Striking back at recycling thieves in New York City
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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 in Queens.

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 collection service.

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 for processing.

“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 seized vehicles.

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 companies.”

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 1.5 minutes.”

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 stolen.”

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 repeat offenders.”

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.”