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Sims presses for law to curb illegal recyclables

Keywords: Tags  Sims Metal Mangagement, Sims Municipal Recycling, scrap scavenging, New York City Department of Sanitation, Ron Gonen, Tom Outerbridge, Samuel Frizell

NEW YORK — Scavengers who illegally raid recyclables by the bagful from New York City sidewalks could face much higher penalties—and Sims Metal Management Ltd. could reap the benefits—if a proposed law is passed.

The New York City Department of Sanitation collects hundreds of thousands of tons of recyclable material from city streets every year and sells it to Sims Municipal Recycling, a subsidiary of Sims Metal Management. But sanitation department officials and Sims Municipal Recycling claim they’re not getting as much recyclable material as they should be, resulting in tangible losses to the bottom line.

According to the sanitation department and Sims, pilferers appear to be working with criminal syndicates to steal significant quantities of recyclables—including large items like refrigerators and washing machines—off the streets each day, reducing Sims’ scrap supply and costing the city what it estimates to be about $4 million to $6 million each year.

While individuals—often poorer New Yorkers or the unemployed—can legally collect bottles and cans from sidewalks, it’s illegal when recyclables are collected en masse and loaded into trucks and vans, city sources told AMM.

"If you’re somebody who’s just collecting bottles and cans, that’s fine," deputy commissioner of sanitation Ron Gonen said. "But if you’re aggregating what’s not yours and sticking it in a truck, that’s going to be a problem."

When Sims Municipal Recycling’s 20-year contract with the city began in 2009, Sims collected about 19,500 tons of metal, glass, plastics and miscellaneous garbage from the New York City Department of Sanitation each month, sources told AMM, but that volume has dropped to about 18,000 tons per month, apparently due to the theft of recyclables rather than any reduction in non-recyclable trash.

Sims general manager of municipal recycling Tom Outerbridge told AMM that his company loses around 2,000 tons, or about $400,000, each month to thefts of ferrous scrap alone. About half of that is in the form of large scrap items like refrigerators, washing machines and swing sets, while the rest of it comprises smaller scrap items like steel cans. At the same time, Sims said it is collecting more miscellaneous garbage than ever before, keeping its margins under pressure.

Sources said that drivers of trucks or vans often with out-of-state license plates illegally pick up large recyclable items left out for collection by the city. Sometimes, they also pay individual street bottle and can collectors for recyclables they’ve gathered, paying a lower rate compared to what they’d earn at a sanctioned redemption center but giving them the advantage of a fast and reliable pickup.

"What we suspect is going on is that people are driving trucks into the city and then collecting bottles and cans from people on the street, and then bringing it back to trucks," Gonen said. "It is illegal, but there’s very little we can do."

"There’s the historic peddler who might be going around with a shopping cart. But what we have noticed a lot more is what I would consider systematic organized scavenging, vehicle-assisted scavenging," Outerbridge said.

Details are sketchy, but Sims and city officials said that collectors often appear to work in organized groups and sell their scrap to yards that may not know the recyclables they’re buying are illegal.

Widespread scavenging like this affects recyclers, scrap dealers and the environment alike, Gonen said, and while most of it presumably ends up being recycled, the city ends up losing track of products, including environmentally problematic items that traditionally are tracked.

"The industry as a whole is also losing because nobody knows how it’s being collected and where it’s going," Gonen said.

Sims has urged the New York City Council to implement a law that would deter scavengers. A bill intended to do just that is now in the early stages of discussion and—if passed—could give the city a tighter hold on recycling by allowing the sanitation department to adopt its own rules regarding recycling removal.

According to Gonen, the sanitation department wants to create a criminal penalty for removing trash from commercial premises and require consent between small building owners and trash removers. He declined to discuss the language of the proposed bill further, noting that it is still in the early stages.

Whatever form the bill finally takes, however, it "enhances the department’s ability to enforce the law against persons who accept material that is illegally removed from the curb without authorization," Gonen told AMM in an e-mail.

The bill most likely will come before the city council within the next month after the details of the proposed law are hashed out, according to an aide to council member Letitia James.

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