Creative trash scavengers work the system

These days, it seems everybody’s obsessed with the economy.

Measuring unemployment rates, quarterly economic growth, manufacturing numbers; pouring over analyses and reports; getting headaches trying to follow the stock market and which companies are tanking and which are growing.

What few economists take into account, however, are economic activities that fly below the official radar, ranging from the harmless — garage sales and unlicensed street vendors — to the dangerous, like shady dealings of drug cartels and prostitution rings.

Author Robert Neuwirth, in his book Stealth of Nations:  The Global Rise of the Informal Economy, calls these unaccounted-for day-to-day dealings “System D,” another name for “black market.”

The term System D comes from the French word débrouillard, which refers to someone who’s self-reliant or ingenious (a reflection on how the author sees these common black-marketeers in a more positive light than some).

According to Neuwirth, the System D economy accounts for about $10 trillion a year globally.  That’s trillion, with a T.

While there’s a lot more System D activity in poor and developing countries than in the U.S., it happens right here in San Francisco, too.

Take a look at something rather banal like garbage collecting for a prime example. In the hours before trash pick-up, you’ll find groups of people rooting through trash receptacles looking for recyclables they can then sell to truck drivers for cash.

An upper Noe Valley resident told KTVU:

“What we’re seeing now is fairly organized groups coming down the street with their bags, filling up their bags, and then dumping them in the truck.  Doing a street and then moving on.”

These scavengers fit right into Robert Neuwirth’s idea of a System D entrepreneur: Finding creative ways to feed themselves and their families, and to hell with what the law says about it.

But despite how harmless it may seem, trash scavenging is considered a “quality of life crime” in The City.

SFPD Officer Carlos Manfredi told KTVU:

“It’s one of those things that does add up and costs the city money.”

It’s true that a lot of money is involved — an estimated $5 million and $10 million worth of recyclables are stolen from receptacles each year — but it’s difficult to say whether it hurts tax payers or just Recology, the private company that contracts with The City to haul trash away.

Of course, there’s only so much that can be reasonably done to prevent this kind of activity. But there are now laws in place that limit how much recyclable material can be turned in by one person.

Also, homeowners are advised to wait until the morning of pickup to put out their recyclables.