It was a
case of good news, bad news for Luis Bosque as he parked in front of an Upper
East Side apartment building earlier this month, looked over an
assortment of trash that had been put out for recycling and loaded a steel bed
frame inside his battered white van.
The bad news was Lt. David Lois, a Department of
Sanitation police officer who is part of an aggressive crackdown on what some
officials have called recyclable rustling. Lieutenant Lois was observing Mr.
Bosque from an unmarked patrol car.
good news for Mr. Bosque was that it happened just before Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
signed into law a bill that greatly increased penalties for people who are
caught using vehicles to steal metal, paper or other recyclable material that
is left at a curb. Instead of the $100 ticket he received from Lieutenant Lois,
Mr. Bosque could now be fined at least $2,000 and could have his van impounded.
the theft of recyclables may seem like a harmless offense, this activity
seriously damages the city’s recycling program,” Mr. Bloomberg said
when he signed the law on Tuesday. With each theft, the city loses income from
the sale of its own recyclables.
Todd Kuznitz, director of enforcement for the Sanitation
Department, said the old law was not enough of a deterrent. “Most of
these guys will take a $100 summons, go around the corner and make another
stop,” he said.
problem, sanitation officials said, was reflected in a steep decline in the
amount of recyclables that were picked up from some of the city’s
wealthiest and most densely populated blocks in a 12-month period that ended in
of the Upper East Side, the officials said, the tonnage of bundled paper that
was collected plunged 25 percent — compared with 2 percent citywide
— and not because residents discarded less of it or became less
responsible about separating recyclables from their other trash. Instead, a lucrative
underground market has emerged.
metal, like the bed frame taken by Mr. Bosque, can be sold for up to $250 a
ton, five times the price of a decade ago, according to a widely recognized
index of commodity prices published by Waste News, a trade publication. Bundled
paper or cardboard, the most commonly stolen of New
York’s recyclables, can bring in $90 to $120 a
ton, more than double what the city receives under long-term contracts with its
own brokers and processors.
means someone can quickly fill a van in Manhattan,
drive to Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx,
and sell the loot to one of several brokers. After that, most of the paper and
metal ends up in China,
and other developing nations where demand for recyclables has soared.
has always been a fair amount of scavenging in the U.S.,
but the increase in demand from abroad has been dramatic,” said Ted Siegler, an economist and consultant based in Vermont
who has analyzed recycling around the world.
He said a
piece of scrap metal taken from a Manhattan
curb might end up in a steel mill furnace in Asia.
Mr. Siegler said the theft of recyclables had been increasing
across the country, with thieves even plucking steel manhole covers from
streets. But Manhattan
is a special case. “It has so much sitting on the curb in a congested
area, and nobody has to go far to find a broker,” he said.
insists that it is going after only large operators who use vehicles and not
the poor or homeless who are a familiar sight picking through people’s
garbage for cans, bottles and anything else of value. “Technically, that
is illegal, too,” said Mr. Kuznitz, “but
morally, we don’t go after those people.”
filling vans with paper and scrap metal can be back-breaking work and,
apparently, not very lucrative either. Lieutenant Lois said many scavengers,
like Mr. Bosque, speak little or no English, drive
into Manhattan in
run-down vans from out of state and are usually struggling to make ends meet.
got to pick up tons to make any money at all, and people have to make a
living,” said a superintendent on East
92nd Street, who identified himself only as Harry,
and said he had frequently seen men with vans picking up recyclables. “I
don’t have a problem.”
Mr. Kuznitz said the Sanitation Department was contacted in
late 2006 by Upper East Side residents who
complained about people making off with paper from their recycling and said
they feared identity theft. Garbage truck drivers were told to keep track of the
locations where pilfering was happening and how much was being taken.
city, the theft of recyclables means lost income. Under its contracts, the
Department of Sanitation is paid $10 to $30 a ton for paper and about $190 a
ton for metal. The thieves pose a particularly vexing problem, officials said,
because they pick out the most sought-after trash — clean, neatly bundled
cardboard, or heavy pieces of metal — thereby
removing the crème de la crème from the city’s mix.
Mr. Kuznitz said the crackdown began this year, with 128
summonses issued since January, 63 of them during a blitz in July. He said that
most of the summonses had been issued for stealing paper, mainly on the Upper
East Side, and that the department’s investigation had found that a paper
processing firm in Brooklyn, Chambers Paper Fiber, which has a plant under the
Manhattan Bridge, had helped coordinate the van pickups and had bought the
has not charged Chambers with any violations. But under the new law, brokers
and processors who buy stolen recyclables can also be held liable, with fines
of up to $5,000 for repeat offenders. A man who answered the phone last week at
Chambers said no one was available to comment.
Lois encountered Mr. Bosque about on Oct. 4 in front of an apartment building on East
70th Street near Second
Avenue. One of 74 sanitation police officers who
are armed and authorized to make arrests, Lieutenant Lois was accompanied by
another officer, Peter Melendez, in the front seat of an unmarked car. A
reporter and a photographer were sitting in the back.
blocks in the East 70s were selected because the city was to pick up
recyclables the next morning.
Bosque was spotted as he pulled over in his van, which bore Pennsylvania
license plates. When he opened the back doors — now only a few feet away
and in full view of the officers — it was obvious that the bed frame
would not be his only cargo.
was packed with metal — a hot water tank, a stove and pipes. It was
enough for Lieutenant Lois to act.
in Spanish, Mr. Bosque told Lieutenant Lois that he lived in Philadelphia
and traveled to New York every
week to work for a Queens metal
Lieutenant Lois asked him where the metal had come from, Mr. Bosque, appearing
unfazed, said he received everything but the bed frame from the Queens
shop. He had noticed the bed frame on East 70th Street
and intended to use it in his home.
my experience, I’d guess he has been working the neighborhood,”
Lieutenant Lois said. He wrote a single ticket for a $100 fine, which Mr.
Bosque accepted without protest.