Fiona Ma for State Assembly
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Battle Brews over Raiders of Recycling Bins

A recycling war is breaking out on the Bay Area's curbsides.

Those ubiquitous, colorful recycling bins people set out each week for pickup stand squarely on a battle line between growing numbers of organized crews who snag cans and bottles and the official waste haulers who say "poachers" are increasingly hostile and dangerous.

Caught in the cross fire are residents. Reports about noise, litter and trespassing have risen so dramatically in the past couple of years that a state lawmaker has written a bill that would make it illegal for recycling centers and salvage yards to buy goods totaling $50 or more without asking for identification and paying by check.

"Ten years ago, you'd see homeless people or a little old grandma going through the garbage and putting cans into a bag to get a couple dollars," said San Francisco Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, who introduced the recycling theft bill. "But now it's more organized, no one is enforcing (theft laws), and it's a way to generate cash."

For those on the economic fringe, however, the recycled goods can bring in needed cash amid a faltering economy, a shortage of jobs and the soaring costs of food, gas and rent. Prices for aluminum run more than $3,700 per ton, glass $210, plastic $180 and cardboard $130, according to Sunset Scavenger, a division of giant Norcal Waste Systems Inc.

Typically, recycling theft works like this: Small groups converge on a neighborhood on the night before the regular weekly trash and recycling pickup. Runners go from bin to bin, gathering glass bottles, plastic and aluminum, which are thrown into a pickup truck - often rickety and modified with tall wooden boards to carry bigger loads. When the truck is filled, the drivers take the cargo to a recycling center or scrap yard.

In some instances, the recycling crews have unwritten agreements with commercial businesses such as restaurants or produce markets to collect their bottles or cardboard.

On Sunday evening near Glen Park's busy main drag, Diamond Street, several groups trolled the streets collecting bottles and cans. In one instance, a man drove a red, graffiti-covered truck while two men walked on opposite sidewalks, gathering bottles and cans from blue bins set out for the next morning's official pickup, and dumped them into the truck.

Though the men didn't knock over the bins or leave other trash in their wake, some San Francisco residents say they know when the recycling bandits are on the march when they see tipped-over cans and litter strewn on the ground and hear clanks of bottles and cans at 3 a.m. One waste company says it has received 20,000 complaints of curbside recycling theft in San Francisco.

Jo Cangelosi's home office sits at the front of her Potrero Hill house with a view of Mississippi Street. The recycling squads have gotten so bad that she puts her recycling out at the very last minute - when she can hear the regular truck rumbling down the road.

"One day, I saw six or seven people going through the trash," she said. "It was ridiculous. They started at 4 o'clock, and they went that night and until the next morning."

Cangelosi, who worries not just about noise and litter but also the potential for identity theft, has gone so far as to confront some of the scavengers.

"Lately, it's gotten a lot more aggressive," she said. "I know it's probably stupid, but I still do it anyway - I go out and tell them not to go through the cans. Some get really angry and yell and cuss or do it anyway." Cangelosi has called the nonemergency police dispatch number but has never received a response; several waste companies contend that recycling theft is a low priority for police because it is considered a minor crime.

Robert Reed, spokesman for Sunset Scavenger, said one customer reported that a man grabbed her wrist, twisted it and pushed her to the ground after she approached and asked them to stop taking the recycling.

Curbing poachers

Recycling theft is illegal. As soon as customers put their beer bottles and soda cans in the recycling bin of the city-authorized firm and take it to the curb, those recyclables becomes the waste company's property. In San Francisco, fines for stealing recyclables run from $20 to $500 and can result in up to six months' imprisonment. In Union City, the fines start at $100.

It goes far beyond California. New York City approved legislation that increases the penalty for unlawfully removing or transporting recyclables from $100 to $2,000 for first-time offenders and $5,000 for repeat offenders. The city can also impound vehicles involved in the theft and can arrest those who receive stolen recyclables.

In California, Ma's bill, which is in a state Senate committee, aims to curb recycling theft by calling on the recycling buyers to do more.

But some waste contractors say added paperwork could hog-tie their operations. They also note that poachers often sell them the recycling they would normally collect themselves.

"I'm not a policeman, I'm a garbage man," said Joe Garbarino Jr., whose family has been running Marin Sanitary Service since 1955. Ma's bill "would make the lines four times longer. We wouldn't be able to move."

"If they make it a crime to us," Garbarino said, adding that recycling thieves are taking 50 to 70 percent of the recycling in his service area, "at that point I would consider closing my doors."

But customers, Ma and the waste contractors say, bear the biggest costs.

Sunset Scavenger and sister company Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling say the total tonnage of recycling collected from their blue bins is up 9 percent over the past two years. The total for aluminum cans, glass and plastic bottles, however, is down by one-third. That loss translates to about $500,000 in San Francisco each year, which is passed on to customers, the company said.

Norcal, whose trash hauling arrangement with the city extends back to the 1930s, has been criticized for its monopoly status and cozy relationships with the Teamsters union and City Hall's pro-union establishment. But the firm says it is a good corporate citizen, and the recycling money it collects goes back into the program, helping to boost recycling rates and make the city more eco-friendly.

While residential customers are responsible for the bulk of the recycling complaints, some businesses say the unauthorized crews fill a niche and gain crucial income.

Helping businesses

Bottles from Glen Park Station, a watering hole on Diamond Street, usually overflow the recycling bins, said manager Tom McAvoy. So he counts on Luis Gomez to handle the extras.

Around 8:30 each Sunday night, Gomez, his wife and brother-in-law load bottles from the bar into their pickup truck. Each week, two full truckloads from the neighborhood bring in between $400 and $500, Gomez said. Though he's collected recyclables from restaurants and bars in the area for five years, he said his family relies more heavily on the cash now. He doesn't collect from residences, he said, because homeowners are more apt to protest, and he's seen others receive citations.

"I work in construction, but now it's only five or six hours a day," Gomez said, down from about eight hours a day two years ago. "I do the bottles now because it's difficult, there's not much work. And gas is very, very expensive."

Keeping your recycling safe

Ways to prevent and report recycling theft:

-- Place recyclables on the curb by 6 a.m. the day of pickup.

-- Shred paper with personal information before disposing of it.

-- Observe and report recycling theft. Take detailed notes on the vehicle license number and description, time of theft, description of the people involved and the direction they were heading. San Francisco police can be reached at (415) 553-0123.

-- Call Sunset Scavenger at (415) 330-1300, Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling at (415) 626-4000, or your local scavenger company during business hours to report a theft.

Source: San Francisco SAFE