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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Black Market in Newsprint

Air Date: Week of

A national paper shortage has caused the price of used newsprint to soar. Joe Richman reports on a night he spent on patrol with the New York City "recycling" police. Their mission: to rid the city of curbside newspaper bandits.


CURWOOD: New York City is still gung-ho about one of its recycling programs: the curbside pickup of old newspapers. A nationwide newsprint shortage and burgeoning demand for recycled paper stock has jacked up the price of old newspapers so much that the revenues from paper recycling are helping to offset the city deficit. But the old newspaper bonanza has also touched off a crime wave of sorts and spawned a new kind of police dragnet. Joe Richman recently went on a night patrol with the New York City Sanitation Police.

(Police radio: "Bravo at 4 lanes working a [inaudible]; they want it clear.")

RICHMAN: Officer William Martinez is driving through Manhattan in an unmarked Chevrolet 4x4 with a Greenpeace sticker on the dashboard. He's undercover, sort of, and hot on the trail of a suspect.

MARTINEZ: I'm going up the block; I think I see something up the block, so make a right here.

RICHMAN: Martinez checks in with his partner, who's in another vehicle, and then heads down Second Avenue towards the van he spotted. Martinez stays a half-
block or so behind the van, and changes lanes periodically so it won't look like he's following. He thinks there are newspapers in the van, but to make an arrest Martinez must catch the driver in the act: snatching newspaper bundles that are supposed to belong to the city.

MARTINEZ: Timmy is snagged. I'll take those papers.

RICHMAN: But after a few blocks, the van driver, realizing he's being tailed, speeds off through a yellow light. Better to let him go and catch him another day, says Officer Martinez.

(More police radio dialogue, mostly inaudible)

RICHMAN: The New York Sanitation Police are not your typical cops. All the officers are former trash collectors and until recently they concentrated mostly on what William Martinez calls sanitary crimes.

MARTINEZ: Littering, uncovered receptacles, dirty sidewalks, obnoxious liquids, which is urinating, unleashed dogs...

RICHMAN: But now the job has changed. In the last few months, as the value of paper has skyrocketed, Martinez and his partner William Lugo have had their hands full with the paper bandits. And this night in particular has just become very busy. Officers Martinez and Lugo pull up behind a white van with Virginia license plates. The van is parked next to a pile of bundled newspapers. The driver has been caught red-handed.

MARTINEZ: You do this often? So why'd you start tonight?

MAN: I came up from Virginia. My friend said they pay good money for paper. He said you can go and take it. I said okay, I'm there.

MARTINEZ: You just came from Virginia just to do this?

MAN: The guy told me if I fill up a van, he said he gives me like 200 bucks to fill up a van. I said okay, I'm there.

MARTINEZ: A loaded van? Two hundred bucks?

MAN: That's what he said. I said I'm there, I'll do 3, 4 a night.

MARTINEZ: And you just came from Virginia just to do this?

MAN: Yes.

MARTINEZ: All right. Just -

MAN: I'll put the paper back.

MARTINEZ: That's not the point.

MAN: I won't take it.

MARTINEZ: We're going to issue you several summons; we're going to have to just take you down to the precinct just to make sure.

MAN: You're going to arrest me?

MARTINEZ: Park your vehicle.

MAN: For taking the paper?

MARTINEZ: Yeah. It's against the law in New York City to take anything that residents put out on the curbside; it's city property. It belongs to the Sanitation Department, Transit. Okay, follow me.

RICHMAN: It is illegal to take refuse off the street in New York City. Of course, it's a law that until recently was not strictly enforced. In the last few months, Officers Martinez and Lugo have made about one or two arrests a week on average. But this is not an average night. On the way to the police station, Officer Lugo spots another suspicious van and 3 more paper thieves.

LUGO: Let's see your license and registration or your ID. Put the cigarette down; put the cigarette down, no smoking.

(Police radio squawks)

MARTINEZ: I have 3 perps and another van. I have 4 perps [inaudible]; I need some assistance.

(Police radio squawks)

RICHMAN: The Sanitation Police aren't pros at collaring criminals the way the NYPD is. And on a busy night things can get a little confusing. Two more sanitation cops arrive on the scene for backup, but there still aren't enough officers to drive all the police cars and the 2 confiscated vans back to the police precinct. So they have to rely, in this case, on the nearest Public Radio reporter.

Right now, I am driving a police car, and we're going up a one-way street. That's cool.

The whole scene might seem a little silly. Handcuffs, sirens, police backup, all to catch people stealing discarded newspapers. Just a year ago the city was paying recyclers $25 a ton to take the paper. But now, fetching up to $60 a ton, old newspapers are a source of income. And the Sanitation Department estimates that unless they clamp down on paper thieves, the city could lose up to $4 million a year. Of course, enforcement is expensive, too. Right now it might not be worth spending millions on overtime to protect a bunch of old sports sections and New York Times book reviews. But Sanitation Department Commissioner John Doherty says that newspapers and other recyclables are a growing resource for cities like New York: one that is sure to pay off down the road. And Doherty says it's important to send a message now to any would-be street corner entrepreneurs.

DOHERTY: We're really running them through the system as a deterrent. I mean, we could issue a summons out in the street; that would be very nice. But that doesn't always do it. You have to let people know, especially in the beginning when you want to stop something like that, that we're very serious about it. That we are going to arrest you; we are going to put you through the system. And you may stay in a holding pen overnight until you're released in the morning. But I think once people see that happening, they're not going to be going out there and picking through the garbage and taking the newspapers.

(Precinct processing)

RICHMAN: It's 3 AM by the time Sanitation Officers Martinez and Lugo get to the police station with their paper perps. Most likely the 4 offenders will just end up with stiff fines. But in the meantime they'll be frisked and held overnight for booking, along with all the evening's drunks and drug dealers. Officer Lugo says he admits to feeling a little sorry for these guys.

LUGO: I know they didn't commit a murder or anything; they just committed petty larceny. If I could make it a little easier for them I'll speak to them nicely; I'm not going to harass them and give them a hard time. I'm going to treat them, you know, like a gentleman; I'm going to treat them the right way. But this is what our job is and this is what I'm going to do.

RICHMAN: As Officer Lugo leads the 4 paper thieves to a holding cell, a precinct cop looks up and says, "What's this?" Another officer, standing in the corner, says quietly, "You don't want to know." For Living on Earth, I'm Joe Richman in New York.



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