SAN FRANCISCO (July 8) - Every Wednesday night, Bruce Johnson
dutifully puts his garbage and recycling on the curb for pickup,
and every week he fumes as small trucks idle in front of his home
and strangers dig through his bins stealing trash they aim to turn
Glass breaks, paper flies - the loot's gone hours before the
waste company even arrives.
"They're like an army out there," said Johnson. "They're in
trucks. They're on cell phones. It's a business."
With prices for aluminum, cardboard and newsprint going up and
an economic slowdown putting added pressure on people's
pocketbooks, curbside refuse has become a hot commodity.
A truck piled high with mixed recyclables can fetch upward of
$1,000; newspapers alone can grab about $600.
"These guys are becoming much more organized and much more
prevalent," said Robert Reed, a spokesman for Norcal Waste Systems
Inc., a garbage and recycling company in San Francisco and other
cities throughout Northern California. "This has nothing to do
with the lone homeless man picking up cans. We're seeing organized
fleets of professional poachers with trucks."
The issue has caught the attention of state and local officials,
who are seeking more stringent regulations to curb theft, saying
lost revenue threatens the financial viability of their recycling
Pilfering cans, bottles and other recyclables from bins is
already illegal in many places, including San Francisco and New
In San Francisco, poachers can be fined up to $500 and get six
months jail time. In New York, thieves are subject to arrest,
vehicle impoundment and fines of up to $5,000.
California lawmakers are also considering legislation that would
make large-scale, anonymous recycling more difficult by forcing
scrap and paper recyclers to require picture identification for
anyone bringing in more than $50 worth of cans, bottles or
newspapers and to pay such individuals with checks rather than
In Westchester County, New York, a proposal would make
large-scale curbside recycling theft punishable by time behind bars
and fines of up to $2,000.
Companies are also taking measures of their own.
Norcal Waste contracted private investigators and installed
surveillance cameras at San Francisco spots frequented by poachers.
The investigators compiled dozens of photographs of old pickup
trucks covered by spray-painted graffiti and piled high with
recyclables allegedly stolen from residents.
The free weekly The East Bay Express, which covers Oakland,
Berkeley and other Bay Area cities, hired an ex-police detective to
stake out thieves and began retrofitting curbside newspaper racks
to make them theft-resistant because thousands of fresh copies go
missing some weeks.
"We don't want to be spending all our energy printing papers
that people take directly to the recyclers," said Hal Brody, the
Mike Costello, vice president of circulation at the free San
Francisco daily, The Examiner, has taken to doing stakeouts of his
In April, Costello followed a man driving around the city,
emptying newspaper racks and loading the stolen papers into a van.
He eventually pulled up alongside him, and told him, "'Stay where
you are. You're in big trouble,"' Costello recalled.
Costello called police and the man unloaded his spoils -
thousands of copies of more than 15 publications, including
multiple newspapers and piles of free San Francisco tourist maps
NorCal Waste Systems estimates that in 2007, more than $469,000
in recyclables were stolen by hundreds of trucks. Officials from
the City of Concord, some 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of San
Francisco, figure they're out $40,000 a year, while the city of
Berkeley values the loss upward of $50,000 annually.
In the last five years, aluminum prices on the London Metal
Exchange have climbed from around 65 cents a pound in 2003 to a
record high of $1.50 a pound in July. Recycled paper and cardboard
prices have also spiked, driven in large part by a burgeoning
recycled paper export market.
"Newsprint is a hot grade," said Mark Arzoumanian, editor in
chief of Official Board Markets, a publication covering the paper
industry. "There is a voracious demand in China and India for
By cargo container load, the United States exports more waste
paper than any other product. Last year, 20 million tons of
recycled paper were shipped from U.S. ports. Approximately 75
percent of that paper goes to China, where it is reprocessed into
shoe boxes, newspapers, cereal boxes, and the assortment of
cardboard packages encasing all the consumer products China
"China just doesn't have a heck of a lot of trees to make paper
with," said Arzoumanian.