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

To Catch a Trash Thief

Air Date: Week of

>A Department of Sanitation employee collects used metals, glasses, and plastics. The sale of profitable recyclables helps the department balance its budget.(Courtesy of the New York City Department of Sanitation)

In the mid 1990s, a national paper shortage caused the price of used newsprint to soar. In New York City, thieves searched the sidewalks for recycled newspaper and the Sanitation Department sent out a special patrol to stop them. In honor of Earth Day, Living on Earth rebroadcasts its 1995 award-winning report on New York City's “Black Market in Newsprint” by producer Joe Richman. Host Bruce Gellerman then talks with NYC Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty to update the story and finds out that old metal is now the hot commodity.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. April 22nd is Earth Day. It's when we commemorate the birth of the modern environmental movement. In recognition, throughout the month of April, Living on Earth is rebroadcasting and updating some of our favorite, award-winning stories from years past.

Today, we begin with a piece from 1995 by producer Joe Richman.

[MUSIC: Dragnet Theme from Television’s Greatest Hits (TVT Records 1986)]

GELLERMAN: The story you are about to hear is true. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent.


GELLERMAN: Dateline: New York City, where all the news that’s fit to print, is also worth stealing. In the mid 1990’s a nationwide shortage of newsprint sends the price of recycled paper soaring, tempting nefarious criminals interested in yesterday’s news, and not just for reading, if you get my drift.

Our intrepid reporter Joe Richman took to the mean streets and curbs with New York City’s finest: the Sanitation Police, in a story that won a Silver Award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.


RICHMAN: Officer William Martinez is driving through Manhattan in an unmarked Chevrolet four-by-four 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.

A sanitation police car in New York City. Sanitation officers can fine trash thieves up to $2,000 for taking valuable recyclables like metal and paper. They're city property when they're left on the curb for pickup.(Photo: Adam Kuban)

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.


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?

MAN: No.

MARTINEZ: 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, 200 bucks?

MAN: That's what he said. I said ‘I'm there. I'll do three, four 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. Put your hands together. 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 three more paper thieves.

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




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 two confiscated vans back to the police precinct. So they have to rely, in this case, on the nearest public radio reporter.


RICHMAN: 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 dollars a ton to take the paper. But now, fetching up to sixty dollars 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 four million dollars 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.

A Department of Sanitation employee collects used metals, glasses, and plastics. The sale of profitable recyclables helps the department balance its budget.(Courtesy of the New York City Department of Sanitation)

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.


RICHMAN: It's three a.m. by the time Sanitation Officers Martinez and Lugo get to the police station with their paper perps. Most likely, the four 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 four 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.


GELLERMAN: That was our 1995 award-winning story “The Black Market in Newsprint”. Now, for an update we turn to John Doherty who you heard in the story and is still head of New York City's Department of Sanitation. Commissioner Doherty, thanks for joining me.

DOHERTY: You’re quite welcome, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: So, are the Sanitation Police still patrolling the curbs of New York?

DOHERTY: We haven’t been doing the arrests anymore. We had a little problem with that, but we got that straightened out. Now we have good, solid legislation on the books that allows us to give out a 2,000 dollar fine when we catch somebody stealing either paper or other recyclables from the curb. And we impound their vehicles.

GELLERMAN: Boy, who says grime pays?

DOHERTY: (laughs) Well, a lot of people -- like you heard in the old tape from '95, people didn’t realize what they were doing wrong. At that time, the paper market was really high and there was a good buck to be made out there and that’s what drove these people to go out and take the paper off of the street to make a couple bucks. But then the paper market fell, and it’s a very cyclical market. It has its highs and its lows. And the market right now is high again -- not as high as it was in '95. But the commodity that’s the highest right now is the metal. We recycle plastic, metal and glass in New York City, and a lot of metal is put out at the curb and people are looking to take that these days and they are taking it.

GELLERMAN: So, like zinc, copper—that kind of thing?

DOHERTY: Copper is probably -- has the highest market right now, and when you put a refrigerator or an air conditioner out in the street, there’s copper tubing in there that, at times, some of these people will just rip out the tubing and let the rest of the appliance go. But today, even the regular metal on some of these, even though some of these appliances have a lot of plastic on it, we find that they are taking whole refrigerators and whole washing machines. And they’re just disappearing off the streets on us.

New York Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty says since 1995, metal has replaced paper as the hottest commodity in the recyclables black market. (Courtesy of the New York City Department of Sanitation)

GELLERMAN: So, if I was to grab some old chairs off the curb, you know, because somebody put them out on the street, would I wind up in the slammer?

DOHERTY: No, we’re not looking for that. We realize that there, you know, there are homeless people around the city that go by and they lift open the cover on your recycling can and they'll pick out the aluminum cans and bring them to the supermarket and put them in a machine and get their nickels out. So no, no, no, we're not going after them.

And we do know there’s other people, particularly around college areas where young people just, you know, maybe moved into their dorms and they see a nice chair out there and say ‘oh you know, the chair at my desk is kind of broken, let me grab this one.’ No, we don’t bother them. We’re after the people who are making a business out of it.

GELLERMAN: You say you’re not arresting people anymore?

DOHERTY: No, we had to get out of that. The judges kind of frowned on it and we had some legal issues there. But it was only minor. I mean, it suited the purpose at the time. We had to send a very strong signal out to people that we’re not going to tolerate people stealing paper or taking paper from the curb because we have a job to do here and we need that and we get revenue off it. So, we wanted it to stop, so we sent a strong signal by doing the arrests and doing some press clippings and have photographers with us when we'd arrest the guy and put the handcuffs on them.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, I hope you’re recycling your press clippings.

DOHERTY: Oh, definitely.

GELLERMAN: Well, Commissioner, it’s been a great pleasure. I want to thank you very much.

DOHERTY: Okay, Bruce. Thank you.

GELLERMAN: John Doherty is the Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation for the City of New York.

[MUSIC: Dragnet Theme from Television’s Greatest Hits (TVT Records 1986)]



New York City’s Department of Sanitation


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