"If we keep dumping at this rate, all the landfills in the county will be filled in ten years."
It was a good day for talking trash, and Jerry Balistreri had come to the Otay Sanitary Landfill in the southeast corner of Chula Vista to do just that. Garbage trucks by the hundreds were rumbling up the dirt grade, while Balistreri, parked a safe distance away, chain-smoked cigarettes and watched them dump their loads. For Balistreri, who knows and appreciates garbage, it was a frustrating sight. “Son of a bitch," he groaned. “Look at that! That guys dumping a full load of cardboard — must be three, four tons there. I could make $300 with that load."
Balistreri can estimate the value of a dumpster’s contents by standing downwind from it.
Jerry Balistreri has a God-given talent for trash. Some people can tap dance. Some people can do long division in their head. But Balistreri can estimate the value of a dumpster’s contents by standing downwind from it. Naturally, this ability doesn’t bring him a great deal of prestige. Though he considers himself a recycler, other people have called him a scavenger, a muckraker, and even a dump-truck chaser. But Balistreri, an optimistic and cheerful soul, doesn’t care. “Garbage is the greatest business in the world,” he said. “There’s nothing else like it. It’s so challenging, there are so many angles, and it’s changing so rapidly. The way garbage is being handled right now in San Diego will be totally obsolete in three years, which means the opportunities for people like me are immense.”
Almost everybody who is familiar with San Diego’s growing trash problem has to agree with Balistreri on at least one point: when it comes to waste disposal, San Diego is still living in the dark ages. While some communities in California are already recycling as much as seventy percent of their trash, San Diego is currently recycling only about five to ten percent. The volume of trash being hauled to landfills in the county is enough to fill Jack Murphy Stadium every day. If we keep dumping at this rate, all the landfills in the county will be filled in ten years. The cost of landfills to replace them will be enormous — much higher than the cost of landfills now in operation. “The population of San Diego is so transient, most people figure, ‘I’m not gonna be here in ten years anyway, so why should I care if the landfills get filled up?’ ” Balistreri said. “But people who are here for a lifetime have got to ask themselves, ‘Where are our next landfills gonna go?’ If you stop and think about it, all this trash belongs to the people. They’re the ones who created it, they own it, and they’re responsible for it.”
Few would deny that something must be done. But as Jerry Balistreri has discovered, talking about the problem and doing something about it are two different things.
“Now look at this guy. He’s dumping another load of cardboard,” Balistreri said. “There must be ten tons there! That’s worth eight hundred dollars! Isn’t that a waste? And what’s totally ludicrous is that the guy had to pay to come here! He had to pay to dump money! I would have let him dump that load at my place for no charge. Oh, hell yes.”
The obvious question, of course, is why would anybody dump money? Ignorance? Sloth? Convenience? “The biggest reason people are hauling valuable items to the dump,” Balistreri said, “is because there are so many restrictions, it’s impossible for recyclers like me to work in this county.”
For the last year or so, Balistreri has been battling with the cities of San Diego and Imperial Beach over the location of his recycling business, Wasteliner, which is experimenting with a plan to recycle seventy to eighty percent of the trash that is now going into San Diego landfills. Balistreri, a burly, San Diego-born son of an Italian fisherman, is a patient and diplomatic person, and therefore he is reluctant to criticize the city officials. “Hey, I’m a cooperative guy. I know the city officials have their jobs to do. Besides, if I make them look like bozos. I’m out of business.” Just the same, Balistreri doesn’t mind saying that the biggest obstacle to bringing a serious recycling industry to San Diego is not a lack of technology or public awareness, but rather it’s plain old government foot-dragging. Local governments are talking about the benefits of recycling at the same time they’re making it impossible for recyclers to work here.
Jerry Balistreri isn’t new to the trash trade. His grandfather used to lease horse-and-wagon teams to trash haulers in Milwaukee sixty years ago. It was apparent to Grandfather Balistreri, even then, that burying trash in the ground was an idiotic solution to the growing waste problem and a temporary one at best. He used to tell young Jerry, “If you can figure out what to do with this country’s trash, you’ll be an instant millionaire.”
A few months ago, Balistreri thought he had come up with a plan that would fulfill his grandfather’s words — a multibillion-dollar scheme for incinerating trash on barges anchored off the coast of San Diego. The idea was to burn the trash, then use the residue to build a chain of offshore islands. Balistreri, who drives a compact car not much bigger than a fifty-gallon garbage can and dresses about the way you’d expect for somebody who spends his day wading through trash, doesn’t have the four or five billion dollars necessary to put such a plan into action — “But I know the people who do. They’re all from overseas. A lot of foreigners are very interested in our trash problem. Of course, the easiest way to get rid of the trash, the least capital-intensive way, is to bum it, offshore.” But the Department of the Interior, which controls the offshore tracts, deep-sixed the plan, saying the tracts were already leased to oil companies. “Which was really unfortunate,” Balistreri said, “because that plan would have made me an instant multimillionaire!”
Though Balistreri admits the isles-of-trash scheme may have been a long shot, he insists it wasn’t just a crackpot idea, either. Rather, it was one of the many alternatives to waste disposal that have to be considered, just as trash-to-energy facilities are being considered at the proposed SANDER project in Kearny Mesa and in San Marcos.
“Look at these birds,” Balistreri said, pointing towards the flocks of sea gulls picking through the heaps of trash. “They’re making a good living off of trash. They’re getting fat here.” The sea gulls, which were flagrantly defying the ABSOLUTELY NO SALVAGING signs posted at the dump, filled their bellies until they could hardly fly, then they waddled off to a quiet hillside to rest.
Balistreri strongly identifies with sea gulls — the totem bird of trashmen. He admires their resourcefulness, their appreciation for what few people appreciate, and, like them, he sees a way to get fat off of trash. “Most people look at a dump and go, ‘Aaghh! It smells,’ ” he said. “Well, you show me a dump, and I don’t see trash. I see cash.”
Jerry Balistreri didn’t grow up hoping he’d be a big trash tycoon someday. But he has been an entrepreneur for all of his adult life.
He’s thirty-seven now, and he owned his first business, a sandwich shop, when he was just nineteen. Over the years, he’s owned Laundromats, restaurants, a grocery store, apartment buildings, a share in a card room, and a couple of bars. “The trouble with the bar business,” he said, “is that you can’t own a bar in the State of California if you have a vowel at the end of your name — which pretty much eliminates Italians.” He once owned the Crystal Inn, a bar on University Avenue, where he says he was hounded relentlessly by the Alcoholic Beverage Control agents. That bar closed in 1984 after being raided by the San Diego city police. Balistreri claims the police told his landlord he was involved in organized crime and that he headed a drug ring. After raiding the bar and causing several thousand dollars’ worth of damages, the police found three ounces of marijuana on one customer. Balistreri eventually sued his landlord and won a settlement for $55,000 in 1986. but he decided it was time to get out of the bar business.
Balistreri also owned a jewelry store for several years but came to realize “it took a bundle of money to make it in that business. So I started racking my brain trying to figure out what commodity I could get into that didn’t require a lot of capital. I remembered what my grandfather told me about trash, and I realized that not only was trash the only commodity that was free, but people would actually pax to get rid of it.”
Balistreri’s first venture into the trash business was a chain of newspaper recycling boxes. The only investment was the plywood it took to make one hundred boxes, plus the time it took to empty them. Balistreri drove the route every morning, picking up the newspapers, which he then sold for pulp. It was a good business, he recalls, but a lot of other people thought so too, and within a few months, the entire city was saturated with the now-familiar plywood boxes with the curious stenciled invitation: “Recycled Newspapers — Help.” He might have survived legitimate competition, but he says what finally put him out of the newspaper recycling business was what are known in the trade as “pirates,” people who make their living by going around emptying newspaper collection boxes that they don’t own.
Balistreri then went to work for Industrial Waste of San Diego, a trash disposal company, where he was a recycling adviser. “I’d go to big companies like Convair and General Dynamics, get an appointment with their servicing agent, and say, ‘Look, I can save you a lot of money by showing you how to recycle some of the things you’re throwing away now.’ It’s really unbelievable the things corporations throw away and the amount of money they could save if they just source-separated — separated their recyclables on site.”
Most people are aware, for example, that recycled aluminum and newspapers have a monetary value: aluminum is worth thirty cents a pound, and newspapers bring between forty and fifty dollars a ton. But many people aren’t aware that many other materials are even more valuable. Recycled computer paper, for example, is worth $170 a ton, cardboard is worth eighty dollars a ton. Glass is worth sixty dollars a ton — except for window glass, which has too much lead content to be used for food containers. Film plastic — trash bags, grocery bags — is worth eighty dollars a ton. “Even old clothes are worth something to the rag man,” Balistreri said. “Five cents a pound for colored, and twenty cents a pound for white.”
When asked what else in San Diego’s garbage has value, Balistreri passionately replied, “Everything has value! Everything is worth something! But what a recycler has to consider is if it’s cost-effective to separate an item. Take white paper. I can sell that for $7.50 a ton. But can a person move a ton of white paper in an hour? No.”
Eventually Balistreri formed his own recycling company, Wasteliner. His primary customer was the Foodmaker Corporation, the owners of Jack in the Box. Wasteliner provided all the Jack in the Box restaurants in the San Diego area with a trash pickup service. The trash was hauled to a site on Adams Avenue — a small lot behind a dilapidated residence — where Balistreri’s employees waded through the waist-deep heaps of trash, hand sorting the items that were recyclable. “We were able to cut Foodmaker’s trash pickup bill by about forty percent, plus, every month we returned to them about a thousand food trays which had been thrown out with the trash.”
Wasteliner used non-compacting trash trucks to haul the Jack in the Box trash because compacting trucks not only break recyclable bottles, but they mix paper with wet garbage, which makes the paper unsellable. Wasteliner also provided its customers with a wire-mesh bin and a (recyclable) plastic liner, which eliminated the odor problem at restaurant dumpsters.
Balistreri has fond memories of the Jack in the Box trash. “They have really beautiful trash,” he said. “It’s about fifty percent cardboard, about twenty percent white paper, and a little aluminum. I loved their trash. I could make money with their trash.” Not only was he making money, he was taking a business that is often cited as the worst example of waste in the packaging of consumer goods — the fast-food business — and by recycling seventy to eighty percent of the restaurants' trash, turning them into a recycling model for other businesses.
It wasn’t long, though, before Balistreri had his first serious confrontation with the City of San Diego over the location of his trash-sorting site on Adams Avenue. “The city had issued me a business license to work at that site. Later, when they saw what I was doing, they said the license was issued in error. They said 1 had misrepresented myself by saying I was a recycler. They said 1 wasn't a recycler, I was a solid-waste processor. I said, ‘What’s the difference?’ And they said, ‘The garbage is the difference.’ So I said, ‘Garbage is recyclable. I can turn it into compost.’
They said, ‘That’s fine, but you can’t do it here.' ”
In addition to the complaints the city was receiving about odors at the Normal Heights site, they were also receiving complaints about the employees Balistreri had hired. Many of them were transients he’d picked up at Balboa fork, a fact Balistreri is proud of. “Who else was I going to get to do that work? I just drove to the park one day. found all the winos lying around on the grass and said, ‘Okay, who wants to work?’ ”
When some of the transients heard what kind of work Balistreri was offering — and the pay (mostly minimum wage) — they said, “No thanks, we’ll just go to the blood bank once a week, and get drunk.” But others accepted his offer.
One of his employees, Balistreri recalled, would periodically stop work to bang his head against the side of the garbage truck. Another employee would let out bloodcurdling screams throughout the day. Several of the employees were fond of dumping trash over each other’s heads — “to relieve tension.” Their appearance may have been scruffy and their behavior sometimes odd, but Balistreri says they worked hard for him and they weren’t nearly as strange as they seemed. “I thought they fit right into that neighborhood, which is full of weirdos anyway.”
Balistreri believes he could put an almost unlimited number of transients to work on his projects if the city would just let him. “One guy I had working for me had been in and out of mental hospitals. He came up to me one day and said, ‘I can handle the hard work, and I can handle the low pay, and I can even handle the smell. What I can’t handle is all the goddamned city inspectors coming around all day.’ I told him, ‘I know what you mean. That’s exactly the way I feel, too.”
While Balistreri’s goal of bringing seventy-percent recycling to San Diego may sound like another crackpot idea — like his isles-of-trash scheme — the fact is, some cities already have in operation the kind of recycling program Balistreri is talking about. In Berkeley a plan to build a garbage burner to incinerate solid wastes was scrapped by angry voters in 1982. Instead the city’s efforts went into recycling solid wastes, and the site where the garbage burner would have been built was turned into a flea market. Urban Ore, the recycling company that salvages most of Berkeley’s landfill wastes, grossed over $600,000 in 1985.
That kind of recycling is low technology but labor intensive, a fact that causes some people to think it is somehow impractical. But as Balistreri points out, “You can put $20 million into a mechanical sorter, and when the damn thing breaks down for two weeks, nobody can fix it. Or, you can put $20 million into labor. The process isn’t that complicated. All you need is people to sort the stuff out. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You give somebody a chance to make a living?” Until Balistreri appeared on the recycling scene in San Diego, most efforts to promote recycling had been centered on the traditional commodities of aluminum, newspaper, cardboard, and glass. Some recycling companies, like Solana Recyclers, offer curbside pickup service to residential and commercial customers who take the effort to site-separate those traditional items. Balistreri is all for curbside service, but he says that kind of recycling can only reduce the volume of waste put in the landfill by perhaps forty percent, while his method could reduce the amount by as much as seventy. “For example,” he said, “leaves, wet garbage, and other organic material take up a lot of volume; but instead of putting it in the dump, all that could be composted so easily. It makes the best ground material for gardens that you can get. We would offer it to the public for free. If you need compost for your garden, you could come pick it up, or we would deliver it to you for a fee.”
One of the most serious problems with old landfills is the decomposition of buried organic material, which gives off combustible methane gas. “There are people here in San Diego who live beyond the buffer zones of old landfills who can’t grow gardens in their back yards because of the methane gas seeping up from the ground,” Balistreri said.
“Everything is worth something,” he repeated. “Take wood. There’s a lot of construction wood scraps that go into the dumps. I'd like to have a bundling process for selling recycled firewood. We’d bundle it up, and people could either pick it up for free, or we’d deliver to their house for a fee.”
And tires. “Right now the landfills charge twenty-seven cents to dump a tire, because they're bulky, they don’t decompose, and they keep coming back to life — they keep floating up to the surface. So tires are a big pain in the neck for landfills. Well, what can you do with old tires? Sell them to China. I got a contract right now for 500,000 old tires to go to China.”
In April the City of San Diego ordered Balistreri to stop hauling trash to his site on Adams Avenue. The decision was devastating to Balistreri’s business, Wasteliner, which had to give up its year-old contract with the Foodmaker Corporation. As a result, he says the business lost the $68,000 per month in accounts receivable it had been earning, and he had to lay off his eight employees.
The San Diego Ecology Centre, a nonprofit organization that promotes recycling in San Diego, came to Balistreri’s defense, trying to convince the city that even though Balistreri may have had some problems with the location of his operation, his basic idea was correct. According to Rosemary Leigh, director of the Ecology Centre, “Marin County and many other communities are incorporating total-separation operations at their landfills to reduce volume. Jerry definitely has the correct concept, and what he is doing to employ transient labor is absolutely wonderful. Though we can’t support him personally — or any other individual — we support his concept, and we want to see him implement a plan that will be acceptable to everybody.”
After several trips to city hall, Balistreri was able to agree with city officials that he could relocate his business to any place within the city that was zoned M-2. He wanted to avoid sites outside the city, if possible, because of the additional costs of trucking the garbage. He marked on a map all the areas in the city that were zoned M-2, and within ten days, he visited nearly 400 of the sites. He was finally able to find a suitable location in South Bay, between the city of Imperial Beach and the Western Salt Company’s salt evaporators. The ten-acre plot, at the north end of Thirteenth Street near San Diego Bay, is owned by the Western Salt Company, which in turn is owned by the H .G. Fenton Material Company. When Balistreri explained his interests in the site to Fenton company officials, they were encouraging. “They envisioned me expanding into other M-2 properties they owned all over the county. The lease they gave me on the property was a great deal, an unheard-of deal. They wanted to see me succeed.”
Balistreri checked with the businesses adjacent to the site to see if they had any objections, and they, too. welcomed him. He put up a chain-link fence around a quarter-acre of the lot, hired a new crew, trucked in a few loads of trash, and went to work sorting. Then his troubles started all over again.
Wasteliner had only been in business again four or five days when Imperial Beach City Councilman John Mahoney showed up at the site one morning. Mahoney explained to Balistreri that his business was unacceptable at that location, pointing out the proximity to the bay, the odor, and the unsightliness. Balistreri, in turn, pointed out that the site was in the city of San Diego and not Imperial Beach.
“There’s been a discrepancy over the boundary between San Diego and Imperial Beach” Mahoney said. “But I can assure you that this property is in Imperial Beach.”
“Hey,” Balistreri smiled. “I’m easy to get along with. All you gotta do is tell me to stop operating, and I will. I should mention, though, that if you do that, there's a possibility of a lawsuit.” Within an hour, a city building inspector arrived at the site and issued an order for Balistreri to stop hauling trash there. One of Balistreri’s employees, waist-deep in trash, grumbled, “How many fuckin’ permits you gotta have to do this job, anyway?”
Minutes later Balistreri was breezing through the Imperial Beach City Hall with a smile on his face, the citation clutched in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He was dressed in his garbage-sorting attire of shorts, sweat shirt, and dirty tennis shoes. The fragrance following him down the hall was not by Calvin Klein. Yet Balistreri seemed perfectly at ease. “This is exactly what I’ve spent the last six months of my life doing,” he smiled. “City halls are like my second home.”
After bursting into several offices, asking for the city manager, the city attorney, the chief of planning — anybody who would talk with him — a flustered covey of secretaries was finally able to arrange a meeting with the building inspector who had written the citation, Eugene Bailund.
“This is a hot issue right now,” Bailund said. “Our phones are ringing off the hook with complaints about you.”
Balistreri began explaining what he was trying to do with his recycling business, how he would solve the unsightliness by putting up tarps similar to ones around tennis courts. The smell, he said, wasn’t that bad, particularly if the wind was blowing in the right direction.
“Personally” Bailund said, “I’m all for recycling. What you’re doing should have been done twenty years ago, and if it isn’t done soon, twenty years from now all our canyons in this county will be full.” The real issue, though, Bailund went on to say, was whether or not the site was in San Diego or Imperial Beach. And the city attorneys would have to argue that one.
On his way out the door, Balistreri muttered, “It’s the same old story. Everybody likes recyclers, but nobody wants one moving next door to him.” A few days later, on May 19, the Imperial Beach City Council met to discuss the Wasteliner operation and the work site on Thirteenth Street. It was soon determined that even though Western Salt Company has been paying taxes on the property to San Diego since 1959, the site actually was within the boundaries of Imperial Beach. And Imperial Beach definitely did not want Balistreri operating his business there. Councilman Mahoney, together with Mayor Henry Smith, whipped the council into a lynching mood. The mayor called Balistreri's operation “fourth-rate.” He said Wasteliner was violating the city’s contracts with local sanitation companies, which have franchises to operate in certain areas, and implied that the sanitation companies would assist the city in seeing that Wasteliner was moved out. In summation, he said, “Anybody who would allow the kind of operation you have into his city is out of his head.”
The mayor and Imperial Beach city council were, at least in part, reflecting the opinions of their constituency. One woman who lived near the site on Thirteenth Street stood up to say, “I don’t care what you call the stuff he’s dumping there, but it’s raw garbage. I read in the paper that San Diego Bay is the most polluted bay in the country, and yet right there he’s dumping garbage.”
By the time Balistreri was allowed to speak, he already knew his cause was lost. His only comment was, “The state of California requires each community to reduce the amount of solid waste going into the landfills by twenty-five percent. My question to Imperial Beach is, what are you doing to achieve that? There isn't one recycling business in Imperial Beach, and there is no zone for this type of business to operate in. Granted, my business isn’t going to be here, but what are you going to do for recycling?”
The mayor’s response was, “Sir, we certainly have done something for recycling in Imperial Beach. We’ve moved you out.”
Nearly everyone familiar with Jerry Balistreri agrees that the ideal solution would be for him to operate his business at a county landfill. The sanitation companies could continue to dump the public’s trash, and Balistreri’s army of transients could sort through the garbage, salvaging what they could. Whatever was left would be buried at the landfill. There would be no hysterical neighbors screaming about foul odors and and unsavory characters. There would no angry trash haulers complaining that their exclusive contracts were being violated. And the county would be reducing its solid waste. That’s how the problem has been handled in Marin County and in Berkeley, and by all accounts, solid-waste sorting at landfills has worked out quite well.
San Diego County officials have said they are considering that alternative. Race Wilt, who works for the county’s public works division, says some of the problems to be considered are: insurance for the trash sorters (Balistreri was told the insurance could be as high $as 18.90 per $100 earned); environmental impact reports; and the question of who would pay the dumping fees. But Wilt also has more fundamental doubts. “At the quantities Mr. Balistreri is talking about, that kind of operation wouldn’t make a dent in our landfill volumes.”
When it was pointed out to Wilt that Wasteliner hasn’t yet been allowed to expand beyond an experimental operation, Wilt quickly replied, “The county doesn’t want an experiment at our landfills.”
Eventually, a contract to process solid waste at a county landfill would have to go up for bid, and some corporation bigger than Wasteliner would probably win the contract — even though none are currently interested in the kind of labor-intensive sorting Balistreri is talking about. And that doesn’t leave Balistreri with much incentive for trying to hammer his plan through the county bureaucracy. He says he’s already lost $100,000 trying to establish his solid-waste processing business, and he sees little point in putting more energy into wrestling with local governments.
Still, Jerry Balistreri remains surprisingly undaunted through all this. He hasn’t abandoned his hopes for a career in the garbage business — the greatest business in the world. Lately his efforts have been going into a plan to pick up bottles that would otherwise be thrown away by San Diego bars. “The city told me I had to have a permit for that, too, because if I had my guys just pull the bottles out of the trash, I could be arrested for ‘molesting a garbage can,’ which I understand is a felony offense.” Maybe Balistreri is the eternal optimist, or maybe he has learned that in the garbage business, public relations is everything. But he is still reluctant to criticize directly the city and county governments that have foiled his every move. At the Otay landfill, he looked out across the mountain of money and said, perhaps more as an idealist than a businessman, “I really believe that in five years from now, San Diego could be a model of recycling for the rest of the country. I honestly believe that.”