Raids On Recycling Bins Costly To Bay Area

In Northern California, organized crews of poachers are raiding residential recycling bins, sometimes threatening homeowners who get in the way. San Francisco alone estimates it is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to recycling bandits.

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San Francisco takes recycling seriously. More than half of all the discarded cans, bottles and paper there are recycled. But lately, bands of poachers have been raiding recycling bins before city trash collectors can get to them. It costs San Francisco plenty and some residents say that poachers are downright threatening. NPR's Richard Gonzalez reports.

RICHARD GONZALEZ: Steven Courier(ph) lives in a blue-collar neighborhood on the southern end of San Francisco. Every Monday evening he puts his garbage and recyclables in curbside bins for Tuesday morning pickup by the local garbage company. Then he watches as small groups of men pounce upon it.

Mr. STEVEN COURIER (San Francisco Resident): If you were here approximately 4 o'clock on Monday afternoon, you would see probably 10 to 15 people rifling through your garbage in a sort of like clockwork. You see the same people all the time. By the time North Hill(ph) comes, there's nothing to put in their trucks because it's all been stolen.

GONZALEZ: It's illegal in San Francisco and other big cities such as New York to raid a curbside recycling bin. But Courier says there's an added aggravation.

Mr. COURIER: The garbage that they don't want, they'll put it on the side, pick up everything they want, whether it's cans or bottles, so they leave the rest on the ground and they just walk away.

GONZALEZ: Other residents say that poachers are increasingly aggressive and hostile and it worries Priscilla Palomino(ph), who says she sees roving bands of strangers retrieving recyclables in her crime-troubled neighborhood at all hours of the night.

Ms. PRISCILLA PALOMINO (San Francisco Resident): And I don't feel safe. I don't feel confident that they're only going to limit themselves to picking up recyclable materials. If they see something else that catches their fancy, why not take that, too? I feel like we're under siege all the time. I really hate it.

GONZALEZ: Robert Reed hears thousands of these complaints. He's the spokesman for Sunset Scavenger, San Francisco's garbage company, and he says he's not talking about a few homeless people with shopping carts.

Mr. ROBERT REED (Spokesman, Sunset Scavenger): We estimate there are between two and three hundred poacher trucks operating in San Francisco. There are more poacher trucks coming onto the scene every week. These are groups. They operate in fleets. These are illegal commercial businesses. This is an underground economy.

GONZALEZ: And it's a potentially lucrative one, too. A truck fully loaded with recyclables could fetch a thousand dollars. Aluminum cans are the real prize. They sell for more than 3,700 bucks per ton. And when poachers steal the recyclables, it means less revenue to subsidize San Francisco's curbside recycling program, says Reed.

Mr. REED: In the last two years, we estimate that the total loss based on poachers taking 2,000 tons of bottles and cans out of residential recycling bins to be about a million dollars. That's a million dollars out of the pockets of the San Francisco residents.

GONZALEZ: And that's tax-free money for the poachers who get cash when they sell to a recycling center or scrap yard. So State Assemblywoman Fiona Ma proposes to require scrap dealers to demand a photo ID and to pay by check to anyone bringing in more than 100 dollars worth of recyclables.

State Assemblywoman FIONA MA (California, 12th Assembly District): My bill is not an attack on the homeless or the retiree who's just trying to make a couple of dollars. You know, we are really trying to get at the organized crews.

GONZALEZ: But there are some San Francisco residents who think the controversy is overblown.

Mr. RICK MISHLOWSKY(ph) (San Francisco Resident): This isn't really an attack on poor people. This is an attack on having to see them. We don't want to see these people around.

GONZALES: Rick Mishlowsky is a technical writer living in one of San Francisco's upscale neighborhoods.

Mr. MISHLOWSKY: When I put something in my garbage bin or my discard bin, I have discarded it. Where it goes after that, I frankly don't care that much.

GONZALES: Still, the penalties for poaching run up to 500 dollars and six months in jail. But police say it's a low priority misdemeanor so there's relatively little risk in hunting for treasure in someone else's trash. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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