The San Francisco Sweatshop

Several companies have been discovered to have benefited from what is in effect slave labor in certain countries.  I have never had a problem with folks in poor countries freely opting to take jobs at factories for less money than our privileged middle class attitudes think to be "fair."  But there have been examples of governments using their coercive power in a cozy relationship with certain companies, forcing people to provide their labor to companies for wages below what they would freely accept.   It is an obscene form of modern slavery.

Today's example, though, does not come from Myanmar or China, but from San Francisco, California, USA, where the government is forcing its citizens to work for free to benefit itself and a few favored corporations to produce products for export.

The resale of recycled materials is apparently big business for a few government contractors:

"When we look at garbage, we don't see garbage, O.K.?" said Robert
Reed, a spokesman for Norcal Waste Systems, the parent company of
Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling Company, the
main garbage collectors in the city. "We see food, we see paper, we see
metal, we see glass."...

Jared Blumenfeld, the director of the city's environmental programs,
addressed one of the main reasons the city keeps up the pressure to
recycle. "The No. 1 export for the West Coast of the United States is
scrap paper," Mr. Blumenfeld said, explaining that the paper is sent to
China and returns as packaging that holds the sneakers, electronics and
toys sold in big-box stores.

This "No. 1 export product" is wholly a product of major government subsidies.  Reading the article, you get a sense for the enormous amount of extra capital and operating expenses the city pours into the recycling program.  Here is just one example:

San Francisco can charge more for its scrap paper, he said, because of
its low levels of glass contamination. That is because about 15 percent
of the city's 1,200 garbage trucks have two compartments, one for
recyclables. That side has a compactor that can compress mixed loads of
paper, cans and bottles without breaking the bottles. (These specially
designed trucks, which run on biodiesel, cost about $300,000 apiece, at
least $25,000 more than a standard truck, said Benny Anselmo, who
manages the fleet for Norcal.)

Anyone really think they are making enough extra money on scrap paper to cover this (at least) $4.5 million incremental investment  ($25k x 15% x 1200)?   Suspiciously absent from the article is any mention of costs or budgets.  City recycling guys have given up trying to defend recycling on the basis of it being cheaper than just burying the material.  The city is subsidizing this material a lot.

But it's not enough.  Even with these enormous subsidies, the city is not producing as much recycled materials to meet its goals.  So it is going to make its citizenry provide it more labor.  For free.

...the city wants more.

So Mr. Newsom will soon be sending the
city's Board of Supervisors a proposal that would make the recycling of
cans, bottles, paper, yard waste and food scraps mandatory instead of
voluntary, on the pain of having garbage pickups suspended.

The city is going to coerce every single resident to labor for them each week, just so San Francisco and Norcal Waste Systems can have more scrap paper for export.  This is a labor tax of immense proportions.  I know, whenever I make this point about recycling, everyone wants to poo-poo it.  "Oh, its not much time, really."  Really?  Lets use the following numbers:  Five minutes per day of labor.  One million residents.  $20 per hour labor value (low in San Francisco).  That is $608 million if forced labor.  I'm not sure even Nike has been accused of using this much forced labor.

Anticipated Rejoinder: Yeah, I know, the response will be "It's not for the exports, it's to save the environment."  OK, here is my counter:

  1. Nowhere in the article does it really say how this program, or going from 70 to 75% recycling, is specifically going to help the environment.  I took the article at its face value, where it justifies the program on the basis of exports and hitting an arbitrary numerical target and beating out San Jose.  I am tired of unthinking acceptance of recycling as a net benefit.  Every study has shown that aluminum recycling creates a net energy benefit, but every other material represents a net loss.  It makes us feel good, though, I guess.
  2. Should proponents support the direct subsidy by government and the labor tax, there is still some burden to show that this is the best possible environmental use of 30 million San Francisco man-hours of coerced labor in the course of a year.
  3. For those really worked up about CO2, explain to me why we shouldn't bury every scrap of waste paper as a carbon sink.
  4. The last time I visited, San Francisco was one of the grubbier US cities I have seen of late, with trash everywhere on the streets and sidewalks.  It may just have been a bad data point, but are residents really happy the city trash department focusing on scrap paper pricing yield rather than picking up the trash?
  5. I class battery and motor oil recycling programs differently.  These substances have unique disposal needs and high costs of incorrect disposal.
  • bill-tb

    Around here a few months back, the city was caught burying the 'recycled plastics' at the city dump. What bin do you put the CFLs in?

    I agree with the oil and battery stuff, anything that needs special processing, the rest is mostly nonsense. If the waste stream were valuable, the free market would have companies standing in line to do the work.

  • morganovich

    i live in SF. by local standards, this barely even registers on the stupidometer.

    ask about their policies to cut down alcoholism by causing corner stores to shut down or mandating what "adult beverages" they can sell. ask about no new liquor licenses in the fastest growing part of town (SOMA) out of fear that out of towners will come and get drunk on weekends or, god forbid, someone should open a restaurants. current pricing for a liquor license for a new restaurant is over six figures. ask about the ludicrous health care insurance requirements now jacking up prices at restaurants and small businesses all over town. don't even get me started on the rent control or the fact that our DA refuses to prosecute auto break ins even if someone witnesses it.

    loads of san franciscans are excited about this idea as they mistake "tyranny of the other side" and "green fascism" for "doing the right thing".

    it's a beautiful city with lots to recommend it. but the rapidly swelling paternalism of the government here is badly out of control. ironically, the "grubbiest" parts of town are clustered around the government offices. coincidence?

  • Stew

    They did the same sort of thing in Oregon. The city couldn't make the sales and export of recyclables’ greater than the cost of recycling. Instead of force labor though, the just taxed the citizens to break even plus a little. On a side note, I am a chemical engineer and one of my classmates did a design project for an efficient plastic recycler that sorts plastics by type and grinds and refines them; they must have searched numerous economic scenarios, none of which came even remotely close to breaking even.

  • Neo-Libertarian

    Good point. I responded to you in depth on my blog here:

    SF is beautiful but the people can grate on me.

  • vanderleun

    "SF is beautiful but the people can grate on me."

    That's why the neutron bomb was born.

  • Larry Gilman

    You write, "I am tired of unthinking acceptance of recycling as a net benefit. Every study has shown that aluminum recycling creates a net energy benefit, but every other material represents a net loss."

    And I am tired of ultra-selective eco-contrarian pseudo-thinking. You write, "Every study has shown that . . . every other material [besides aluminum] represents a net [energy] loss" in recycling. You’re wrong. Re. glass and plastic, I do not make any claim about "every study," but at least one detailed case study published in a peer-reviewed journal has found that glass and plastic recycling can be energy savers, especially at high recycling rates: see "Analysis of energy footprints associated with recycling of glass and plastic -- case studies for industrial ecology," V. Krivstov et al., Ecological Modelling 174 (2004): 175-189. As for paper, the US Government’s Energy Information Administration says, "So does paper recycling save energy? Yes it does, although the energy savings are not as spectacular as they are with aluminum and steel recycling" (hey, you forgot steel), adding that making a ton of paper from recycled rather than virgin fibers saves 7000 gal of water, 4000 kWh of electricity, and 60 lb of air pollutants ( I’m sure these figures are disputable, that various studies can be used to support various claims about energy balance, but your claim that "every study" shows that only aluminum recycling is an energy saver is pure, flat-out biogas.

    You write, "For those really worked up about CO2, explain to me why we shouldn't bury every scrap of waste paper as a carbon sink."

    This is probably like trying to teach a pig to whistle -- it only wastes your time and annoys the pig -- but since I agree with the large majority of the world’s climate scientists in being "really worked up about CO2," here’s part of your answer: Because the carbon in buried paper doesn't necessarily stay buried. Landfilled paper decays anerobically to produce methane, a greenhouse gas, and landfill methane is the largest source of U.S. anthropogenic methane emissions ( So raising trees, which get their carbon from CO2, and then burying that carbon to be transformed into methane potentially multiplies the greenhouse efficacy of that carbon by a factor of up to 20 (which is how much radiative forcing each molecule of methane produces compared to each molecule of CO2). Plus, if recycling paper saves energy, as the US government says it does, that is a greenhouse savings even apart from the question of landfill methane.

    As for whether SF's recycling program is a dollar-draining socialist boondoggle or not, here's what _MSW [Municipal Solid Waste] Management, the Journal for Municipal Solid Waste Professionals_, says (

    " . . . San Francisco could benefit economically over the long-term through the marketing of collected materials, depending on what the markets have in store. Furthermore, the cost per ton for the compost and recycling collection is less than it is for trash. Indeed, although the program cost an estimated $100 million in infrastructure, monthly waste disposal costs in San Francisco are still considerably lower than the Bay Area average for residential consumers. . . . Avoiding landfill disposal is economically important, as significant costs are associated with purchasing additional landfill space or property, siting and permitting, and construction of a new landfill in the Bay Area. Thanks to the city’s innovations, these costs will be significantly delayed."

    Hey, sure, maybe it's all lies and B.S. But it'd take more than your hasty, ill-informed bluster to make me think so.

  • morganovich

    not to burst your bubble after so fine a rant larry, but the krivstov piece you cite is just a model. it lacks empirical results and testing. i can write up a model with reasonable seeming assumptions that predicts all sorts of things. it won't make it fact.

    a model is not a study. it's a model. read the abstract. ironic that you accuse others of bluster using hot air as evidence.

    if you can find a real world example of such a program working, THAT would be evidence. but models just don't cut it. i'm not even going to go into your pointing to a kid's page that has no actual data on it. you need to bring some facts to this discussion if you are looking to convince anyone.

    i suspect that if you look at them, you will realize that most of the "science" behind your CO2 fears falls into the same camp. even according to the IPCC, the majority of warming from CO2 comes from posited positive feedback from other factors (see of which they admit to having a "very low" level of understanding and that has a nasty habit of being contradicted every time it is empirically tested. (see spencer's recent work with water vapor and clouds with the NASA AQUA satellite.) see this piece for a description of IPCC feedback assumptions and a great chart about halfway in showing how each successive draft of the IPCC document shows less warming from CO2 and makes more aggressive feedback assumptions.

  • Scott

    Larry, interesting post. Like Coyote I'd only read things that said Aluminum (& Steel, you're correct) were the only things it made sense to recycle. But, I checked on the links you included, and I'm surprised. On the landfill page, it says municipal landfills have to collect and burn the methane emitted, so it turns to CO2. This contradicts your point on worsening Greenhouse from CH4. On the energy savings from paper page, it says, "A paper mill uses 40 percent less energy to make paper from recycled paper than it does to make paper from fresh lumber. However, a recycling mill may consume more fossil fuels than a paper mill. Paper mills generate much of their energy from waste wood, but recycling mills purchase most of their energy from local power companies or use on-site cogeneration facilities." If I read that right, fresh paper uses carbon neutral wood fuel and recycled paper uses fossil fuel. Not sure then how recycling is a plus for atmospheric CO2 unless the power comes from wood or nuclear or hydro. Seems worse. Anyway, thanks for the contribution. I am a pig that'd love to learn how to whistle.

  • Sam

    Abercrombie and Fitch, Hollister, MCDONALDS and many others have sweatshops! Reebok, Nike, Old navy, Walmart, Target, banana republic, Old navy and MANY OTHERS

  • bob r

    Re: steel. I wouldn't be surprised if small scale steel recycling (i.e., consumer level) was not a net energy benefit. Remember to add in the _all_ of the labor and energy costs associated with collecting the small bits -- not just the refining costs.

    At the industrial level steel recycling easily makes sense: car bodies, building components, manufacturing scrap, etc. At the industrial level plastic and glass recycling also probably make sense; the old economy of scale thing. At the individual consumer level, not so much. If it did make sense "they" wouldn't have to use the force of law to make us do it.