The Green Scene

A reader’s call-in question led Xpress from plastics to thieves this week. At the start, we set out to find out why some plastic can be recycled and some can’t. We got an answer but then stumbled upon a perplexing trend in the world of recycling: thieves who’ll snatch up aluminum cans, washers and dryers, old microwaves and … manhole covers?

The usual suspects: When recycling, it’s plastic bottles, yes/plastic tubs, no. Aluminum cans? Watch out for thieves. Photo by Margaret V. Williams

Those big steel lids “bring a lot of weight,” says Steve Henderson, field-operations manager for the city of Asheville’s Sanitation Services Division. Weight means money, he explains: Thieves can haul them off and sell them to a scrap dealer who melts down the metal for resale, so the heavier the material, the more money they get. Trouble is, he notes, they “take them up and leave a [dangerous open] hole,” he says, adding, “I don’t think anyone locally would buy [manhole covers], because they know it’s illegal.”

But those, it seems, are not the only target. In the city, there’s been an increase in thefts of recyclables and white goods. Residents call the city to pick up used washers, dryers, refrigerators and the like—a program aimed at preventing improper disposal and for getting functional goods to nonprofits for reuse. But thieves, says Henderson, have taken to snatching up the goods before the city crews arrive.

There’s also been a rise this year in thefts of aluminum cans, he reports. These can-do robbers have been seen dashing through a neighborhood on recycling day and grabbing all the aluminum cans. They’ve also been caught stealing cans from drop-off sites. It’s a problem with a twofold cost, Henderson reports: One city contractor, Curbside Management, estimates that it’s lost some $27,000 worth of pilfered cans. To continue keeping city recycling rates the lowest in the state, notes Henderson, Curbside needs to make money, not lose it. The thefts threaten to raise everyone’s costs.

Curbside President Barry Lawson agrees. But Xpress had initially called him to ask about plastics: specifically, why some No. 1 plastics weren’t being recycled. “As long as the neck is narrow, we can recycle it,” Lawson explains.

In other words, plastic bottles are OK; margarine, yogurt or deli tubs and such aren’t. Bottles, it seems, are blow-molded; tubs and such are injection-molded, says Lawson. The two processes use different types of plastic with different melting points (as anyone can discover by trying to microwave food in a not-so-recyclable container). The injection-molded plastics would contaminate the plastic that Curbside peddles to its buyers (at the moment, there are only two: a carpet manufacturer and a business that supplies Coca-Cola, he notes).

As for neckless plastics, Lawson says, “We’ve never found anyone who has an end use for them.” Without a buyer, recyclers like Curbside have no incentive to collect such items, which can be reused at home but will probably ultimately wind up in the landfill.

Aluminum cans, however, have been hot, fetching about $80 per 100 pounds at one point this summer, says Lawson. One weekend, he caught five people stealing cans. Collecting cans after a Special Olympics event one Sunday, Lawson stopped a woman who was grabbing cans and asked her what she was doing and why. “She said she was taking the material to give back to the needy,” Lawson recalls. Given that he was collecting the cans for a nonprofit, Lawson found her answer quite curious. “It was kind of twisted logic,” he says.

Lawson acknowledges that tough economic times may be one reason for the increase in these odd crimes. Unlike many of the materials picked up for recycling, aluminum cans have an immediate market, and there’s money to be made. “Where are [the thieves] going to go with a pile of paper?” he wonders.

But if a tough economy has spurred the crimes, it may also slow them down. In the past two months, the payback on all the materials Curbside collects has fallen by 40 to 45 percent, he notes.

Perhaps that means there won’t be a repeat of a robbery that happened during this year’s Bele Chere, adds Henderson. Once they’re placed in trash cans, bins or other collection points, recycled materials become city property until Curbside or other authorized recyclers pick them up, he points out. At least one thief, however, was not deterred by that little fact, Henderson recalls.

“We had problems with one individual, even after we warned him to put … the cans … down.”

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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