Striking back at recycling thieves in New York City
by Irwin Rapoport
Thieves stealing recyclables in New York City (NYC) are
concentrating their efforts on the theft of metal and
paper in the residential and commercial sectors.
However, the City’s Department of Sanitation’s police
force is fighting back and has been armed with some powerful
legislation in the form of stiff fines and the ability
to seize vehicles used by criminals.
In June, the police impounded 28 vehicles involved in
the theft of recyclables in all five boroughs, including
12 in Brooklyn, 7 in Manhattan, 5 in the Bronx and 4
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in October 2007, signed Local
Law No. 50.
Among its provisions, the Law imposed stiff sanctions
against persons operating a motor vehicle who unlawfully
remove or transport recyclables placed at residential
or commercial curbsides, and from premises occupied by
city agencies and institutions that receive Department
Civil fines were increased from $100 to $2,000 for a
first time offender and $5,000 for second and repeat
offenders within a twelve-month period.
The Department of Sanitation’s New York (DSNY) police
force, composed of uniformed and plainclothes police
officers (about 80 personnel), patrol areas where large
amounts of curbside recyclables are being removed unlawfully.
For its residential recyclables collection, the DSNY
employs its own trucks and uniformed personnel. Private
companies handle the commercial and institutional sectors.
However, all recyclables end up in private transfer stations
“The thefts are pretty prevalent,” says Inspector Robert
D’Angelo, Enforcement. “We can keep track of how many
recyclables are missing – each district does that.”
D’Angelo noted that many of the thieves come from North
Carolina and Pennsylvania, based on the information from
While thefts have been a problem in the past, the rising
value of recyclables has led to thefts increasing over
the past few years, especially as scrap metal prices
and demand for them continue to remain high.
The thefts affect the city’s contracts with private contractors.
“We are required, based on projected volume,” says Matthew
Lipani, the DSNY’s Assistant Director, Public Information
office, “to send a certain amount of tonnage to these
Paper thefts appear to be organized, based on arrests.
“They seem to be connected to the same people,” says
D’Angelo. “We get family members – brothers, cousins
and people with similar names. Since October 2007, we
recovered 54,000 pounds of paper.”
The theft of metal appears to be the acts of individuals.
Among stoves and other household appliances, refrigerators
and air-conditioners are hot items. Prior to collection
of refrigerators and air-conditioners, residents are
asked to place these items on the curb. The next step
has DSNY personnel from its CFC removal unit remove the
CFCs to meet environmental standards. This is a free
service and when the CFCs are removed, a tag is placed
on the item that allows recycling collection staff to
take them, along with other metal items.
“Our problem is the release of Freon into the air,” says
D’Angelo. “It causes an environmental problem and a manpower
problem in terms of the people we send to remove the
CFCs and to collect the appliances. Forty-eight percent
of our 311 pickup notifications for refrigerators and
air-conditioners are missing when our units go out to
pick them up.”
The thieves, in box trucks and vans, patrol the streets
and quickly grab the paper and appliances.
“The paper goes phenomenally fast – you have to see it,”
says D’Angelo. “The metal is a little slower because
it is a little harder, heavier and dangerous in the loading.
They can chuck an air-conditioner or refrigerator in
The arrests are having an effect as word-of-mouth is
spreading about the cost of being caught.
“Paper thefts have been dormant for about four months
since we started hitting hard, but it has started to
go up again,” says D’Angelo. “We are now concentrating
more on metal. We are getting an increase in the amount
of impounds. It is a similar problem worldwide. You have
manhole covers, copper and construction material being
Since October 2007, the city has confiscated about 224
vehicles. Those arrested pass through a civil court.
D’Angelo and his officers have also issued nearly 70
notices of violation to owners or operators that were
stealing recyclables in front of commercial premises.
The increased fines are having an effect. “When it was
$100,” says D’Angelo, people would be nice to us, give
us their ID and $100. Now that the fine is $2,000, they
are thinking twice about it, but we are also catching
The DSNY is fully aware that the criminals know the routes
and pick-up times for the recycling collections, information
that is available on its website that informs residents
when they should put out their recyclables.
But this also works in favor of the police, who say that
thefts are presently more prevalent in Brooklyn, the
Bronx and Queens.
“The bait for us is empty vans – mostly older vans with
two people inside,” says D’Angelo. “We have a system.
We follow people around and if we see a van loaded with
metal, we stop them and usually it works out for us.
We set up spots for surveillance situations, based on
the collection lists, and we’ve been successful.”
Residents are urged to contact the DSNY by calling 311
if they see what they believe to be recyclable thefts.
DSNY police do patrol recycling collection routes prior
to the start of collection and their presence has helped
to reduce thefts.
Working with the scrap dealers or transfer stations as
they are known in NYC, is the responsibility of the Business
Integrity Commission (BIC), which has pursued investigations
to see if the people bringing in metal or paper have
the proper conveyance permits. The BIC is responsible
for regulating private waste haulers.
In NYC, there are several types of transfer stations
– non-putrescable stations which handle construction
and demolition debris; fill material stations that handle
dirt, rock and similar materials; putrescable stations
that handle waste consistent with household garbage;
and transfer stations that are regulated by the State
of New York that handle paper and metal.
It was recently reported that 52 DSNY workers were using
their own department’s vehicles to illegally collect
metal recyclables placed at the curb by residents. The
material was then sold to Pine Scrap Metal, Inc.
The DSNY took action from the start.
“Last year,” says Lipani, “the department had suspicions
about Sanitation workers taking bulk metals and selling
it to scrap yards. We forwarded this information to the
NYC Department of Investigation, who just did the investigation.
Just recently, the city’s Conflict of Interest Board
announced that the Sanitation workers involved were suspended
without pay anywhere from 3 to 30 days.”