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.
"By what the State pays per pound," Lowe maintains, "it's contributing to a permanent underclass and a black market. The licensed businesses have to pay taxes. The underclass is called 'scavengers' by law, though the department has changed their lingo to call them 'unlicensed collection programs.'
"The restaurants I dealt with don't want to sort the recyclables, and I was losing money in the sorting." So gradually, in the G Street alley, Lowe did less recycling and more trash removal. Instead of preparing Dumpsters for EDCO to empty, he hauled unsorted trash away every morning. Whereas restaurants pay EDCO on average $1000 per month for trash service, Lowe charged anywhere from $375 to $600 per month. "They liked the service," he says. "Not that they all paid on time, though." Nevertheless, Lowe started to make good money. In the early days on G Street, he often only broke even. Toward the end, however, he claims his monthly gross ranged between $7300 and $9300. "But don't forget, I had a lot of expenses too. Rent for the automated equipment, the trailer, and a warehouse where I still did some sorting." (Lowe declined to reveal his average profits.)
Nicholas Johnson, the local manager of USA Hostels, tells me that paying EDCO after Lowe was shut down in June doubled the company's trash-removal costs. And therein, Lowe believes, lies a clue for why LoweCo was put out of business. "The City was getting complaints about me from the franchised trash haulers," he says. But Johnson says he suspects that one of the businesses with back access to the alley may have gotten tired of so much trash arriving there daily from restaurants blocks away.
Several weeks ago I went down to the area, expecting to see at least residues of the pollution described by Gaslamp representatives at the Natural Resources and Culture Committee's June 1 meeting. Things looked clean. Later I unsuccessfully called and visited Jimmy Love's restaurant to ask Jim DiMatteo how he thinks the situation has turned around. But he did not get back to me.
Johnson says most of the restaurants have again signed up with EDCO. But a little of the banned movement of trash from one site to another seems to be continuing. "Somebody is bringing trash across the street and putting it in Dumpsters that are still in the alley," according to Johnson. "Whoever it is has a key to the alley. But I don't know if he's coming from Jimmy Love's or from the brewery next door."
What I noticed during my late-Saturday-morning visit was five or six empty trash barrels and one full blue bin. The blue bin may have belonged to Trattoria La Strada, on the northwest corner of Fifth and G, whose bartender told me his company does recycle. But a spokesman for the Sun Cafe, a block away on Market Street, told me, "We don't recycle here; this is a commercial area."
The restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter may want to get used to recycling again. That mandatory recycling law first proposed by the city attorney's office? The one the Natural Resources and Culture Committee heard on June 1? Well, on August 22, after earlier saying the city attorney was out of order and advocating a voluntary approach, the mayor's office published for public comment the first draft of its own mandatory recycling program. The program will require small businesses to comply with it.
On the other hand, there is an exemption in the mayor's proposal for those who don't have room to collect recyclables. And unless the City allows surrounding restaurants to use the G Street alley, that will give a justification for not recycling.