Imagine the food and trash that restaurants in San Diego's tony Gaslamp Quarter throw away every night. For more than 15 years, an alley on G Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues made things easier. David Lowe, 32, the alley's most recent occupant, collected trash delivered from 18 restaurants and other businesses, recycled what he could, and hauled the rest to the Miramar Landfill. But on June 1, the City's Neighborhood Code Compliance Department told him to stop or face a $2500 fine. In issuing the order, officer Stephen Cousins cited a zoning regulation that forbids moving trash from one site to collect it at another. The City doesn't want a Gaslamp Quarter dumpsite.
On Monday morning, three days later, four Gaslamp occupants showed up to address the city council's Natural Resources and Culture Committee. Chairwoman Donna Frye seemed taken aback. "For nonagenda public comment," she said, "we normally only allow three minutes on a particular issue." But she was flexible, perhaps because, for that day's meeting, the major agenda item was the city attorney's plan for a mandatory recycling law.
Jim DiMatteo spoke about the alley, whose gate he can see across the street from the side windows of his Jimmy Love's restaurant at the southwest corner of G and Fifth. Besides the need to recycle, "we must have the ability to keep our area clean," said DiMatteo. "This weekend we were not able to do that, and the cleanliness effort of the Gaslamp Quarter was dramatically affected. There are other methods, but I think everybody realizes that if 20 restaurants start putting trash cans on the street every morning, there's going to be an additional issue. And...from an operator's standpoint, when you make recycling easy, we do it; when it's difficult, it usually doesn't get done."
Maria Argyropoulos spoke in more graphic terms. A vice president for USA Hostels, she drove to San Diego from Venice on that Monday morning to address the committee. Her company's local outlet on Fifth has rear access to the alley. "When Mr. Lowe received notice he couldn't do the recycling," stated Argyropoulos, "the back alley became Third World conditions. I'm not kidding you, there is garbage that people are dumping out there that is piling up waist high, and there are open containers.... When our people brought the waste around to the front of the building instead, the cans were leaking on the sidewalk and our guests were walking through it and bringing it inside our business. I'm sure it's creating a health issue for the restaurants. Their patrons must be bringing it inside their restaurants."
When Gaslamp Quarter Association executive director Jimmy Parker got his turn to speak, he urged the City to make a zoning change. There are only three alleys in the Gaslamp, he said. "The weekend before, we had the Jazz Fest down there and decided to work with the alley [on G].... We diverted over 6000 pounds of glass. We diverted over a ton of cardboard. Seventy percent of all the waste produced by the event did not go into the landfill. I'd ask any other event to surpass that, including Earth Day, and we did it with a small business owner who manages a small alley for a property owner."
In 2002, David Lowe was homeless. He got enough to eat by gathering recyclables every day and taking them to reclamation centers. "I complained to a friend about how little money I was making," says Lowe. "I thought he would suggest getting a job, but instead he asked, 'Why don't you do more?' " That started Lowe on the path to creating a business he called LoweCo. He got the business accepted by the California Department of Conservation as a certified collections program. His first regular client, he tells me, became the Hillcrest Business Improvement Association. "Then I began thinking about downtown with all those restaurants," he says.
Lowe started out in the Gaslamp by helping Anthony Martinelli in the G Street alley. Martinelli worked for plastic surgeon Kian Samimi, who owns the alley and whose practice is one door to the west of the alley's entrance. At the time, according to sources in the area, Samimi was allowing -- for a price -- several local restaurants to bring their trash to the alley, where Martinelli collected it in Dumpsters that were periodically emptied by waste management companies such as EDCO. Martinelli kept the alley clean and dealt with Samimi's trash-collection clients. For the restaurants, the deals were much less expensive than putting barrels of trash on the street for pickup by the waste management companies.
The first work he did in the alley, says Lowe, was to recycle as much of the trash as he could, something Martinelli never did. He borrowed money to buy a 15-foot box truck for hauling the recyclables out of the Gaslamp Quarter. He then started helping clean the alley and performing other tasks for the older man, who was becoming ill with colon cancer. Martinelli eventually died. Sixteen months ago, Lowe took over all the alley operations. But he convinced Dr. Samimi to allow him to run it as a business. Lowe would pay rent for use of the alley, send invoices to the restaurants, and collect on the bills. And he started renting equipment: a trash compactor, a cardboard bailer, an extruder, and a trailer (after selling his box truck). In addition to trash, he began taking the restaurants' cooking oil and arranging for it to be removed.
One lesson Lowe says he learned the hard way. There is no money in recycling, especially if you run a certified collections program. "You lose the money in the sorting," he says. "To make recycling profitable, the Department of Conservation would have to increase [redemption values] for the licensed programs."
Lowe notes that recent changes in what the Department of Conservation pays demonstrate what the root of the problem is for certified collections businesses. The department lowered the rate it pays collections programs for glass from 6.9 to 4.9 cents per pound. At the same time, it raised the rate for scavengers taking glass to reclamation centers from 8 cents to 10 cents per pound.