Diving for recyclables is illegal, but that’s not stopping many

| August 27, 2013

Recycling is one of the ultimate feel-good activities. It’s good for the environment, it keeps trash out of landfills, and some might even argue that it’s good karma.

But what about stealing recyclable materials? Cash rewards for recyclables have prompted people in many communities to engage in shady behavior known as “diving for recyclables.” This sort of thing certainly throws the karmic aspects of recycling into question.

diving for recyclables

A woman carts around what looks to be more than the legal limit for exchanging recyclables for cash. From Dan DeLuca.

Many states offer cash in exchange for recyclable materials, either by the unit (can or bottle) or pound. While cash rewards may encourage recycling, a recent article in the Santa Monica Daily Press says that they also may encourage theft. People often rummage through residential or commercial recycling bins to cash in materials for rewards.

In Santa Monica, “diving for recyclables” is illegal. According to the article, “Recyclable materials are considered property of City Hall.” But the law doesn’t seem to stop people from indulging in the practice.

Many rely on recycling as a source of income. It’s reportedly very difficult to enforce the law, which means that diving for recyclables is commonplace in Santa Monica. “It’s a difficult issue in terms of enforcement because police have to catch people in the act of stealing recyclables,” Martin Pastucha, director of public works for Santa Monica’s City Hall, told the Santa Monica Daily Press.

Stealing recyclables is a misdemeanor, but is it worth prosecuting? After all, all the materials still end up being diverted from landfills, which is the whole point of recycling. Santa Monica has set an ambitious goal of diverting 70 percent of waste collected, and much of that diversion will come from recycling.

Still, when the city has to cough up rewards for recyclables (as opposed to the recyclables that are placed curbside with no intention of refunds), it does add up.

diving for recyclables

Some Walmarts support recycling with cash incentives, but would they support illegal diving for recyclables? From Walmart Corporation.

Michigan faces even more challenges when it comes to less-than-honest recycling practices. As the only state to offer a 10-cent refund per can or bottle, Michigan is awash with “smugglers” who cart in truckloads of cans from bordering states in order to cash in on the refund.

According to the Huffington Post, “Michigan lawmakers want to crack down on can and bottle smugglers.” Representative Kenneth Kurtz of Coldwater, Michigan, recently introduced legislation that would “make an attempt to return between 100 and 10,00 non-returnable containers punishable by up to 93 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.” The attempt is the key difference here — “current law sets penalties only for those who actually return fraudulent containers.”

Michigan reportedly loses up to $13 million annually on fraudulent redemptions. Several other states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, and Vermont provide refunds as well — but not as generous as those in Michigan.

As crimes go, recycling fraud and theft is relatively low on the totem pole. Still, the public should be familiar with the laws and keep recycling as karma-friendly as possible.

Category: Regulations

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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