California deals with increased recycling thefts
Many cities in California, as well as those in other
states, are experiencing serious thefts of recyclables,
primarily aluminum cans and other containers.
This has led to considerations of updating existing municipal
laws and the introduction of new legislation.
Thefts affect the income of private contractors that
provide recycling collection services. Should these thefts
continue at the current level or increase, it could affect
the viability of some recycling programs. Cities are
also experiencing financial losses.
“Professional poachers, rings of recycling thieves operating
fleets of pickup trucks — crudely modified to carry big
loads — are stealing from residential recycling bins
in many cities,” said Robert Reed, a spokesman for the
San Francisco-based Sunset Scavenger Company.
“The problem has increased significantly in the last
two years,” he adds. “It is an illegal underground economy.
Residents report the poachers are increasingly aggressive.
These professional poaching rings operate outside the
law. Many have fleets of ten trucks or more. They sweep
through residential neighborhoods the night before scheduled
collection service and steal bottles and cans. Residents
report poachers create noise and litter and even trespass.”
The company is requesting that San Francisco (SF) allocate
more police resources to solve the problem.
Thousands of SF residents have filed complaints about
groups of poachers stealing material from their recycling
carts. One SF resident said that a recycling thief assaulted
her after she asked the poacher not to take her recyclables.
Based on declines in containers collected in the curbside
recycling program, it is estimated that theft is costing
the city at least $469,000 (loss for 2007) a year, above
“Less material collected in municipal recycling programs
means less revenue from selling recyclables to manufacturing
facilities to help fund local recycling programs and
to help offset increases in monthly garbage bills charged
to customers,” said Reed. “Ratepayers inherit the cost
of recycling theft. In the past few months, several poacher
trucks overloaded with bottles taken from recycling carts
in San Francisco have crashed on area highways, including
at the foot of the Bay Bridge, spewing broken glass and
snarling traffic for hours.”
Financial costs are also mounting for the city’s recycling
service providers. Thieves cut locked recycling containers
with bolt cutters, damage others with crowbars and even
steal the recycling carts. Sunset Scavenger Company and
Golden Gate Disposal & Recycling (SF’s local garbage
and recycling companies) have replaced thousands of stolen
carts in the past year.
Norcal Waste Systems, Inc., the parent company for both
companies, is taking measures to reduce thefts, including
hiring private investigators and installing surveillance
Daily and community newspapers in SF and the Bay Area
are also concerned and have taken their own measures
due to thefts of copies of their publications at distribution
The increased pricing for newsprint and cardboard is
spurring the thefts. In 2007, California Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger signed a bill that prohibits people from
taking more than 25 copies of a free publication. A maximum
fine for a first offense is $250.
Stealing bottles and cans is illegal in SF, NYC and many
other cities. Thieves caught and convicted in SF face
fines of up to $500 and could serve up to 6 months in
Reed referred to the relationship between thieves and
scrap yards, noting that pictures of poachers’ trucks
were taken at scrap yards that purchase large quantities
of bottles, cans and paper stolen from recycling carts.
“The scrap yards open early just to buy recyclables from
professional poachers,” he said. “They do not ask questions
and pay in cash.”
Concord, a city outside of SF, estimates that thefts
cost it $40,000 annually, while Berkeley believes it
costs them $50,000 plus annually.
Joe Garbarino, chairman of the board of Marin Sanitary
Service (MSS), a garbage and recycling company that serves
approximately 200,000 people in Marin County (SF Bay
Area), as well as an MRF – Marin Resource Recovery, is
frustrated by thefts and is demanding that city and county
officials take action against the thieves and not pay
lip service to the problem.
He said that his company has exceeded the state’s 50
percent diversion rate (by 2000) by 15 percent since
“Thefts costs us money,” he said, adding that his contract
with the county expires in 2027. “We spend $250,000 per-truck,
pay union wages to collect the solid waste and recyclables
and these thieves arrive ahead of us at night and steal
the materials. It’s unreal. When I come to work in the
morning, there is a line-up of trucks coming in to sell
the bottles and cans that they stole last night. Unfortunately,
you can’t prove anything when they come in. You have
to catch them when they are doing it.”
Garbarino, who believes that there are 30 pick-up trucks
involved in thefts, said that the county has not made
“They are obviously organized because they know where
to go – they know our routes better than we do,” he said.
“The county needs to put out more police patrols at night.
The District Attorney is also a problem. He won’t prosecute
anybody if it is $500. The individual load may be less
than $500, but when you add it up, it goes into the hundreds
of thousands of dollars.”
Garbarino is seeking support from his industry colleagues
to persuade a State Assembly member or Senator to introduce
a bill that would have the state distribute funds to
municipal police forces and Sheriff’s offices to ensure
that officers would be dedicated to patrol recycling
collection routes to deter thefts and apprehend thieves.
“There is hundreds of millions of dollars in deposit
money that has never been recovered because people put
bottles and cans in recycle bins,” he said. “If we can
tap that money, it can make a difference. We need a lot
of help and if we don’t get any help from the state or
the cities, I am going to have to hire people to keep
an eye out on what people put on the curb for us. I am
afraid that violence may result from that.
“If the thieves know that someone is watching them and
that they will be arrested if caught,” he added, “they’ll
know we are no longer going to stand for this. We need
somebody to sponsor that bill and get it passed quickly.”
Garbarino estimates that his company has lost $90,000
a month for the past 9 months due to thefts.
“It costs me a lot more to send 20 trucks out to pick
up recyclables and come in with very little to sell,”
he said. “It’s also the ratepayers who are losing. I
get paid whether I pick up nothing or what I am supposed
to collect. If local jurisdictions do not reach the diversionage
required by the state, they can be fined $10,000 a day.”
He added that his firm will be asking the county for
increased fees to cover his losses, a request that is
allowed for in his contract.
“If they don’t want to pay us, the only logical thing
to do is cancel the recycling collection program,” said
Garbarino. “I don’t like to put the city on the spot.
I would like for somebody to come up with a solution
The recyclables collected by private contractors in Marin
County belong to the contractors, but the amount of material
collected is credited to the county.
MSS is one of five companies that collect solid waste
and recyclables in Marin County.
Garbarino, who has been involved in the waste management
business since 1955, notes that thieves use beat-up vehicles,
often with wooden sideboards attached to them.
“These people are destroying the program,” he warned.
“They are stealing hundreds of millions throughout the
While California appears to be a hotbed for thefts, stealing
is occurring in El Paso, Texas; Westchester County, New
York which is looking into passing legislation that would
implement $1,000 to $2,000 fines and 90 days in jail;
and Truckee (North Tahoe), Nevada.
Westchester, in 2007, generated close to $5.7 million
from the sale of its recyclables, most notably cans,
along with glass, plastic and cardboard.