents would otherwise go to what’s known as the pit — a hole in the ground on the outskirts of the city that resembles a giant swimming pool, where non-recyclable trash is crushed and compacted by a huge bulldozer and then carried by a fleet of trucks to a dump an hour and a half away.

The city exports about 50 large truckloads a day.

Mr Orta sells what he retrieves at impromptu markets on Mission Street or at a more formal market on Saturdays on Julian Avenue.

Children’s toys very rarely sell — parents don’t like the idea that they have come from the trash. Women’s clothing is iffy. But men don’t seem to care as much where the clothing came from, and jeans are easy to hawk for $5 (£3.80) or $10 (£7.70) a pair.

Mr Orta’s favourite item retrieved from the trash is one that he will not sell: a collection of newspapers from around the world documenting the course of World War II. He wonders why anyone would have thrown that away.

On a recent Tuesday evening — the eve of trash collection in Mr Zuckerberg’s neighbourhood — Mr Orta didn’t find anything worth keeping in the Facebook founder’s two garbage cans.

Mr Zuckerberg has at least one other home in the San Francisco Bay Area; this one he bought in November 2012 for almost $10 million (£7.6 million) through a company he controls.

In the blue recycling bin marked with Mr Zuckerberg’s address, there were A&W diet root beer cans, cardboard boxes and a junk mail credit card offer.

In the black landfill bin were remnants of a chicken dinner, a stale baguette and Chinese takeout containers.

Mr Orta pulled apart a garbage bag in the black bin.

“Just junk — nothing in there.”

The New York Times

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