Trash to Treasure: Thefts Threaten Government Recycling Programs as Curbside Refuse Becomes Hot Commodity

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Every Wednesday night, Bruce Johnson dutifully puts his garbage and recycling on the curb for pickup, and every week he fumes as small trucks idle in front of his home and strangers dig through his bins stealing trash they aim to turn into treasure.

Glass breaks, paper flies -- the loot's gone hours before the waste company even arrives.

"They're like an army out there," said Johnson. "They're in trucks. They're on cell phones. It's a business."

With prices for aluminum, cardboard and newsprint going up and an economic slowdown putting added pressure on people's pocketbooks, curbside refuse has become a hot commodity.

A truck piled high with mixed recyclables can fetch upward of $1,000; newspapers alone can grab about $600.

"These guys are becoming much more organized and much more prevalent," said Robert Reed, a spokesman for Norcal Waste Systems Inc., a garbage and recycling company in San Francisco and other cities throughout Northern California. "This has nothing to do with the lone homeless man picking up cans. We're seeing organized fleets of professional poachers with trucks."

The issue has caught the attention of state and local officials, who are seeking more stringent regulations to curb theft, saying lost revenue threatens the financial viability of their recycling programs.

Pilfering cans, bottles and other recyclables from bins is already illegal in many places, including San Francisco and New York City.

In San Francisco, poachers can be fined up to $500 and get six months jail time. In New York, thieves are subject to arrest, vehicle impoundment and fines of up to $5,000.

California lawmakers are also considering legislation that would make large-scale, anonymous recycling more difficult by forcing scrap and paper recyclers to require picture identification for anyone bringing in more than $50 worth of cans, bottles or newspapers and to pay such individuals with checks rather than cash.

In Westchester County, N.Y., a proposal would make large-scale curbside recycling theft punishable by time behind bars and fines of up to $2,000.

Companies are also taking measures of their own.

Norcal Waste contracted private investigators and installed surveillance cameras at San Francisco spots frequented by poachers. The investigators compiled dozens of photographs of old pickup trucks covered by spray-painted graffiti and piled high with recyclables allegedly stolen from residents.

The free weekly The East Bay Express, which covers Oakland, Berkeley and other Bay Area cities, hired an ex-police detective to stake out thieves and began retrofitting curbside newspaper racks to make them theft-resistant because thousands of fresh copies go missing some weeks.

"We don't want to be spending all our energy printing papers that people take directly to the recyclers," said Hal Brody, the paper's president.

Mike Costello, vice president of circulation at the free San Francisco daily, The Examiner, has taken to doing stakeouts of his own.

In April, Costello followed a man driving around the city, emptying newspaper racks and loading the stolen papers into a van. He eventually pulled up alongside him, and told him, "'Stay where you are. You're in big trouble,"' Costello recalled.

Costello called police and the man unloaded his spoils -- thousands of copies of more than 15 publications, including multiple newspapers and piles of free San Francisco tourist maps and brochures.

NorCal Waste Systems estimates that in 2007, more than $469,000 in recyclables were stolen by hundreds of trucks. Officials from the City of Concord, some 30 miles east of San Francisco, figure they're out $40,000 a year, while the city of Berkeley values the loss upward of $50,000 annually.

In the last five years, aluminum prices on the London Metal Exchange have climbed from around 65 cents a pound in 2003 to a record high of $1.50 a pound in July. Recycled paper and cardboard prices have also spiked, driven in large part by a burgeoning recycled paper export market.

"Newsprint is a hot grade," said Mark Arzoumanian, editor in chief of Official Board Markets, a publication covering the paper industry. "There is a voracious demand in China and India for recycled paper."

By cargo container load, the United States exports more waste paper than any other product. Last year, 20 million tons of recycled paper were shipped from U.S. ports. Approximately 75 percent of that paper goes to China, where it is reprocessed into shoe boxes, newspapers, cereal boxes, and the assortment of cardboard packages encasing all the consumer products China manufactures.

"China just doesn't have a heck of a lot of trees to make paper with," said Arzoumanian.

Homeless advocates worry that a crackdown on recycling could hurt the very poor, who rely on the meager earnings drummed up by turning over bottles and cans for refund values of between 5 cents and 10 cents per container.

In a survey conducted in 2000 by the nonprofit advocacy group Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, 75 percent of homeless people in Los Angeles said they depended on income from recycling.

The group is supporting California's pending Senate bill, but only because it is aimed specifically at large-scale recycling thieves.

After all, a single homeless person with a shopping cart and plastic bag cannot compete with multiple people in trucks bent on collecting every bottle, can and newspaper, said executive director Bob Erlenbusch.

"I don't have any problem going after the big time guys in trucks, so long as the homeless get left alone," he said.