Cesar and Jose are inside the Dumpster behind the Freakin’ Frog, up to their elbows in smashed beer cans.
It’s one of the richest aluminum caches they’ve found all night. They fling out the goods and sort them into their own big, black trash bags in a chorus of crunching and rattling. They throw the bags over their shoulders and feel the weight. Perhaps $36 so far, Cesar estimates. These cans and bottles are destined for a California recycling center.
And this is where it becomes illegal, says Dennis Campbell, Southern Nevada Health District environmental health manager for solid waste and compliance.
“These individuals are stealing out of bins from a number of locations, bagging it up and taking it back for storage,” he says. “Then they are taking it to states that pay for the material. If they store up enough, one truck [load] can bring them up to $26,000.”
Republic Services, the local waste collection, disposal and recycling company, is losing money from recycling theft, but it’s difficult to judge how much, says Bob Coyle, governmental affairs vice president. Drivers don’t track suspected thefts, and recycling volumes change week-to-week. Republic Services has franchise agreements to pick up recyclables in the region. But trash scavengers like Cesar and Jose are beating them to it.
Cesar’s Adidas sneakers pound the asphalt from 7 p.m. until midnight, possibly later if he and his friend don’t collect enough. Eighty cents per pound for plastic; $1 per pound for aluminum, Cesar says. Tomorrow at 10 a.m. they will meet a man named Roberto at a pickup site in North Las Vegas. They know how this underground business works.
“Roberto, he takes it,” Cesar says. “Brings to Los Angeles. It’s [worth] more money [there], maybe 60 cents more than here.”
Cesar is right that a can is worth more over the border. He just doesn’t know how much more. Nevada doesn’t redeem recyclables for cash. California has pro-conservation redemption laws. And that has created a boom in Nevadans crossing the border with trucks full of recyclables.
“We can’t say how big a problem it is,” Coyle says. “But with the economy the way it is, it’s a bigger problem now than, say, three years ago.”
This week, Cesar and Jose will collect up to $280 in tin, plastic and aluminum. Often from right out of your recycling bins. Other times, from sedan-sized Dumpsters, like this one behind the South Maryland Parkway bar. Or the community trash bin. One man’s trash finances another man’s buffet breakfast. Rent at the weekly motel. Family struggling overseas in an economy far worse than ours.
Glass, plastic and aluminum cans, less than 24 ounces, with a “CA” cash refund symbol are worth 5 cents. The larger ones are 10 cents, according to the State of California Department of Conservation website. California residents see a return on their money when they bring containers to a recycling center. Redemption money is added to the beverage cost when purchased.
And that’s why redemption rates are only intended for residents of that state, Campbell says. Local scavengers are getting around the law, since beverages sold in Nevada don’t have the extra money added onto the price.
On that state website, you can input a Las Vegas zip code and locate the nearest California recycling centers. The closest is 113 miles away in Needles. Nine others are within 140 miles of Vegas. These redemption sites are aware of the problem, Campbell says. He has been sharing information with other enforcement agencies.
One of these centers is probably where Roberto will take the bags of cans and bottles scavenged by Cesar and Jose. They lug the five trash bags, shifting the burden from shoulder to shoulder, down a back alley. You’ll hear them before you see them. This ubiquitous, hollow sound is part of the soundtrack for Clark County, where 12.3 percent of the population is unemployed, and many more are underemployed, or have just given up.
Who’s doing this? The chronic homeless? Newly unemployed? Undocumented workers? Anybody?
“It ranges all over the map,” says Campbell.
The health district has received numerous complaints from residents who have noticed recyclables disappearing out of their bins before the official pickup. Campbell says they have field inspectors working on about six cases.
“We get a license plate number or an ID and trace it back and find where they’re taking it,” he says. “They use a large moving truck or a van registered in a different state. We trace it back to who rented it. Then we track down the illegal operations.”
After an initial warning, the department can fine illegal disposal operators from $500-$5,000. Only 19 sites in Southern Nevada are permitted to receive, store or process recyclables.
Cesar and Jose work in the shadows seven nights a week. Cesar, 27, has lived in Las Vegas for three years, mostly finding work in maintenance. Jose, 37, made furnishings in Cuba and Miami before moving to Vegas about four months ago. His black hair is frosted with gray. He sends money home to his family in Cuba.
“This is about neighborhood safety,” Coyle says. “Theft is against the law. You don’t want thieves in your neighborhood.”
Cesar and Jose say this is the only job they can find.
“I’m working,” Jose says, with a sheepish smile. “It’s good.”