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Recycling bins provide market for bottle pickers

August 5, 2018

STAMFORD — Early on a recent weekday morning, a woman with cropped gray hair walked the streets of Springdale carrying a large plastic bag.

It was garbage and recycling pickup day for the neighborhood, so bins — half of them brown, the rest green — lined the curbs.

The woman stopped at each green recycling bin, opened the lid and peeked inside. Sometimes she removed a beverage container and placed it in her bag.

She pulled out only the containers marked for a 5-cent deposit, money she presumably collects at a retailer or redemption center.

She isn’t the only person picking recyclables from bins on collection days. In other neighborhoods, a man in a baseball cap does it on a bicycle with plastic bags tied to the handles. A middle-aged woman pushes a grocery cart. Someone does it at night, shining a flashlight into recycling bins.

To many, the act seems harmless. A 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case supports that view.

In California v. Greenwood, the court held that trash at the curb is accessible to the public. The case was about a police search of a drug suspect’s trash cans placed outside for pickup. Police seized items from the cans and used them as evidence against the suspect, and the court ruled they were in the right.

Despite that, some cities, including New York, have laws against taking recyclables from collection bins. New York officials enacted an anti-scavenging law to stop organized groups that remove items from bins awaiting pickup, saying it jeopardizes the profitability of the city’s recycling program.

Stamford considers it a crime, Assistant Police Chief Jim Matheny said.

“It’s actually a larceny,” Matheny said, since the city sells recyclables.

But virtually no one is charged, he said.

“The very few times that we would handle a call like that, we would probably look at a larceny ticket,” Matheny said.

Dan Colleluori, supervisor of solid waste and recycling, said he’s had no recent complaints about people picking bottles and cans out of recycling bins.

“I haven’t heard it mentioned in a long time. Not in years,” Colleluori said.

And he doesn’t expect to hear it soon, since the market for recyclables has collapsed. The city once could expect to earn about $100,000 a year — sometimes more than twice that amount — from sale of the material, Colleluori has said. But, for 2018-19, the city will pay a contractor $700,000 to haul it away.

So, if people are picking from recycling bins now, “it saves us tax dollars, weight-wise, since we pay by weight to have it taken away,” Colleluori said.

For everyone concerned about the environment, it doesn’t matter who collects the items, city crews or bin-pickers. The bottles and cans are recycled either way.

It’s a matter of who gets the nickel.

It’s a question because Connecticut is one of a handful of states with a “bottle bill,” which the Legislature passed in 1978. Conceived as an anti-litter measure, the bill put a cash value on certain beverage containers to encourage people to not only recycle them, but pick them up from roadways, parks and wherever else they are discarded.

The bill, amended over the years, covers aluminum cans, and glass and plastic bottles that contain water, beer, and carbonated and non-carbonated beverages.

For such containers, a 5-cent deposit is charged at the time of purchase. When consumers return the empty container to the store where it was purchased or to a redemption center, they get the nickel back.

The nickel’s path is a bit convoluted, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection website.

It begins with the retailer, who pays the beverage distributor a 5-cent deposit per container. The retailer is reimbursed the 5 cents by the consumer who purchases the beverage.

Consumers get the nickel back when they return empty containers to the retailer or to a redemption center. And, finally, distributors reimburse retailers and redemption centers for each empty bottle and can returned to them.

Distributors also reimburse the state for all the bottles and cans that aren’t returned. The DEEP calls them “unclaimed deposits,” said Chris Nelson, supervising environmental analyst for the agency.

Connecticut consumers redeem about half the bottles and cans with the 5-cent deposit, Nelson said. The half that is unclaimed brings the state a substantial sum, he said.

The state Department of Revenue Services “oversees all the nickels in and nickels out,” Nelson said. “The money from unclaimed deposits goes into the General Fund.”

His estimate, based on information from the DRS, for the year ending last Sept. 30 is $34.5 million, Nelson said.

That’s a lot of empty bottles and cans, but it could be more.

“The nickel now is the same nickel as when the bill was first created,” Nelson said. “But a nickel back then is the equivalent of 30 cents now. If the deposit now was 30 cents, people would redeem more.”

Lawmakers have proposed changing the terms of the bottle bill in recent years, but nothing’s been done, Nelson said.

It may be time for lawmakers to review the handling fee that beverage distributors pay redemption centers, which is 1.5 cents or 2 cents per container, depending on the type.

“Many redemption centers have closed because the handling fee has not been updated since the program started, and it’s not enough to cover their operations anymore,” Nelson said.

Whatever changes may be coming for nickel deposits and distributors’ fees, the way seems clear for bin-pickers. The state has no laws against scavenging, Nelson said.

That would be up to municipalities, and with the recycling market crashing, prospects seem unlikely.

The woman in Springdale, asked why she was out collecting bottles and cans soon after sunrise on a summer morning, just walked away.

A man collecting recyclables in Belltown did the same, saying over his shoulder, “It’s gas money.”

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296

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