From Catonsville to California, from New York City to Houston, thieves are taking aim at a new type of loot: recyclable cans, bottles and newspapers.
Spurred by the rising value of the materials, curbside scavengers are swiping bagfuls from streets and alleys -- sometimes just ahead of trash trucks. The problem costs localities money -- $100 million per year nationwide, according to an industry estimate -- while clogging the stream of waste that recycling was meant to eliminate.
And in some places, it's perfectly legal.
To combat the problem, some localities, including Baltimore, have made such scavenging a crime. Others, such as Baltimore County, where some 200,000 households are served by curbside recycling, are pushing for sanctions. The County Council plans to consider legislation Monday.
"I think if any jurisdiction is going to commit itself to recycling, a scavenging law is necessary," says Esther Bowring, recycling coordinator in Montgomery County, which has a law that imposes civil penalties.
In the past three or four months, Montgomery County has seen an increase in stolen newspapers as the price of used paper products has risen, says David H. Wagaman, manager of the county's refuse and recycling collection.
New York City police have arrested more than 60 scavengers this year, charging them with larceny for taking newspapers set out for recycling. In Houston, solid waste officials have recorded up to $30,000 in monthly losses because of scavenging. And in San Francisco, special police assigned to patrol streets for scavengers have issued more than 100 citations since February.
Beth Jordan witnessed scavengers at work recently in her Catonsville neighborhood.
Twice, while walking with her children, she spied a man furiously tossing curbside bags of mixed containers in to his blue pickup truck. Once, he was just ahead of the trucks that collect recyclables for the county.
On both occasions, she pulled her blue recycling bags onto her lawn and resisted the man's efforts to take them. "He claimed he worked for Baltimore County, but I never heard of haulers using pickup trucks to do this," she says.
Ben Bays, an officer of Owl Corp., a Dundalk ferrous metal recycler, says people in pickup trucks do come to his facility loaded with aluminum cans.
"Many are people who have arrangements with bars to pick up their beer and soda cans, but I wouldn't be surprised if some are getting a portion of their cans from the blue bags," he says. "If these people are taking the blue bags for the cans, you can assume they are just throwing the plastic and glass containers away."
The driving force behind scavenging over the past year is the increased value of aluminum cans and newspapers, says Chaz Miller, recycling manager for the nationwide Environmental Industries Association.
The price that processors pay localities for aluminum has risen from about 25 cents to 50 cents a pound over the past year, according to industry figures. The price of newspapers has increased from $25 to $60 a ton since December.
Mr. Miller says it's difficult to determine the loss to localities nationwide from stolen recyclables. Recycling Resource, a trade magazine, has estimated the loss at $100 million.
But the aluminum market has leveled off, and the value of newspapers is starting to drop, says Mr. Miller. "Based on the drop . . . I think now you'll see the theft problem drop off as well."
That's none too soon for Baltimore County, which is getting a hefty financial return for recycled products -- for the first time since it began phasing in its curbside program in 1993.
The county gets $15 a ton for mixed containers and $122.50 a ton for paper products under a contract that began July 1 with Prins Recycling Co. of Baltimore. The county averages 200 tons per week in mixed containers and 750 tons per week in paper products, says Charles M. Reighart, the county's recycling coordinator.
Generally in Maryland, trash and other items set out in a public area are considered abandoned property and fair game for anyone, says county attorney Virginia W. Barnhart.
Only two localities in Maryland -- Baltimore City and Montgomery County -- have a law making scavenging of recyclables illegal. But neither locality has prosecuted anyone since adopting the laws in 1991.
Marsha Collins, spokeswoman for Baltimore's Department of Public Works, says the city hasn't had a significant problem with scavengers. "We've had a few reports of people opening blue bags and removing aluminum cans, but that has been about it."
Still, Baltimore County Councilman Louis L. DePazzo isn't waiting for the scavenging problem to get out of hand. He has introduced a bill that would make scavenging recyclables a crime.
The legislation would make trash and recyclables the property of the county; only those authorized by the county could take them.
The Dundalk Democrat's bill would make scavenging of recyclables a criminal misdemeanor punishable with a maximum fine of $500.
Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz plans to offer an amendment Monday night, when the bill is up for passage, to make the offense a civil violation.
"I don't want to waste the resources of the Police Department to enforce this," he says. "Also the burden of proof is not as great with a civil penalty than with a criminal violation."