Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Rise of Can Poaching

If you live in the SF Bay Area, chances are you've seen them. They wander the streets (or even your backyard) with their plastic bags and shopping carts. They may be homeless, they may be unemployed, or maybe they're just looking for additional income. They all have one thing in common--they are recycle thieves and they are cashing in at the state's expense. The CRV (California Refund Value) program, which boasts 85% recycling of bottles and cans, has become central to an underground economy that has created a life for thieves in recent years (source).

I first became aware of this trend around 2 years ago while I was attending college. Having lived the college party life, I had purchased my fair share of 30 packs of beer and the cases of plastic water bottles for those morning afters. Having paid crv tax on every purchase, I saved all my cans and bottles to receive my tax back at the nearby recycle center. I would "cash out" about once or twice a semester with about 1 or 2 trash bags. However, everytime I went to the recycle center I waited around 30-45 minutes to cash my cans. The issue? There were atleast 3 people in line ahead of me with about 5-10 trash bags EACH full of cans/bottles. I was trying to utilize the recycle center as they were intended to be used, and there before me where these can hoarders with their 50-100 dollars worth of recyclables. There was no way these bags were full of recyclables from personal use. They had been poached from nearby college apartment complexes and dormitories. However, I will acknowledge that there is some chance that some of their collectibles came as litter from off the street.

Are these recycling thieves helping or hurting our society? On one side of the argument, you can stress that these can thieves who extract recyclables from trash bins or off the streets help make the world a cleaner and better place. That is a benefit to these so called "recyclers." On the other hand, the can/bottle thieves often rummage through personal or city property and in turn, are taking money from the state and the recycling programs. The California law states: the moment cans are placed in a recycling bin, they become the property of the city; thus, anyone who takes from them is guilty of theft.

In December 2009 alone, San Francisco received more than 1,500 complaints from residents of people rummaging through their garbage, making noise and stealing recyclables in the early hours of the morning (source). What bothers me the most is the possibility that all these people are working together. It's been uncovered before. Potential so called "recycle families." Where each team member has a certain quota to meet everyday and sticks it to the state one can at a time. According to San Francisco police and recycling officials, the illegal gathering has been estimated to collect between $2 million and $5 million worth of recyclables a year.

Famous Can Poaching Lady. Have you seen her?

Can theft seems to be a low priority on the police department's watch list. There are too many poachers out on the streets not to notice. Granted there are more important crimes to worry about, but these thieves are significantly putting a dent into the state's budget. Recycled bottles and cans with California redemption value labels on them can fetch about 5 or 10 cents each if taken to a state redemption center. My 2 full bags of cans and bottles gave me about 10-15 dollars cash. Imagine what these poachers can bring in on a given haul. Although according to this article, the police has manage to bust some big time poachers.

5 cents:Minimum deposit required for cans and bottles covered by the California Redemption Value, or CRV, program
21.9 billion:CRV bottles and cans purchased statewide in 2008
$1.2 billion:Annual CRV money collected by the state
Sources: California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery; state Department of Finance; TOMRA Pacific

The issue is much deeper than what I am touching on here. Poaching from personal/public property is one thing. How about the extreme poachers that come from out-of-state with their cans to redeem at CA value. Shady recycle centers don't follow all the California redemption regulations are also contributing to the problem.

The bottle bill "Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act" that was enacted in 1987 had a few main goals.
  • 80% Recycling Rate
  • Reduce Litter
  • Increase landfill diversion                  

Final Points:

Like most of my arguments, I don't really know how to pose a viable solution to this. Although I will say, if there are real homeless people out there that use recycling of bottles and cans and bottles to get by, more power to them. My grind is that most of the people I witness are far from homeless. They are part of an efficient business that probably hauls in a good 400-600 dollars a day. All is takes is a couple schools and/or restaurant recycle bins and you have yourself a solid 10 bags of recyclables. In the end, as a California citizen that pays for CRV, I'd like to go cash in my recycables comfortably and efficiently, just the way the program was originally meant to run like.

Sources and Additional Articles:





My guess for people that take over the city next?: Portable Churro Vendors...these people are showing up everywhere!

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