Recyclables scavengers are costly to city and county


Operations supervisor Chris Barraza handles the aluminum cans at CMC Recycling in Gainesville, Fla., Thursday, January 10, 2013.

Erica Brough/Staff Photographer
Published: Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 7:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 7:06 p.m.

When residents set their recycling bins outside for pickup, the aluminum cans don't always make it from the curb to the collection truck.

Facts

Curbside recycling revenue

Revenue from the curbside recycling program (Totals include county and city of Gainesville portions combined):
Fiscal year 2009-10: $211,631
Fiscal year 2010-11: $375,034
Fiscal year 2011-12: $182,994
Total: $769,659

Appliances collected, in tons

FY2007-08: 106 tons
FY2008-09: 102 tons
FY2009-10: 69 tons
FY2010-11: 24 tons
FY2011-12: 10 tons

- Information from Milton Towns, the county's waste collection manager

By the time the trucks roll through, some bins have been picked clean by people hoping to make a few bucks off residents' Coke cans.

Aluminum, typically one of the most valuable recyclables on the market, is a popular item to sell to scrap-metal companies. People gathering aluminum to sell may pick cans up from the side of the road, cleaning up litter in the process, but some also rummage through local recycling bins.

The problem: Under Gainesville and Alachua County ordinances, removing materials from those bins is prohibited and punishable by fine.

Joanne Auth, a retired Gainesville resident who has lived in the Duck Pond neighborhood for about 25 years, sees people picking through her and others' bins every week.

"There is virtually no Wednesday when our bin and the ones around us are not picked by the aluminum miners, as I call them," she said.

Many are on bicycles and balance can-filled trash bags as they ride, while others may push a grocery cart through the neighborhood as they collect aluminum.

"I'd be the first to say I have mixed feelings because I know there are probably some people who need that money," she said.

On the other hand, she wondered: Does someone have the right to make money off the local recycling program?

The county and city receive a portion of the revenue generated by their jointly operated curbside recycling program, which they use to offset the costs of the service, said Patrick Irby, waste alternatives manager for the county. SP Recycling Southeast LLC processes the recyclables.

Alachua County occasionally gets calls from residents about people stealing from their recycling bins. Aluminum is generally a higher-value material.

"It's always a good money-maker," Irby said.

The price of aluminum fluctuates regularly, said Jon Mish, plant manager at CMC Recycling in Gainesville. Currently, a pound of aluminum cans — amounting to about 12 cans — is worth 54 cents. Copper probably provides the top payout for an average person, but aluminum is easier to come by.

"There's no way of telling where they get them from," Mish said of customers. "Most people come in with just a bag or two of cans."

But scavenging recycling bins, while a violation of Alachua County and city ordinance, hasn't been enforced. Gainesville Police Department spokesman Officer Ben Tobias found no violations in the department's electronic database, which logs offenses dating back to 2005. The city ordinance is difficult to enforce because people must be seen actively stealing recyclables from bins.

"We would have to be exactly in the right place at the right time to catch this kind of crime," Tobias said.

Violators of the city ordinance can receive a misdemeanor charge and could face a fine of up to $500 or jail for up to 60 days, Tobias wrote in an email to The Sun.

The county prefers to refer those who violate the county's recycling bin ordinance to the Alachua County Code Enforcement Board, where fines levied for various ordinance violations differ broadly but can carry a maximum fee of $1,000. But the county has never levied such a large fine, Irby said.

Sam Sullivan, the county's collection centers supervisor, used to inspect the curbside collection program. He would warn people he saw stealing from recycling bins about the ordinance, but remembers only one instance where a previous code enforcement officer issued a warning notice over it.

They must see someone committing the act to issue an official warning, Irby said.

The city of Gainesville gets resident complaints about recycling bin scavenging several times throughout the year, said Steve Joplin, the city's solid waste manager.

Solid waste inspectors can warn people they see stealing from bins that they're violating city ordinance, which most people don't realize. They will usually give people a verbal warning and take down their information, and if they encounter them stealing recyclables again, they can call GPD for help handling the situation.

Some people will leave a mess in residents' yards after they've rummaged through the curbside bins or in city parks after picking over public recycling bins, Joplin said.

The Arc of Alachua County, which provides services for the developmentally disabled, collects recycling from those public bins and is compensated based on what it collects, so stealing from those bins diminishes the organization's profits, Joplin said.

The city has considered purchasing locking recycling containers for use in public places like parks because of this problem.

"There's part of me that gets all worked up about the fact that they're causing all kinds of problems for us and they're removing revenue," he said. "There's another part of me that says, ‘Well, how hard do you want to stomp on this in the hardest recession we've had in most people's lifetimes?' "

Arupa Freeman, who runs The Home Van, a mobile soup kitchen and assistance center, said she has seen people — many of them homeless — collecting aluminum cans and other items littered along the side of the road, which helps clean up the streets, as well as from recycling bins.

Freeman doesn't think it's a big deal. Times are tough and people are trying to survive, she said. She has seen some people trying to get enough money for a quart of milk and jar of peanut butter for their kids.

"They make very little money out of it," she said. "They're just working their fannies off to make three dollars."

Beyond scavenging from curbside recycling bins, the county also has had trouble with people taking appliances like dishwashers that residents have scheduled for curbside collection.

The county will send a truck out to pick the items up, but many are already gone, said Milton Towns, the county's waste collection manager. Much recyclable scrap metal can be gleaned from those appliances, which he thinks people likely sell to local scrap-metal companies.

From 2005 to 2012, the number of appliances collected curbside has fallen by 93 percent, he wrote in an email to The Sun. The county collected 10 tons in the last fiscal year, amounting to $1,205 in recycling revenue. The county might have received revenue of $12,000 or more if it had collected the 100-plus tons it typically did prior to 2009.

Towns believes the tough economy has led more people to snatch up the curbside appliances and sell them.

"The economic woes were the catalysts for more people to look at that as a way, you know, to help their personal income," he said.

The county estimates its anticipated recycling revenue and budgets for it, passing down the savings it makes to residents through the service rates it sets, he said. The more revenue it rakes in, the more it can lower its rates, and vice versa. That revenue currently allows the county to save customers between $4 and $8 a year on curbside service rates.

Neither the county nor the city can estimate how much revenue they lose to aluminum scavenging. A pound of soda cans may be worth less than a dollar, but thousands of homes use the curbside service.

The revenue gleaned from aluminum recycling on that scale adds up, said Sally Palmi, the county's solid waste director. Scavenging has probably always been in practice. She has seen all kinds of people scavenging recyclables, from a man on a bicycle with a small trailer attached to a woman who drives a Lexus.

It's a difficult problem to manage, but the county has discussed enforcing its ordinance more heavily because the fiscal impact is significant, she said.

Residents can let the county know if they see people rifling through their recycling bins so the county can monitor the problem, which will help it better enforce the ordinance, Irby advised.

"It's definitely something that we know we're not going to completely stop, but you go out and you do what you can and hopefully you reduce the impacts of what's occurring," he said.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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