“Look at these birds,” Balistreri said, pointing towards the flocks of sea gulls picking through the heaps of trash. “They’re making a good living off of trash. They’re getting fat here.” The sea gulls, which were flagrantly defying the ABSOLUTELY NO SALVAGING signs posted at the dump, filled their bellies until they could hardly fly, then they waddled off to a quiet hillside to rest.
Balistreri strongly identifies with sea gulls — the totem bird of trashmen. He admires their resourcefulness, their appreciation for what few people appreciate, and, like them, he sees a way to get fat off of trash. “Most people look at a dump and go, ‘Aaghh! It smells,’ ” he said. “Well, you show me a dump, and I don’t see trash. I see cash.”
Jerry Balistreri didn’t grow up hoping he’d be a big trash tycoon someday. But he has been an entrepreneur for all of his adult life.
He’s thirty-seven now, and he owned his first business, a sandwich shop, when he was just nineteen. Over the years, he’s owned Laundromats, restaurants, a grocery store, apartment buildings, a share in a card room, and a couple of bars. “The trouble with the bar business,” he said, “is that you can’t own a bar in the State of California if you have a vowel at the end of your name — which pretty much eliminates Italians.” He once owned the Crystal Inn, a bar on University Avenue, where he says he was hounded relentlessly by the Alcoholic Beverage Control agents. That bar closed in 1984 after being raided by the San Diego city police. Balistreri claims the police told his landlord he was involved in organized crime and that he headed a drug ring. After raiding the bar and causing several thousand dollars’ worth of damages, the police found three ounces of marijuana on one customer. Balistreri eventually sued his landlord and won a settlement for $55,000 in 1986. but he decided it was time to get out of the bar business.
Balistreri also owned a jewelry store for several years but came to realize “it took a bundle of money to make it in that business. So I started racking my brain trying to figure out what commodity I could get into that didn’t require a lot of capital. I remembered what my grandfather told me about trash, and I realized that not only was trash the only commodity that was free, but people would actually pax to get rid of it.”
Balistreri’s first venture into the trash business was a chain of newspaper recycling boxes. The only investment was the plywood it took to make one hundred boxes, plus the time it took to empty them. Balistreri drove the route every morning, picking up the newspapers, which he then sold for pulp. It was a good business, he recalls, but a lot of other people thought so too, and within a few months, the entire city was saturated with the now-familiar plywood boxes with the curious stenciled invitation: “Recycled Newspapers — Help.” He might have survived legitimate competition, but he says what finally put him out of the newspaper recycling business was what are known in the trade as “pirates,” people who make their living by going around emptying newspaper collection boxes that they don’t own.
Balistreri then went to work for Industrial Waste of San Diego, a trash disposal company, where he was a recycling adviser. “I’d go to big companies like Convair and General Dynamics, get an appointment with their servicing agent, and say, ‘Look, I can save you a lot of money by showing you how to recycle some of the things you’re throwing away now.’ It’s really unbelievable the things corporations throw away and the amount of money they could save if they just source-separated — separated their recyclables on site.”
Most people are aware, for example, that recycled aluminum and newspapers have a monetary value: aluminum is worth thirty cents a pound, and newspapers bring between forty and fifty dollars a ton. But many people aren’t aware that many other materials are even more valuable. Recycled computer paper, for example, is worth $170 a ton, cardboard is worth eighty dollars a ton. Glass is worth sixty dollars a ton — except for window glass, which has too much lead content to be used for food containers. Film plastic — trash bags, grocery bags — is worth eighty dollars a ton. “Even old clothes are worth something to the rag man,” Balistreri said. “Five cents a pound for colored, and twenty cents a pound for white.”
When asked what else in San Diego’s garbage has value, Balistreri passionately replied, “Everything has value! Everything is worth something! But what a recycler has to consider is if it’s cost-effective to separate an item. Take white paper. I can sell that for $7.50 a ton. But can a person move a ton of white paper in an hour? No.”
Eventually Balistreri formed his own recycling company, Wasteliner. His primary customer was the Foodmaker Corporation, the owners of Jack in the Box. Wasteliner provided all the Jack in the Box restaurants in the San Diego area with a trash pickup service. The trash was hauled to a site on Adams Avenue — a small lot behind a dilapidated residence — where Balistreri’s employees waded through the waist-deep heaps of trash, hand sorting the items that were recyclable. “We were able to cut Foodmaker’s trash pickup bill by about forty percent, plus, every month we returned to them about a thousand food trays which had been thrown out with the trash.”
Wasteliner used non-compacting trash trucks to haul the Jack in the Box trash because compacting trucks not only break recyclable bottles, but they mix paper with wet garbage, which makes the paper unsellable. Wasteliner also provided its customers with a wire-mesh bin and a (recyclable) plastic liner, which eliminated the odor problem at restaurant dumpsters.
Balistreri has fond memories of the Jack in the Box trash. “They have really beautiful trash,” he said. “It’s about fifty percent cardboard, about twenty percent white paper, and a little aluminum. I loved their trash. I could make money with their trash.” Not only was he making money, he was taking a business that is often cited as the worst example of waste in the packaging of consumer goods — the fast-food business — and by recycling seventy to eighty percent of the restaurants' trash, turning them into a recycling model for other businesses.