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[GreenYes] Hot Items for Thieves: Recyclables - NYT 10/15/2007


Hot Items for Thieves: Recyclables


Published: October 15, 2007


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.

But the 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.

“While 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.

The 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 July.

In parts 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.

Scrap 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.

That 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, Vietnam, India and other developing nations where demand for recyclables has soared.

“There 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.

The city 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.”

But 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.

“They’ve 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.

For the 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 paper.

The city 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.

Lieutenant Lois encountered Mr. Bosque about 5 p.m. 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.

Several blocks in the East 70s were selected because the city was to pick up recyclables the next morning.

Mr. 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.

The van was packed with metal — a hot water tank, a stove and pipes. It was enough for Lieutenant Lois to act.

Speaking 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 fabricating shop.

When 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.

“From 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.




Justin Lehrer

Program Manager



1537 Webster Street

Oakland, CA 94612

(510) 891-6500    (510) 893-2308 fax





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