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Last Updated: Friday, 12 October 2007, 06:02 GMT 07:02 UK
New York tackles 'rubbish thieves'
By James Gordon
New York

At the end of every working day, thousands of plastic rubbish bags line New York City's sidewalks.

While many consider them an eyesore, in the town where the entrepreneur is king, there are always new ways to make money and using other people's rubbish is one way to do it.

Rubbish bags on the street in New York
Streets not paved with gold - but potentially valuable rubbish
The underground market in recycling has become such big business now that some people are taking other people's rubbish in an effort to make money.

In the middle of the night, entrepreneurs, or thieves as the city calls them, arrive to stock up on recyclables.

City officials say it is stealing, and are introducing fines of up to $2,000 (1,000) for anyone caught taking trash.

Valuable junk

City councilman Michael McMahon, chairman of the council's sanitation committee, says that material left out on the kerb is the property of the city of New York.

"It's not just some silly rubbish - the junk has value, and paper in particular pays for the collection of the glass and plastics," he says.

"Without that, we don't have recycling - it's money that's used to help the city run its recycling programme."

The city noticed the amount of paper and cardboard that was being recycled had dropped over the past year by as much as 25% in some parts of the city.

Empty cans in plastic bags on the street in New York
Enough rubbish for everyone?

Mr McMahon says the city might be losing as much as 15,000 tons of paper a year from Manhattan alone.

"As the tonnages were going down, the city was losing $150,000 to $200,000 a year," he says.

Residents of the wealthy Upper East side noticed the thefts, but many remain unconcerned.

"I've seen them," says one evening dog-walker.

"They come in and take the cardboard out. I don't think of them as thieves, they're earning a living. I mean, they're helping themselves. I think there's enough garbage around here for everybody."

It is a view shared by many other local residents.

"I don't see why the city is complaining. If these people have the guts to go around picking it up, God bless 'em," says one man.

"I've heard about it," says another woman.

"I thought it was the things they could sell more easily, but if they take this, it saves the city having to do it. If the city are complaining, they ought to pick it up more often!"

'Hard job'

The city says paper is worth about $20 (10) a tonne.

John Dardy, commissioner for New York's department of sanitation, denies the city is being greedy.

Mike Sterling
Mike Sterling makes money collecting cans

"It's easy for them to make a buck or two at night because they can take the large piles of paper outside office buildings and apartments. If we go out anticipating that the paper is going to be out there, we've spent money to put that truck on the street."

The city has now passed a bill that would raise the fine for anyone caught stealing rubbish from $100 to $2,000.

But there is a loophole - you can only be prosecuted if you're taking home the trash in your car or van. Anyone using a shopping trolley, like many of the city's 30,000 homeless people, can take as much as they like.

Mike Sterling is one of those who pushes a shopping cart the city's streets, and he is aware that this new law will leave his collecting habit untouched.

"It doesn't have anything to do with a guy like me just trying to walk along and make a few bucks. It's a hard job, but one has to do what one has to do."

Mike makes about $12 (6) a day collecting 250 cans from the bins, and proves somewhat that in this city of eight million people, there really is enough rubbish for everyone.

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