Dumpster Diving Ban

With metal and identity theft threatening, the city steps up recycling-center security

Feeling vulnerable to metal theft at its 10 recycling centers, the city has created signs to remind people it's actually illegal to scavenge or pilfer from a receptacle on city property, using aluminum cans and coupons as examples of items that must stay in the bins. Starting about a month ago, two such signs have been rotated among the city's recycling centers, including the seven "supercenters" staffed by attendants from Goodwill from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

"There's been a lot of news lately of people taking copper and turning it in to be sold, and we just want to make sure no one's getting in the bins and taking out the aluminum cans," says Knoxville's Solid Waste Project Manager John Homa. "We did have calls from one or two folks who spotted people in trucks carrying off bags of cans, but mostly we just thought this would be a good idea."

While the signs may seem like a petty application of an almost never enforced city ordinance that bans digging into or rifling any solid waste container, Homa says they're intended to help protect a revenue stream. "We contract with Waste Connections to collect and take recycled material to Advance Polymer Recycling, which pays the city for the aluminum," says Homa. "The money from the sale of that material offsets the cost of hauling all the recyclables, and pays the contract for the Goodwill workers."

Since the "disturbing containers" ordinance does not specify a penalty, any person caught violating its provisions would be punished under "general penalty" guidelines—guilty of a misdemeanor, with a fine not to exceed $50, and/or imprisonment not to exceed 30 days, or both, plus court costs, for each separate offense, according to Jim Johnson, an attorney with the city law department.

Making people aware of the ordinance may deter metal theft, but it should also discourage injuries from the bins or their contents and encourage people to recycle papers freely, says Homa. "We don't want people coming to drop stuff off, seeing someone reach in a bin, and perceiving that as potential identity theft."

The two signs state that recycling areas may be under surveillance, and for the most part that's true, between the attendants at manned centers and store security at the four centers located on Kroger property. But so far cameras are just a possibility, says Homa. "We do have the option of putting a camera out, especially if one area becomes a problem."

Another new set of signs, one at each center, heralds the city's rejuvenated battery recycling effort and tells what attendants will collect, including watch and calculator button batteries and Ni-Cad cellphone or walkie-talkie radio batteries.

They don't deal in lead-acid car batteries, though, and alkaline batteries can be tossed with the household trash. "The EPA has done studies that found the alkaline in those batteries actually helps biodegradation in the landfill," says Homa.

The centers are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but recycled batteries are accepted only while the supercenters are staffed. There are no warning or battery information signs after 5 p.m., either. "When the Goodwill workers sign out, they take in the signs so they don't get taken and sold for scrap metal," Homa says.