Council Aims to Crackdown on Recyclable Collector Groups

Photo: Ray Smith collects cans on Bancroft Way on Wednesday afternoon. Many individuals collect recyclables in order to make extra money, which in turn takes away from the city's profits.
David Herschorn/Staff
Ray Smith collects cans on Bancroft Way on Wednesday afternoon. Many individuals collect recyclables in order to make extra money, which in turn takes away from the city's profits.

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Since more people have turned to stealing Berkeley residents' recyclables to make money, the Berkeley City Council passed a recommendation from the Zero Waste Commission in an attempt to crackdown on organized and motorized groups of poachers.

The council approved the proposal following struggles with the city's budget - which included a $4 million deficit in the refuse collection fund - and prompted some community members and city officials to argue that the city could not afford to let the poachers siphon the city's profits any longer.

While individual recyclable collectors, who are often poor or homeless, are familiar to most Berkeley residents, some poachers have recently organized into groups, using cars to cruise the streets before the Ecology Center's truck arrives.

Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, a non-profit organization that operates the city's recycling trucks, said that while no one will be "getting rich" off the enterprise, these groups "are doing good business."

"Keep in mind, what one person can keep and collect in a shopping cart in a day is a lot different than what a person with a pick-up truck and a helper or two can do in a day," he said.

As poaching activity increases and evolves, the city is hoping to respond in kind. City spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said the most recent recommendation before the council is a "more coordinated strategy going forward," though the recommendation includes some measures that may have already been implemented by the Ecology Center since May.

According to Ray Smith - a Berkeley resident who said he has poached recyclables, though never as part of an organized group - the city's homeless community has consistently been hit hard by enforcement.

Though Bourque said the revenue lost from the stolen recyclables is "a significant amount," David Tam, chair of the city's Zero Waste Commission, said the total does not make a dent in the refuse collection fund's deficit.

The recommendation focuses on increasing police enforcement of existing anti-poaching regulations, though Berkeley police Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said poached recyclables would remain a "low priority."

Citations given to poachers will remain at existing levels - $100 for the first offense and up to $500 for the third offense within 12 months. Thirty or 40 such tickets may lead to an arrest warrant, according to Smith.

Both Bourque and Clunies-Ross said the recommendation was at least partially rooted in community members' complaints regarding noise and public safety.

"Oftentimes there are other associated problems," Bourque said. "(Poachers) can be very aggressive we've had a poacher throw a bottle at one of our drivers."

Tam added that many poachers will dump out recycling bins and take only the most valuable pieces, leaving a heap of trash in their wake.

However, Kusmiss said the city's poaching problem is a small concern when compared to other common types of crime in the area.

"Violent crime and property crime and domestic violence and disputes are always going to be a higher priority in terms of policing them than people stealing recyclables," she said.

To further combat poaching, Ecology Center drivers will also begin calling their dispatch operator if they see a poacher working ahead of the truck and community members will be encouraged to use the center's recycling hotline to gather and compile information regarding the poachers' license plates and vehicle descriptions for police use.

Bourque said he hopes the recommendation will eliminate the "major and problematic" poachers in Berkeley and emphasized that the program is not a "draconian attack on homeless people collecting shopping carts."

"I think that already we've seen the police respond to a few high-profile poachers in the past month," he said. "I think it has made a difference."


Contact Gianna Albaum and Victoria Pardini at [email protected]

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