One Man’s Trash is Another’s Treasure

One Man’s Trash is Another’s Treasure Via UCLA La Gente Newsmagazine Winter 2012 Issue (page 16)

“Going green” is for many Californians a way of life, but for Juan Lorenzo, it is his way to make a living. For the past four years, the 34-year-old undocumented Guatemalan native has come to Westwood every day for 10 to 12 hour shifts. He searches for aluminum cans, plastic water bottles, and glass containers from other people’s trash. Sometimes he works from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. or from 4 p.m. to 3 a.m., or simply until there are no recyclables left to sort. He goes around the perimeter of Veteran, Gayley, Kelton and Landfair “porque (las botellas son) más accesibles [because the bottles are more accessible].” “No he tenido problemas porque saben que es mi trabajo…me tienen confianza. Hasta me las tienen (las botellas) guardadas [I haven’t had prob-
lems because they know it is my job, they have faith in me. They even have the bottles saved for me],” said Juan, referencing UCLA students who live around campus.

According to the 1988 case California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35, there is no harm in recy-
cling through others’ trash bins if it is on the curb since it is considered public property. However, it is prohibited on private property. Juan is conscious of this, but sees it in a different light, “Pues reciclo porque número uno, de ahí vivo [I recycle because first of all it is how I make a living].” It is his source of income to support himself, his wife and his two sons, as well as to send money to his family in Guatemala. He is the only one in his family in the states. “Número dos, ahorramos para la ciudad, para usarlos nuevamente [secondly, it helps the city to save and reuse it again],” said Juan.

But he is not alone. There are ten other men who also recycle for a living. They work with each other instead of competing, tied with the common motive of survival. Juan makes about $200 for a full truckload of recyclables, earning a yearly income of $33,500.

Recycling is not a stable job. Since Juan depends on UCLA students to obtain recyclables, he is aware of the school schedule and makes sure to save money for the expected school breaks. He searches for jobs during breaks between quarters, “E buscado trabajo en restuarantes…y en costura, pero no me dan trabajo porque están llenos [I have looked for work in restaurants and tailoring, but there is none because it is full].” For a time, he was hired to clean at a McDonald’s for three hours a day. He would make minimum wage of $8 an hour. Lorenzo realized he makes more money recycling instead of working at a fast-food restaurant.

Like other immigrants, Juan came to the United States for the opportunity to achieve the American Dream, but attaining money was not as easy as he was told. He does not regret coming to the US. The working conditions “es igual como si estuviera en mi país, pero llegué a conocer el mundo un poco mejor [are the same as if I were in my country, but at least I got to know the world a little better].”


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