The Rise of the Can Thieves

class=img_thumbleft>If you've spent any time on the streets of Minneapolis--hell, the streets of any decent sized city--you've witnessed the spectacle: a bedraggled-looking guy shoving a grocery cart bearing an enormous lode of aluminum cans. For the homeless and/or chronically unemployed, collecting cans has long been one of the easiest ways to raise funds for a jug of vodka, cheap meal or other fix. Easy, actually, isn't the best word. Can guys work hard for the money. Between the mean dogs, irate homeowners, and long distances hikes, they put up with more than their share of hassles.

Still, there is no denying the scrappers' lot has improved of late; mainly, this is because aluminum prices have reached historic highs. Kelly Dobson, a veteran outreach worker, observes that the better prices haven't made the street guys he knows wealthier. "They're not really getting a windfall," he offers. "They're just working less."

The rising scrap prices have introduced an element of unwelcome competition, says Susan Young, director of Minneapolis' Recycling and Solid Waste Program. "About a year ago, we started to see more and more people coming in from suburbs on recycling day, going through the alleys with a pickup truck and pulling all the aluminum," she says.

Technically, both the shopping cart guys and the suburban poachers are violating the law. Under Minneapolis ordinance, the moment cans are placed in a recycling bin, they become the property of the city; thus, anyone who takes them is guilty of theft.

Young doesn't think the homeless crowd has done much damage to the city's bottom line. But she suspects that the people in the pickup trucks--who collect cans much more efficiently than the shopping cart guys--are making a substantial dent. Young estimates that the city is now losing at least $700 a day to can thieves; at a minimum, that means the city coffers will be lightened by more than a quarter million dollars this year.

"When we can, we get license plates and vehicle descriptions and send letters to those folks," Young says. Would she like to see offenders busted? Yes. But, she adds, can theft is low on the police priority list; in fact, she says she knows of no cases where anyone been prosecuted for can poaching. (It's a different story in Japan, where the Yakuza is said to have recruited homeless people to gather cans).