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October 27, 2008

Marin Independent Journal

Recycling poachers a nuisance in San Anselmo

Dean Boen of San Anselmo sorts his recyclables at the curb in front of his home on Thursday. Boen says that his and neighbors recycling containers are often emptied before Marin Sanity Service can come to pick them up. (IJ photo/Alan Dep)
Peter Breen knows all too well about a rash of thefts in San Anselmo. The town councilman has been victimized himself.

It wasn't a home invasion but rather the theft of bottles, cans and old newspapers he'd left for curbside recycling the previous night.

"It happened about two months ago," he said. "I went out to get the paper at about 5:30 one morning and the bin was already empty. The Marin Sanitary trucks usually don't come until about 7:30, so I knew something was up. They just dump the bins into their truck and drive off."

According to recent national reports, stealing recyclables has become a big business. In California, where state-mandated deposits are paid for bottled beverage purchases, a truck filled with bottles can yield $200 to $300 at a typical refuse center.

Joe Garbarino Jr. of Marin Sanitary Service operates the Marin Recycling Center in San Rafael, and he is steaming over losses he's incurring, which he estimates at 30 to 40 percent of his company's profits.

"It's an epidemic," he said. "We pay drivers to go out there in our trucks at 4 in the morning, but what's the use of paying for all that to pick up nothing? Nobody is challenging these people."

Garbarino said poaching has been going on for a long time, "at least since the bottle deposit bill passed (in 1986)," but it's not as organized as it seems today.

The problem is pinpointed to San Anselmo, where residents are required to separate recyclables into small buckets and bins. Fairfax has the same method, but has not experienced a rash of poaching, police said.

Marin Sanitary requires residents to separate their recyclables because the resulting products are cleaner and can yield more money, Garbarino said. When recyclables are dumped together into one large bin, paper products are soiled with various liquids and are not worth as much when they're resold, he added. Most other municipalities in Marin have one large 64-gallon bin for recyclables.

Recycling containers are full as the sit at the curb on Sycamore Avenue in San Anselmo, (IJ photo/Alan Dep)

Mark Arzoumanian, editor in chief of Official Board Markets, a publication covering the paper industry, told the Associated Press there is a voracious demand for recycled newsprint in China and India, countries that are not rich in harvestable forests. Even a truckload of old newspapers can fetch $600 in some states.

By cargo container load, the United States exports more waste paper than any other product. Last year, 20 million tons of recycled paper were shipped from U.S. ports. About 75 percent of that paper goes to China, where it is reprocessed into shoe boxes, newspapers, cereal boxes and the assortment of cardboard packages encasing all the consumer products China manufactures.

In San Anselmo, Sycamore Avenue resident Dean Boen said he saw two women empty his bins several times "all summer long" and dump the bottles and cans into two trucks that were driving slowly alongside them.

"I would hear a noise out front, the clanging of bottles, and watch them do it right around dusk," he said. "I know another guy who saw it happen on Center Boulevard and he wrote down their license numbers. Some other people have stopped them and talked to them. But I haven't heard anything about arrests."

Sgt. Robert Schneider of the San Anselmo Police Department said the town has provided extra patrols, including having officers on the graveyard shift drive around with eyes peeled for potential poachers. Plainclothes officers have ridden bikes through neighborhoods early in the morning

"I would not call it a rash of thefts," Schneider said. "Every once in a while, somebody calls in. Anytime somebody calls, we check the area. It would be great if they could provide (license) plates so that we could check registration on those vehicles. But from what we've gathered after talking to a few different people about it, it's not an organized ring or anything like that."

Schneider said one arrest was made in September, a female who was taking bottles and cans from a large can behind LoCoco's restaurant on San Anselmo Avenue.

San Rafael, Mill Valley and Novato police departments reported no recent arrests of, nor many calls about, recycling poachers. Large bins - which are unwieldy for poachers - are used in those municipalities.

Steve McCaffrey of the Redwood Empire Disposal, which serves Novato, West Marin and 70 percent of Sonoma County, said poaching is less common where the 64-gallon bins are used.

"But the problem is persistent, especially in tough economic times," he said. "We make it more difficult because they have to work harder to get the material. It's one of the benefits of having a single-stream system. Any loss we take on the quality of the recyclables is made up by reducing truck time on the road plus reducing fuel costs and exhaust from our trucks."

Garbarino said Marin Sanitary is in negotiations with town officials in San Anselmo and Fairfax to renew its contract. "Those two still deal with the smaller buckets, so I hope the town managers and the board members understand how important this is," he said. "Hopefully they will take action on it and we'll be closer to a solution."

San Anselmo Town Manager Debbie Stutsman said her town's contract with Marin Sanitary expires in January and a committee will be discussing it at its Thursday meeting. "The town would very much like to have dual-sort carts," she said.

California lawmakers are considering legislation that would make large-scale, anonymous recycling more difficult by forcing scrap and paper recyclers to check a photo identification for anyone bringing in more than $50 worth of cans, bottles or newspapers and to pay such individuals with checks rather than cash.

Meantime, Breen is worried that nuisance crimes such as recyclables thefts could open the door to other crimes. "My concern is not only that but having folks from other communities coming here to scope out our neighborhoods for other reasons," he said.


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