Recycling Programs, Poaching, and Economics

By , June 13, 2010

I’m annoyed by “recycling poachers” who leave a mess when they raid our trash and recycling bins. But these poachers leave economic damage, too, as their profits represent losses for our communities.

I read an interesting article in the East Bay Express yesterday, noting that the City of Berkeley is considering adding new fees for residents to cover the increased losses from recycling.

Yes, folks, that’s right: most cities lose money from their recycling efforts, because the cost for trucks, staff, and facilities exceeds the income from selling recyclables.  One factor is poachers’ diversion of “high-value” recyclables (mostly cans and bottles), leaving cities only the heavier and less-profitable recyclables.

In our household, we’ve struggled with recycling for several years. Whenever we try to save our cans and bottles to redeem ourselves, we end up with ant problems.  But if we won’t profit from the recycling, it’s very inconvenient to maintain two or three separate refuse containers in our kitchen (currently, we have one for cans and bottles, another for paper and cardboard, plus a regular “trash” container).  This means we use more plastic bags, and spend more time replacing the bags.

And then someone raids our recycling bins to profit from our extra work and expense!

For years, I didn’t think twice about the folks who poached our recycling bins.  But then I noticed that when I picked up our empty trash cans, there was always “debris” in the street, which I long assumed was “cast-off” from the trash pickup (“lazy workers”), until one afternoon I watched someone “raiding” our cans.

An elderly woman pulling a cart stopped at our recycling bins, and began pulling items out and tossing them onto the street. She took the cans and bottles, and put most of the other recyclables back into the recycling bins. But then she raided the regular trash cans, ripping open trash bags to extract cans and bottles, and dumping loose trash onto the street. She made no effort to pick up the loose trash.

The following week, when the same lady came by to raid our trash cans, I chased her away.  A week later, she returned again, and I chased her off again. I started to wait until later in the afternoon to take out the bins, but then other people raided them, sometimes more neatly but sometimes leaving a worse mess.

My efforts to prevent “poaching” of our bins doesn’t just help me avoid cleanup work; it also keeps the highest-value recyclables for the city to collect and redeem, further offsetting the cost of trash collection.

I’d be less upset if the same people who poached our recyclables also picked up loose cans and bottles that people dump in streets and near sidewalks, but they don’t — picking up a single can or bottle isn’t worth their effort!

While reading the East Bay Express article yesterday, I considered what “extra steps” we might take, as a community, to prevent poachers from diverting our community’s resources.  Unfortunately, any solutions I can conceive of would bring extra costs (lockable bins and trucks that could open them; bringing out the bins only when the city truck turns onto our street). And of course, there are many “more important” problems facing our communities that deserve attention and resources.

Link: “Hands Off My Cans: Recycling and Anxiety in Berkeley” (East Bay Express, June 9-15, 2010),

3 Responses to “Recycling Programs, Poaching, and Economics”

  1. Mark Welch says:

    When I wrote that “most cities lose money from their recycling efforts, because the cost for trucks, staff, and facilities exceeds the income from selling recyclables,” I didn’t consider the financial savings from diverting recyclables away from the disposal stream. This would include hauling and landfill fees. And of course, there are many environmental benefits from recycling. The key issue, really, is the diversion of financial benefit from “the community” to individual poachers.

  2. Eric says:

    It’s that time of the week and I can hear them digging through the trash again.

    It’s not a few homeless people supporting themselves, it’s teams of dedicated thieves who have made it their job to steal from the recycling program and invade our property.

    What AMAZES me is that typically the recycling truck drivers drive one half black behind the scavengers in the morning, fully aware of exactly where thy are, and don’t bother to call the police.

    Clearly, a few arrests and fines would punch a hole in the scavenger’s business model.

    I’ve called it in a few times, when able. Seems like if the cops wanted to they could hand out fines all Thursday morning on my block. Why don’t they?!

  3. Topsoil Supplier says:

    Yes it is very true. Recycling can lead to many problems with scavengers. The fines don’t seem to put people off doing it , so I guess that there is a lot of money in it.

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