Residents raise concerns about groups that take aluminum cans out of curbside containers
by Elisabeth Traugott
Palo Alto is considering strengthening its laws to make it tougher on organized groups of people who roam the streets sifting through recycling bins for items, mostly aluminum cans, that they can trade in for cash. Some residents see it as a growing problem.
"What I'm concerned about is that it generates foot traffic that wouldn't be here," said Phillip St. James who lives in Palo Alto's Downtown North neighborhood.
But there hasn't been a lot police could do to to stop the recycling thieves. Taking from a recycling container is considered a theft because it is considered property of the Palo Alto Recycling Center, property that provides income to support the center. But under the municipal code the crime is only considered an infraction that carries a fine of $76.
That may change if the City Council approves a larger package of revisions to the solid waste and recycling ordinance, part of which would tighten restrictions on scavenging. The council is scheduled to review the revisions at its July 28 meeting.
But police are not likely to start cracking down on culprits, particularly when it concerns homeless people who are seeking out the recyclables.
"It's not considered a priority call," said Lt. Jon Hernandez. He said that over the past year, the city has received on average 1.5 calls per week about recycling thefts. Most of the calls come between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., although Hernandez said he discovered that most callers didn't want to be contacted by the police.
"They just wanted to report the fact that it was occurring," he said.
In the past six months, three people have been apprehended by police for the crime. One was issued with a ticket and the other two were given warnings.
Julie Weiss, residential recycling coordinator for the city of Palo Alto, said the theft of recycled materials goes in cycles depending on the market, as with any other commodity.
"Right now, because markets for recyclables are down, it's not as much of a problem," she said. A couple of years ago, however, her office was fielding frequent calls. At that time, thieves were using large rental trucks to collect their take, she said.
Hernandez said the choice loot these days is aluminum. Certified recycling centers, like those in the parking lots at Midtown's Co-op market and Mollie Stone's on California Avenue, will award 2.5 cents per for regular-sized carbonated beverage cans and 5 cents each for cans larger than 24 ounces in size, Weiss said.
Weiss said around 80 percent of Palo Altans participate in the city-sponsored recycling programs, the operations side of which is contracted out to the Palo Alto Sanitation Company or PASCO. Last year, it cost PASCO about $1.5 million to collect and process recyclable materials.
Part of the money the city earns by marketing its recyclables helps offset the cost of providing the recycling service.
"It's a thing that concerns us, but it's something that every city has to deal with," Weiss said. "If you want to have a really good, strong recycling program, you don't want (scavenging) going on."
Weiss recommends that people not leave their recycling out the night before their scheduled collection. By putting recycling out before 6 a.m. the day it's due to be collected, much of the theft can be avoided, she said.
"If they're early risers and they can get out by 6 a.m. than that's the best thing."
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