Can thieves working harder, earning less

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The guy was in front of my house for maybe thirty seconds. He rooted around in the blue cart, emerged with a couple of metal cans -- not even high-grade aluminum -- and tossed them in the back of his battered hatchback. Then he was on to the next cart, minutes ahead of the Denver Recyles truck that circles my neighborhood every other Monday, scooping up paper, glass, plastic bottles and yes, any aluminum the can thieves haven't already claimed.

Citywide recycling efforts have always been plagued by a certain amount of pilferage by dumpster-diving entrepreneurs, who can quickly transform aluminum cans into cash. But just how much city revenue is lost to the hustlers? Nobody knows.

"We suspect that we lose a significant amount of aluminum to scavengers," says Charlotte Pitt, the recycling program manager for Denver's Department of Public Works. "But it's not as easy to do now as it used to be."

Denver went to a single-stream method of recycling a few years ago and saw a dramatic increase in the volume of materials collected. (See my 2007 feature, "The Hunt For Green.") The large blue carts used for single-stream are less pilfer-prone than the old blue bins, Pitt says. Instead of simply tossing a bin of cans into a car, a thief now has to get elbow-deep in broken glass, sharp lids, and other debris to pull out a few choice soda or beer cans.

Pitt estimates that aluminum is only about one percent of the recyclables that the city collects: "It's a lot of work for a few cans."

At the same time, the price of aluminum has dropped dramatically, along with other recyclables. A ton of the stuff went for $1,400 in early 2008; now it's down to around $600. So the thieves have to double their effort just to meet the same revenue levels.

In theory, the guy outside my window was stealing not from me but the city. Yet Pitt readily admits that her department doesn't have the staffing to try to stop occasional pilferage, and that it's not exactly a high priority for a budget-strapped police force. "Even if we catch them, there's not much we can do," she says.

I suspect my guy will cross us off his list soon; we're more into bottles than cans. It'll all get recycled one way or another, but I'm not sure there's much of a green upside to can scavenging, unless they're headed for the landfill anyway. I don't want to think about how many stops might be involved just to pay the gas on that old beater he was using to make his rounds.

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