SEPTEMBER 2008

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.

Poaching rings operate entire fleets of pickup trucks modified to hold larger loads.

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 historic levels.

“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 cameras.

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 points.

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 jail.

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 1996.

“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 any arrests.

“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 to this.”

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 state.”

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.