Bin Caught Stealin'

New York City takes aim at recycling theft.

New york city is looking to crack down on recyclable thieves who are cutting into the city's diversion rate and recycling revenue. City officials say they have had a problem with thieves riding around in unmarked, out-of-state vans on the nights before collections and stealing the paper and other recyclables set out for curbside pick-up. The problem, officials say, was that the penalties for scavengers caught stealing the city's recyclables weren't stiff enough.

In October, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a bill increasing the fine for a first offense to $2,000 and $5,000 for each subsequent offense. Previously, the fines had been as low as $25. John Doherty, commissioner of the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY), says his department worked closely with the city council to develop legislation that would put teeth back into the law and help stop this growing problem. “We have a very good relationship with the city council,” he says. “[The new law] had a lot of support.” Before being signed by Bloomberg, it received a unanimous city council vote of 51-0.

New York's size, population and layout make it difficult to prevent thefts and enforce regulations, Doherty says. “Basically, when you have high-rise apartments and buildings where you generate a lot of paper and it's out at the curb, it's an easy target for people who want to take it and sell it,” he adds. The stolen paper could be sold for at least $65 per ton. Doherty and other officials say the problem needed to be addressed because it would inevitably become more prevalent as the price for paper increased.

Curbside recycling reports for January, February and March of 2007 show the recycling rates in Manhattan have dropped nearly 2 percent each month. According to the city council, the decrease in Manhattan alone equates to a loss of 15,000 tons of paper each year, which means a loss of at least $150,000 in city revenue. Doherty says the city-wide curbside recycling rate is currently 16 percent, and that it too has been slipping in recent years since reaching a high of 20 percent.

“This legislation is particularly important at a time when profit from recyclables is at an all-time high and tonnage collection has fallen by up to 25 percent in some areas due to organized stealing of this resource, which is meant to generate money for the city,” said Michael McMahon, sanitation committee chair for the city, in a press release. In addition to increasing the fines, Doherty says impounding the thieves' vehicles has been a tremendous deterrent. The city had a problem with people disappearing after receiving a citation or summons due to the fact they were driving vans with out-of-state plates. This meant the chances of catching up with them later were slim to none.

“Taking their vehicle until they put up bond, which is usually enough to cover the fine, really puts teeth in [the law],” he says. “We learned that years ago with illegal dumping. Once we started taking their truck, that really slowed them down. “The city council and DSNY agreed that the new law wouldn't apply to the homeless and college students who randomly take things that have been put out for curbside pick up.

Increasing the diversion and recycling rates remains a challenging yet financially promising task for the city, but almost equally important is accurately gauging the amounts of recyclables the city collects. Deterring thefts would allow the city to more efficiently determine the number of trucks and workers needed for recycling collection routes, Doherty says, which helps the city avoid over-allocating resources to such services. Enforcing the new law effectively is crucial to success of the city's recycling efforts, he says. “You've got to stay after people,” he adds.