Learning With: ‘In San Francisco, Making a Living From Your Billionaire Neighbor’s Trash’

Learning With: ‘In San Francisco, Making a Living From Your Billionaire Neighbor’s Trash’

Before reading the article:

Do you ever think about how much you and your family throw away?

What’s in your trash? Could other people still use it? Do you ever feel guilty about tossing it out? Do you ever give away, or donate things, you don’t need?

Americans throw away hundreds of millions of tons of trash each year. The average person produces nearly five pounds of trash each day, while a family creates about 17.4 pounds of trash daily, which adds up to roughly 1,600 pounds per person and 6,000 pounds per family each year.

If you piled all the trash Americans produce in a year, it would reach the moon and back 25 times!

Jake Orta, 56, an Air Force veteran, is one of hundreds of people in San Francisco who earn their living from the garbage other people have thrown out.

First, look at the photographs featured in the article. What can you tell about the life of a full-time trash picker in San Francisco? What story do these photographs tell?

Now, read the article, “In San Francisco, Making a Living From Your Billionaire Neighbor’s Trash,” and answer the following questions:

1. The article begins, “Three blocks from Mark Zuckerberg’s $10 million Tudor home in San Francisco, Jake Orta lives in a small, single-window studio apartment filled with trash.” Why did Thomas Fuller, the author, start with this comparison? What details does he provide in the next two paragraphs to further describe the setting? What kind of picture do they paint?

2. The author writes that “trash scavengers exist in many United States cities and, like the rampant homelessness in San Francisco, are a signpost of the extremes of American capitalism.” What does this statement mean? How does he support this claim?

3. How much does Mr. Orta earn a day from the trash he finds? Describe the circuit he travels each day to find trash. What rules does he follow?

4. Which biographical details about Mr. Orta did you find most interesting? Why has he struggled with homelessness through his adult life?

5. Why does Robert Reed, the spokesman for Recology, the company that collects garbage in San Francisco, say much of the waste in his city is the “trash of convenience”? How is this beneficial to Mr. Orta’s search for valuable garbage?

6. How does Mr. Orta compare to other trash pickers in San Francisco? Why does he see himself as more of a “treasure hunter” than a trash picker?

7. What are some of the most notable items Mr. Orta has found in other people’s garbage. Which does he consider his favorite? Which is the most intriguing to you?

Finally, tell us more about what you think:

— What is your reaction to Mr. Orta’s journey from Air Force member to homeless person to treasure hunter?

— Nick Marzano, an Australian photographer who documents the world of trash pickers in San Francisco, calls the occupation of trash pickers like Mr. Orta “a civic service.” Do you agree?

— What does it say about our society that some live off the items that are discarded by others? Do you agree with the author that it is a “signpost of the extremes of American capitalism”? Do you disagree? Why?

— Does the article make you rethink what and how much you throw away? If yes, how has it changed how you might now handle the items you would normally consider garbage?

— What’s the coolest thing you ever found in the trash? Did you ever wonder how or why it got there? Do you agree with the saying “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure”?

— In 1962, John Steinbeck wrote:

American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash — all of them — surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use. In this, if no other way, we can see the wild and reckless exuberance of our production, and waste seems to be the index.

What do you think of his perspective on American waste? Is it still true? What, if anything, has changed? What does what we throw away say about our society?