In the quiet before the trash trucks arrived, as the city slept, Redondo Beach Detective Don Martinez confronted the nemesis of the recycling age. She was small, for a nemesis: an elderly immigrant woman with a trash bag in one hand and someone else's recycling bin in the other.
"No! No! No!" the policeman told her, using one of the few words they both understood. "No!" And he touched the bright orange curbside bin that was brimming with crushed aluminum cans.
She put the bin down, nodded and said "Si," and then went on her way, one of the luckier violators of Redondo Beach's new--and tightly enforced--recycling ordinance. The day before, a younger man with a pile of pilfered newspapers in his pickup truck was cited on misdemeanor charges, police said.
Steal a can, go to jail. Though some say it is harsh, it is the law in an increasing number of California cities. Most scavengers are simply frugal souls out to glean a livelihood from someone else's trash, but officials say they have become the bane of municipal recycling efforts.
Not all cities have the police manpower to send detectives out on pre-dawn trash patrols, but recycling experts say enforcement efforts such as Redondo Beach's may be the only way to ensure that curbside recycling works.
"Scavengers get the cream," said Richard Anthony, principal solid waste program manager for San Diego County and vice president of the National Recycling Coalition.
"They don't mess with things like glass (which have lower redemption values). They go right for the high-value stuff, like aluminum cans. They can cut into the profits of a municipal program by 10% to 20%, and that's conservative," he said.
A curbside program Anthony administered several years ago in Fresno lost an estimated $200,000 a year to scavengers, he said. In San Jose, Vera Dahle, who manages the city's 2-year-old, $1.5-million curbside program, said an estimated $100,000 worth of soda cans, bottles and newspapers were taken by scavengers last year.
And in Redondo Beach, city officials blame trash-picking for the failure two years ago of their last municipal attempt at curbside recycling.
"One of the reasons we failed last time was that scavenging was so blatant that people didn't want to put their cans out," said Ken Montgomery, the city engineer.
"People aren't as likely to participate if they do all the labor of separating the stuff, just so some scruffy-looking guy in a pickup truck can come around and pick it off, and make a mess of their garbage while he's at it."
Moreover, the city's trash hauler, Western Waste, insisted on tough anti-scavenging enforcement as a condition of the recycling contract, said Robert Abajian, the company's recycling coordinator. As a further incentive, Western Waste offered Redondo Beach a share of the profits if the hauler makes more than $7,000 a month from the sale of recyclables, Montgomery said.
So this time around, Montgomery said, the city decided to deploy a special police detail to "hit the scavengers hard for the first few weeks of the program." Four detectives on overtime in unmarked cars have been reconnoitering the garbage route, and will continue intermittent patrols when the week-old program gets off the ground, said the team's supervisor, Detective Sgt. Michael Minard.
"A lot of people have real mixed emotions about us being out here," Minard said. "I myself could probably give you a real good argument for us not doing this. These people are just trying to make a living. But the bottom line is, it's theft, and we need to make that point."
Redondo Beach is not the only city to have taken that attitude. Although stealing from city-owned bins anywhere in the state is petty theft--a misdemeanor with penalties of up to $500 in fines and six months in jail--at least 15 of the 25 municipal recycling programs in Los Angeles County are further buttressed by additional local anti-scavenging ordinances, according to the state Department of Conservation.
In Manhattan Beach, half a dozen arrests have been made during routine patrols in the month since that city's curbside recycling program was launched. Arraignments are scheduled later this month for the first two--a pair of men accused of loading recyclables, bin and all, into a pickup truck on the program's first day. Santa Monica's ordinance was strengthened last year after a rash of complaints from residents about scavengers. And in Alhambra, regular police patrols were beefed up on pick-up days when that city's pilot curbside ordinance went citywide two months ago, said program coordinator Beatrice Aranda.
Still, not every city is ready to go full-bore on recycling enforcement. Take Glendale, which, according to recycling head Lino Torres, has not prosecuted any of the half a dozen scavengers caught in the two years since the city's curbside program began.
When scavengers are caught with their hand in the bin, they get a good talking to, Torres said, but that is all.
"To us, it's pretty hard to go out and arrest somebody for a couple pounds of aluminum."