Gregory Thomas wheeled a shopping cart up Market Street - a collection of empty bottles and cans rattling in large sacks.
“Me and the old lady we go out and pretty much five, six nights a week,” Thomas said. “Collect everything.”
Thomas wheeled his bounty into San Francisco Community Recyclers, the non-profit recycling center that has occupied a corner of a Safeway parking lot near Market and Buchanan since 1987. On a good day, Thomas said he could take home $100.
“It pays the bills, it puts food on the table,” Thomas said.
But since the summer, the center has been fighting an eviction notice from Safeway. In a statement, Safeway listed its reason for the eviction as “to improve the quality of the site, make the customer’s experience better, and in response to the community.”
On Tuesday afternoon, a group of protesters paraded through Safeway’s parking lot, hoisting signs calling for “cans not condos.” Protesters pointed out the recycling center is now flanked by a new Whole Foods, and a high-end condo project under construction.
“We’re seeing as areas get more gentrified and more affluent people moving in,” said Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness, “real estate interests really want to push the presence of poor people out.”
But San Francisco Supervisor Scott Weiner who supports the eviction, said the issue is not gentrification but the center itself.
“The primary concern was some of the behavior that would happen around the center,” Weiner said. “Also, the overwhelming pilfering of recyclables in front of people’s houses.”
The center daily draws lines of people – some pushing carts, others arriving in vans filled with bottles collected from restaurants.
“It’s so convenient for us to recycle within our location,” said Rachael Walker as she carried a bag of plastic bottles gathered from her home. “We recycle ‘cause we feel it’s important for the environment.”
The eviction notice called for the center to be out by last September. The center refused to leave. It’s now being sued by Safeway, leaving the future drifting in legal limbo.
“There’s been a wave of evictions of recycling centers in San Francisco over the last ten months,” said Ed Dunn, executive director of San Francisco Community Recyclers. “And so this is the fifth recycling center to close, or be threatened with closure.”
Among the other closures was the HANC recycling center in the Haight-Ashbury District – also run by Community Recyclers. The site has since been turned into a community garden.
Weiner has suggested the city turn to recycling alternatives, such as reverse vending machines that allow people to cash-in recycled goods for the deposit.
Safeway said it is still exploring recycling alternatives for the site. For now though, the clinking of cans and bottles continues, as people like Thomas convert empty bottles and cans into a meager living.