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In Our View: Theft of curbside recyclables is a conundrum

The Columbian
Published: February 24, 2024, 6:03am

Is it an annoyance, a problem or a threat?

The difference can be a matter of semantics and can depend upon who is being asked. Such is the case with people rummaging through garbage and recycling bins in search of cans and bottles that can be redeemed (in Oregon) for cash.

As detailed in a recent Columbian article, the practice certainly is an annoyance. Residents report concerns about strangers coming into neighborhoods, often late at night or early in the morning, and sifting through bins that have been set next to the curb.

The motivation is clear. Oregon has a 10-cent deposit on cans and bottles that is paid at purchase. The money is returned when the container is returned.

Oregon was the first state to adopt a bottle bill, passing it in 1971. While the law was an effort to reduce roadside litter and promote organized recycling, it probably was not expected to be a talking point on the other side of the Columbia River some five decades later.

Washington, you see, does not have a deposit on containers and instead encourages curbside recycling. And when Clark County residents set the containers out for morning pickup, some people view it as a payday. As a commander with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office explained: “I would say, of the people I’ve contacted doing this over my career, at least a good 90 percent are homeless, and this is a source of income for them to be able to purchase the necessities.”

Going to an Oregon redemption center to return containers from Washington is not allowed. If you drive up in a car with Washington license plates, monitors will request a receipt for proof that the items were purchased in Oregon. But it is not difficult to conceive of ways around that law.

Anyway, to many local residents the practice is, indeed, an annoyance. It also can be viewed as a problem, one that is potentially costly for those in Clark County. Once a bin is placed at the curb for collection, the recyclables are the property of Waste Connections of Washington; the company relies on the containers for revenue, and taking them is theft.

As a Waste Connections official told The Columbian: “We process and sell about $2.5 million worth of aluminum products from our curbside material every year. And I couldn’t tell you how much of that is lost through theft at the curb.” That loss can lead to higher prices for household recycling services.

The question then becomes whether that problem is threatening enough for police to get involved. Law-enforcement officials encourage residents to contact police rather than confronting people who are looking for cans; at the same time, they admit that punishment of scavengers is not a high priority.

One local resident told The Columbian: “When I leave for work at around 6 a.m. and there is a van parked directly in front of my house with bags of cans sitting outside of it and people rummaging through trash and recycling receptacles in my neighborhood, it makes me feel unsafe. When I call law enforcement, the people rummaging move out of the area, so there is rarely accountability.”

All of which creates a conundrum. Having scavengers sift through garbage and recycling bins can be a costly problem for the local recycling company and, therefore, ratepayers. But it seems unreasonable to make it a priority for short-staffed law-enforcement agencies, or to prosecute can thieves.

So, unless Washington adopts a bottle bill that requires containers to be returned to reclamation centers, it likely is an annoyance we are stuck with.