At 4:34 a.m. on a recent Monday, hours before sunrise, an elderly Asian couple walks patiently along Stockton Street carrying between them six large bags of recyclable aluminum cans and glass bottles.
When they reach a tree at 1431 Stockton St., by Card Alley, they place the bags on the sidewalk. The woman removes her jacket to cool down. The couple then crosses the street, sits down at a Muni bus shelter and start talking.
They are the first of what will soon be 18 people boarding the new recycling shuttle bus that launched Sept. 29 in response to San Francisco's inadequate number of neighborhood recycling facilities.
These Chinatown residents are up before dawn to get on-board the free shuttle, which takes them on a 30-minute ride to the 20,000-square-foot Our Planet Recycling facility on Bayshore Boulevard in the Bayview, where they sort their loads and collect the California redemption value for cans and bottles.
Five minutes after the elderly couple arrives, an Asian man walks up to the bus stop with two large bags hanging on either end of a stick balancing over his shoulder. He stops at a parking meter to check for any coins left behind. No luck. He drops his load near the couple's, sits down on a nearby step and smokes.
At 4:41 a.m., another man shows up, drops his bags of recyclables and walks to the nearby ATM machines to read a newspaper in the bank's light.
As time ticks on, more people gather. And then at 5:10 a.m., a large yellow school bus pulls into the white zone.
Off hops Our Planet Recycling owner Ors Csaszar, a black baseball cap on his head, gloves on his hands. “Jousahn,” he says to a smiling face. “Jousahn,” the person responds.
It's the only word spoken between Csaszar and the riders — it means “good morning” in Cantonese — and the rest is somehow understood.
Five minutes after the bus pulls up, the seats — which line only one side of the bus so the bags of recyclables can fit as well — are filled. Some people stand for lack of seats and hold on to a metal bar soldered into the bus for this very reason.
“People have figured out where the bus is coming, what is the route, so now they are waving the bus down,” Csaszar told The San Francisco Examiner during this Oct. 20 run. He said he plans to expand the service.
“At the recycling center, I help them to unload [the bags] — this one is a forklift load,” Csaszar said, pointing to the bags of beer bottles he estimated at 50 pounds.
The people who use the bus pay a $3 deposit to be taken to the recycling center, and their bottles and cans are worth the California redemption value of 5 to 10 cents depending on the size of the item. Csaszar then sells the materials on the open market at a price that fluctuates.
Csaszar had wanted to open up a second recycling center in South of Market, but those plans were scrapped due to opposition from area residents — which is not uncommon. A recycling center at Safeway on Market Street in the Castro was evicted in July amid complaints.
When Csaszar first launched the shuttle service, he was making stops near that Safeway until residents complained. He hopes to one day have the bus “go all day long” in areas that won't draw opposition.
By the time the bus reaches the recycling facility, it's 5:45 a.m. Those getting off are greeted by the waning crescent moon rising in the eastern sky. The shuttle heads back out for the 6:15 a.m. run.
The City's recycling redemption centers have been shuttered at various locations in recent years, falling from 35 in 1990 to 13 today, which has made San Francisco one of the worst service areas in the state.
As a result, small businesses are now being saddled with the burden of accepting recyclables. The Market Street facility closure prompted CalRecycle to send notices last month to 114 nearby businesses informing these owners that they have to either start accepting recyclables or pay the $100 opt-out fee per day. They have until mid-November to comply.
“Convenient redemption opportunity is a cornerstone of the state's bottle bill,” CalRecycle spokesman Mark Oldfield said. “However, CalRecycle cannot mandate that a local jurisdiction allow citing of recycling centers, or that private businesses agree to allow for that service on their premises.”