Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Put Down the Garbage, and Step Away from the Van

The City of New York has long had garbage sports teams (the Mets, the Knicks, the Rangers....all garbage for a long time now).

But now NY is laying claim to a strange property right: WE OWN YOUR GARBAGE!

In this story in the Times (garbage of another kind entirely) we learn how it works.

“While the theft of recyclables may seem like a harmless offense, this activity seriously damages the city’s recycling program,” (NYC Mayor) Bloomberg said when he signed the law on Tuesday. With each theft, the city loses income from the sale of its own recyclables.

...The problem, sanitation officials said, was reflected in a steep decline in the amount of recyclables that were picked up from some of the city’s wealthiest and most densely populated blocks in a 12-month period that ended in July.

In parts of the Upper East Side, the officials said, the tonnage of bundled paper that was collected plunged 25 percent — compared with 2 percent citywide — and not because residents discarded less of it or became less responsible about separating recyclables from their other trash. Instead, a lucrative underground market has emerged.

Scrap metal, like the bed frame taken by Mr. Bosque, can be sold for up to $250 a ton, five times the price of a decade ago, according to a widely recognized index of commodity prices published by Waste News, a trade publication. Bundled paper or cardboard, the most commonly stolen of New York’s recyclables, can bring in $90 to $120 a ton, more than double what the city receives under long-term contracts with its own brokers and processors.

That means someone can quickly fill a van in Manhattan, drive to Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, and sell the loot to one of several brokers. After that, most of the paper and metal ends up in China, Vietnam, India and other developing nations where demand for recyclables has soared.

“There has always been a fair amount of scavenging in the U.S., but the increase in demand from abroad has been dramatic,” said Ted Siegler, an economist and consultant based in Vermont who has analyzed recycling around the world.

He said a piece of scrap metal taken from a Manhattan curb might end up in a steel mill furnace in Asia.

Some thoughts:

1. Suppose I write a contract with a recycling broker, who can get twice as much as the city will pay for this material. Do I own my own garbage? Can I sell my old bed frame on Ebay, for $4, instead of giving it to the city? Is New York going to change the sign on the Statue of Liberty to "Give me your poor, your tired, your recyclables!" Do I *owe* the city all my garbage, as a kind of tax?

2. The city is complaining because it has less garbage to pick up. In fact, people are "stealing" the garbage. I have a proposed solution. Stop collecting the garbage, and let people come in from New Jersey with vans and take ALL of it. Then you won't have to have all those $120,000 per year garbagemen on the city payroll.

3. At what point does the property right to the garbage get transferred to the city? Suppose I decide it is cheaper, for me, to sell my used paper to a broker. Do I owe the revenue to the city? How is that different from having an entrepreneur take the paper I have given away by putting it on the curb?

(Nod to Watercrosser Man)


Dirty Davey said...

"At what point does the property right to the garbage get transferred to the city?"

That does seem to be the key question. I would assume that a jurisdiction which provides trash and recycling bins would have more of a claim that "when you put it in our bin you're giving it to us" than places where it sits loose on the curb. And once it's on the truck, it's definitely the city's.

Now at my folks' house, garbage collection is not a government responsibility. There are private contractors, and you pay your garbage bill every so often. From the county website:

"The County does not pick up garbage. [Town residents call your town.] If you live outside an incorporated town, you can hire a private trash hauler to pick up your garbage on a regular basis or you can bring your garbage and recyclables directly to the landfill."

Anonymous said...

I think the issue is rather that when a resident has left his trash for the city to collect, it's illegal for a third party to collect it. It's this third party who's 'stealing', not the resident, and there would be no problem with selling (or giving away) your trash before you leave it on the street.

Mungowitz said...

Thanks to both!

For davey: If I understand, then, the property right is signed over to the contracted third party, and they would need to pick it up to make their money.

For ian: That SOUNDS right, but I wonder. If enough companies did that, then again the city would "lose" money. The effect would be the same as in the story: "a steep decline in the amount of recyclables that were picked up from some of the city's wealthiest and most densely populated blocks..."

Why doesn't some entrepreneur sign a contract, for $100 per year, with ALL the companies in a give block, and take the recyclables?

If there is money to be made, and if (as Ian claims, I think rightly) there is no legal claim by the city to the stuff before it is placed on the curb, why isn't someone making money?

Shawn said...

well, of course, the city *needs* that stuff to make money (or, at least, according to this one podcast i heard one time, to break even on the shitty things that get recycled that they lose money on).

The profitable items are, surprisingly, the first things to be pulled by entrepreneurs off the streets, leaving all the green glass for the city to mop up.

And, as they can't say "we're not taking green glass, because it's not profitable" (reference previous podcast and 'it's always cheaper to recycle' woman, and multiply her by millions, thereby populating NYC), they've got to make sure that they can keep the profitable items, or they lose their asses.