The video begins with ominous notes from a piano and an image of crime scene tape. The camera pans to men hunched over garbage pails, sifting for bottles, and a stoop-shouldered woman towing a shopping cart full of cans. Some might feel sympathy for these collectors, but the video makes clear that the New York City Sanitation Department, which made the video and posted it online, wanted them to be seen as something else: common criminals.
“Scavengers are putting the Department of Sanitation’s recycling program at risk, by removing the most valuable recyclables,” a voice-over begins. “Nobody wants to be perceived of as picking on the little guy, but the lone scavenger is now an organized, sophisticated mob of scavenger collectives that systematically removes valuable recyclables,” it continues. “Recycling is the law. Scavenging is a crime. Don’t allow scavenging to steal recycling’s future.”
The moment refuse hits the curb it becomes the city’s property — and the city’s problem. From there, materials like metals, cardboard and plastic are supposed to enter into the vast web of the recycling process, a network of carters and sorters, compactors and remelters. The theft of such items has long been an issue, taking a toll on the city’s curbside recycling, or diversion, rate. The problem has peaked and fallen over the years as prices for commodities have fluctuated.
Even amid ambitious goals for waste reduction and new strategies for recycling established by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the problem of scavenging persists. To some, who carts away cans and paper may seem irrelevant: what is being scavenged is still being recycled, after all. But sanitation officials say that if the city is going to reach its goals, then it must be the one doing the recycling.
“Recycling theft does impact the city’s ability to track our curbside diversion rate,” Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said in a statement. “And, perhaps most importantly, it’s theft — and it’s illegal. The city will continue to crack down on recycling theft as we simultaneously push forward a greener and more sustainable waste management system.”