I am confused – how is this stealing?
By John D. Turner
6 Jun 2013

Who does my garbage belong to? Apparently, if you live in Minneapolis, MN, it belongs to the City of Minneapolis.

A recent article out of Minneapolis local CBS affiliate stated the following: “After you put out your recycling bin, thieves may be stealing your aluminum cans.” An interesting thought; I guess some folks are really possessive about “their” garbage. But really, if you are throwing it away, how is it “yours” any longer?

Maybe I am weird or something, but if I put my garbage out on the street, and someone takes stuff from it, I can’t see how that can be construed as "stealing." I have relinquished ownership the moment I set it out there. It’s garbage; I don’t want it anymore! I really don't care who takes it, as long as they don't make a mess.

Likewise, if I put something into the recycling bin that the city provides, as far as I am concerned, it is garbage. I put it into the bin because if I don't, then I don't have enough room in the "garbage" bin they provided for all my trash. As far as I am concerned, I have two "garbage" bins – one in which I am forced to place my recyclable materials and one which contains everything else. They are both trash as far as I am concerned.

The cans sit in front of my house, on public right-of-way, on trash day and recycling day waiting to be picked up. The city doesn’t provide this service to me free of charge; I am billed for their pickup every month. And I don’t have any alternative – there is no other competing garbage company I can hire to haul my trash away for less, or for any price for that matter. It’s a city monopoly.

For me, a person rooting around in my recycling bin to recover aluminum cans is a non-starter anyway as I don’t put aluminum cans in my recycling bin. The city of San Antonio doesn’t make a plugged nickel off recycling my aluminum as I do that myself. All my aluminum cans end up in boxes in my garage awaiting the time that I have enough collected to make taking them to a recycling center worth my while.

Now, if someone came into my garage and helped themselves to the cans I have stored there in my own boxes – yes, that would be stealing. They would have to come onto my property and into my dwelling to help themselves to stuff they had no right to. That is theft.

Apparently, the city of Minneapolis feels that way about their recycle bins – that which you and I would call a trash can. This never used to be an issue – until cities started making money by getting into the recycling business. Originally, recycling was billed as a “service” they provided. They weren’t making any money at it, they claimed – perhaps even losing money; as if engaging in losing propositions with your tax money is somehow a virtue. The excuse was that they were “saving landfill space.” Here in San Antonio, it was regularly reported that the recycled stuff we separated out many times ended up in the landfill anyway. But times have changed. Now, your trash is their cash.

Minneapolis is now claiming that they are “losing” $135,000 a year because of “thefts from recycling bins.” OK, I'll play along for now. So what about the things that don't actually make it into the bins?

What about my aluminum cans that I collect and recycle myself. Did I "steal" those from the city by not putting them into the bin in the first place? If I were to place my cans into my bin, and then take them out and put them into my box, would that be theft? How is that any different than never putting them into the bin in the first place, and putting them directly into my recycling box?

My neighbors don't recycle their cans - they consider it a waste of time; they just put theirs into their bin. Since I don't do that, am I stealing? And what if my neighbor decided instead to give me their cans? At that point, would they be stealing from the city as well?

Sounds a bit like Minneapolis (and other cities as well, no doubt) are saying "all your recyclables are belong to us". It's nice that the city provides this service, and good that they can make some money off of it to offset their collection costs, and perhaps save us some tax money somewhere along the line (like that ever really happens). However, to say that removing stuff from what is essentially a garbage bin is "stealing" from them seems like a long reach to me.

What about the bulk item pickups that our city, and I am sure other cities as well, have several times a year? From the article on “recycling theft” in Minneapolis: “scrappers know what the routes are and so they go ahead of recycling day, so they go through the recycling before the recyclers pick it up.”

That sounds a lot like what happens here on bulk item pickup day. Nothing metal that I put out on the curb ever survives long enough to be picked up by the city. Instead, folks cruise the neighborhood in pickup trucks savaging anything they can find. Most of the stuff they pick up will go straight to a scrap yard for recycling. Are these folks also guilty of "stealing" from the city?

If I pick up an aluminum can on the side of the road, am I being a good citizen by picking up trash, or have I just stolen that can from the city? Does it depend on what I do with the can afterwards? Am I a good citizen if I put it into a city recycle bin, but a thief if I put it into my box to recycle it myself? What exactly is my incentive to pick up that can if I can’t recycle it myself?

We used to have deposits on bottles, and it was rare to find those bottles on the side of the road, because there was always some enterprising kid (like me at the time) willing to go around and pick them up for the deposit. Now days, deposit bottles, at least here in Texas, have gone the way of the dinosaur, and bottles (along with plastic bottles and paper of every description) are lying around on the sides of roads everywhere. I know – I see enough of them when I go around picking up aluminum cans.

And yes, I do go around picking up aluminum cans to recycle. I need the exercise anyway, so while going on a walk in my neighborhood, or elsewhere, I always take a plastic bag along with me to put cans in. At 50 cents a pound, why not? They add up after a few months, and I can make $50 or so a trip recycling them. I get exercise and a little spending money as well. What’s not to like? I don’t go raiding trash cans or recycle bins – but if it is on the ground on a public right-of-way, it’s fair game to me. I don’t have anything against someone raiding trash cans or recycle bins mind you, but my primary focus is exercise. Although I have to admit, I have become pretty OCD where cans are concerned – just ask my wife.

If I accidently put recyclables into the garbage bin instead of the recycle bin, am I stealing? In England, this is apparently the case. There, putting recyclables into a garbage bin carries a hefty fine - even if there is no room in the recycle bin for the items. You are supposed to store them until the next cycle. Part of this is due to the limited amount of landfill space and part has to do with the money made from recycling.

And in England, everything is regulated. Heaven help you if your lid doesn't fit flush with the bin - that's a hefty fine as well. Your neighbors are encouraged to turn you in for putting recyclables in your trash bin. They are even coming out with bins in England that will alert the authorities if you put stuff in a recycle bin that is not recyclable and vice versa so that the appropriate fines can be assessed. Is it our goal to become like England in this regard?

As more and more cities begin making money with recycling programs, you are going to see this sort of proprietary attitude towards your garbage crop up in more and more places, along with fines, a la England for noncompliance as well. CCTV cameras placed to make sure you are in compliance? To catch you “stealing” from your neighbor’s bin? Why not? We have them everywhere else.

One last tidbit from the Minneapolis article: “Minneapolis is also working on passing tougher penalties for anyone caught with large amounts of scrap metals in their yard. Right now, there is no penalty or fine.” Whoops! Looks like no private recycling of my soda cans in Minneapolis! I would expect companion legislation mandating that recycling centers report any such activity by private citizens to the local gendarmes as well.

Your garbage; yet another area of your life that your government seeks to regulate.