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Recyclables are a hot commodity

A man picks out items from a recycling container in San Francisco. Strangers rifling through recyclables from neighborhood curbs are cashing in on high prices for aluminum, glass and cardboard. States and municipalities have responded with more stringent laws, big fines and even jail time for large-scale thefts. Associated Press
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
A man picks out items from a recycling container in San Francisco. Strangers rifling through recyclables from neighborhood curbs are cashing in on high prices for aluminum, glass and cardboard. States and municipalities have responded with more stringent laws, big fines and even jail time for large-scale thefts. Associated Press (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

SAN FRANCISCO – Every Wednesday night, Bruce Johnson dutifully puts his garbage and recycling on the curb for pickup, and every week he fumes as small trucks idle in front of his home and strangers dig through his bins stealing trash they aim to turn into treasure.

Glass breaks, paper flies – the loot’s gone hours before the waste company even arrives.

“They’re like an army out there,” said Johnson. “They’re in trucks. They’re on cell phones. It’s a business.”

With prices for aluminum, cardboard and newsprint going up and an economic slowdown putting added pressure on people’s pocketbooks, curbside refuse has become a hot commodity.

A truck piled high with mixed recyclables can fetch more than $1,000; newspapers alone can grab about $600.

“These guys are becoming much more organized and much more prevalent,” said Robert Reed, a spokesman for Norcal Waste Systems Inc., a garbage and recycling company in San Francisco and other cities throughout Northern California. “This has nothing to do with the lone homeless man picking up cans. We’re seeing organized fleets of professional poachers with trucks.”

The issue has caught the attention of state and local officials, who are seeking more stringent regulations to curb theft, saying lost revenue threatens the financial viability of their recycling programs.

Pilfering cans, bottles and other recyclables from bins is already illegal in many places, including San Francisco and New York City.

Norcal Waste Systems estimates that in 2007 more than $469,000 in recyclables were stolen by hundreds of trucks. Officials from the City of Concord, some 30 miles east of San Francisco, figure they’re out $40,000 a year, while the city of Berkeley values the loss at more than $50,000 annually.

In the last five years, aluminum prices on the London Metal Exchange have climbed from about 65 cents a pound in 2003 to a record high of $1.50 a pound in July. Recycled paper and cardboard prices have also spiked, driven in large part by a burgeoning recycled paper export market.

“Newsprint is a hot grade,” said Mark Arzoumanian, editor in chief of Official Board Markets, a publication covering the paper industry. “There is a voracious demand in China and India for recycled paper.”