Mark Turner thought it was odd when a blue pickup truck stopped in his neighborhood one recent morning. A man hopped out, collected aluminum cans from a curbside recycling bin and continued down the street.
When Turner returned home later in the day, he spotted a man in a different truck doing the same thing.
The banditry was unusual for its brazenness. But city officials say recycling theft is becoming more common as marauders seek an easy, if time-consuming, way to make money.
Aluminum cans can be resold to metal scrap dealers for roughly 75 cents per grocery bag.
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Seeking to crack down on the practice, City Attorney Tom McCormick put forward a measure last week that would make it a misdemeanor to steal from rollout recycling bins.
The City Council will vote on the proposal at its next meeting March 6. The thieves should be stopped, said City Councilman Thomas Crowder.
“Basically, they’re stealing from the taxpayers,” Crowder said.
The measure specifies that recyclables become city property when they are placed in the bin, and only the property owner or city pickup crew can remove them, McCormick said.
Violators would face fines of up to $500.
Recycling is a big business for Raleigh. The city is paid $30 for every ton recycled with the processor.
Crews have collected more than 296,000 tons from homes and businesses since Raleigh began curbside recycling in 1989.
In Turner’s neighborhood east of downtown, the thieves carried out their operation in front of the wrong guy.
A U.S. Navy veteran and neighborhood organizer, Turner knows the chain of command at City Hall.
A few phone calls resulted in the measure landing on the City Council agenda.
“This wasn’t a case of some homeless guy collecting a few cans to get by,” Turner wrote on his blog. “This looked like an entire team was out to steal the cans people had put out for the city.”
It’s more common for thieves to target bins brimming with empty cans outside bars and restaurants, said Bianca Howard, a community education specialist for the solid waste services department.
Thieves know schedules
Last fall, Howard was having dinner at a downtown restaurant when she looked outside and noticed a man fishing for cans.
“You probably wouldn’t have to look too hard to see someone opening those blue carts and taking out the cans,” she said.
The predictable timing of pickups lends itself to thievery. And cover of darkness helps, too.
In Glenwood South, trucks make pickups at 3 a.m. to give bars enough time to close. Crews make two pickups in downtown in late afternoons and early mornings.
Bins are left on the curb after everyone goes home, said Eric Mullen, owner of the Pour House on South Blount Street. That’s why it can be difficult to nab anyone.
“As long as it’s empty when we get here, that’s all I really care about,” he said.