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LOS ANGELES — Every night, throughout commercial and residential neighborhoods in California, the clang-clang-clang of shopping carts resonates as a brigade of scavengers roam the streets and scour curbside recycling bins in search of valuables.
They’re not looking for gold, money or precious stones, but aluminum cans, plastic bottles and glass containers.
Here in California, one of 10 U.S. states that have container deposit laws designed to encourage recycling, collecting cans and bottles that can be redeemed each for a nickel or sold as scrap metal can be a lucrative business.
The greening of America has created a new crime genre: green thefts.
In the most recent high-profile case, "Magnum P.I." actor Tom Selleck found himself up the creek when The Calleguas Municipal Water District in Ventura County sued him for water theft. The district hired a private detective who saw a truck tapping into a hydrant in Thousand Oaks and followed it to Selleck’s gated estate and 60-acre ranch outside the water district. The civil complaint was settled last week for more than $21,000, enough to cover the cost of the detective. No criminal charges were filed because prosecutors found no intent to commit a crime.
In just the past two months, California recycling fraud units busted five illegal operations that were bringing tons of recycled goods from states that have no redemption fees into California to collect the fees here.
California collects $1.2 billion a year in nickels and dimes from its redemption program. The portion that is never redeemed is used to run conservation and recycling programs but thefts are eating into the funds.
“The basic problem is that a truckload of aluminum cans is worth $40,000 more in California than it is in Arizona,” said Arthur Boone, owner of the Center for Recycling Research in Berkeley, California and former president of the Northern California Recycling Association. “When you buy aluminum cans at the store, you’re paying a nickel to the store and the state” – money that goes back to the consumer when they redeem empty containers.
“You’re not paying a nickel in Arizona,” Boone said. When someone brings tons of these out-of-state cans and redeem them in California, “it ultimately impacts the balance sheet of the state because it doesn’t put any money in the system.”
Inspectors with the California Department of Justice’s Recycling Fraud Unit and California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) have scored big arrests in just the last two months. In May, five Californians were indicted on grand theft and recycling fraud charges in a $14 million recycling fraud scheme involving importing beverage containers from Phoenix across state lines. More than 20 recycling centers lost their certifications as a result.
‘The basic problem is that a truckload of aluminum cans is worth $40,000 more in California than it is in Arizona.’
Center for Recycling Research
Four days later, a Fontana, California, trucker was busted at the California-Arizona border with 9,280 pounds of empty containers with a redemption value of almost $14,000.
In June, another trucker was arrested with more than a $15,000 haul in empty containers form Arizona. Less than a week later, yet another truck driver was caught at an agricultural checkpoint with an estimated load worth more than $7,000.
“It’s definitely not legal,” said Lance Klug, information officer for California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. “The redemption value is for you and me.”
California consumers pay an extra nickel every time they buy a bottled or canned beverage but they can redeem the empty container to get their nickel back. Some recycling centers get handling fees from CalRecyle.
CalRecycle has about 55 people in their investigation and inspection division who visit recycling centers across the state at least once a year – often unannounced.
State officials are more concerned with big smuggling operations crossing state lines than with neighborhood scavengers. They usually leave enforcement of local ordinances up to local police.
Boone prefers the term “collectors” to scavengers because many are homeless and truly needy. He said that people can make $25 to $100 a day rounding up empty containers.
Law enforcement rarely cracks down on these individuals except in some more affluent communities.
“Anybody who’s watched these people push shopping carts for three or four miles has sympathy for them,” he said.
Technically, once containers are placed in curbside bins, they belong to the recycling companies that have contracts with cities to pick up and recycle the items. The material is sorted and sold and revenues are supposed to come back to pay for the recycling program.
“One of the sad stories in all this is how the cities, as sponsors of curbside recycling, have made it harder for the little people to get by,” Boone said. “Curbside was not invented for cities where there are too many poor people for whom the cans and bottles have useful value.”
The criminals are those who knowingly buy containers in states where there are no redemption fees and bring them to states that do to collect – whether it’s to New York, Oregon or Vermont, said Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute in Culver City, Calif.
“They’re asking the system to pay back a deposit that was never paid,” she said. “Any of these states could have this problem … If we had a national deposit law, this would be a non-issue.”