They’re about as common around the borough as bodegas and one-way streets — people dragging shopping carts loaded with empty cans and bottles down the streets, weaving through parked cars and lining up in parking lots at shopping centers.
Often they’re the best proof of when a neighborhood’s recycling pickup days are: Mondays in Laurelton, Wednesdays in Astoria and Ozone Park or Saturdays in Bellerose.
What they do is completely legal and widely accepted as a reality in a city as economicly diverse as New York. Some are living in extreme poverty and are looking for cash just to eat, while others are just looking for an extra buck. Often residents don’t seem to mind the intrusion into their garbage pails and place bottles and cans next to pails to make pickup easier.
But these collectors are also the target of scammers, who using box trucks or vans, will try to buy the cans and bottles from them for less than they’re worth. Many don’t speak English well — or at all — and are easily taken advantage of.
Though can collectors will usually go to redeeming centers at supermarkets, some stores have a limit on how many cans and bottles they take back for the deposits. Often the collectors have more cans and bottles than stores will allow them to redeem.
That’s when scammers make their move. Driving around in large white box trucks or vans capable of holding hundreds of cans and bottles, they offer an amount to a collector for their entire stash that is often well below what they could be redeemed for, take the cans and bottles, turn them in for the full deposit and walk off with the profit. They often stop collectors at or near supermarkets in parking lots or schoolyards.
That reality has led the City Council to pass a bill that aims to protect can collectors from being victims of scammers. The legislation, which passed the Council overwhelmingly on July 24, would make it illegal for people to collect bulk recycling in vans or trucks and subject violators to fines as high as $1,000 or even have their vehicles impounded.
The bill, which was sponsored by five borough council members — Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), Peter Koo (D-Flushing), Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) and Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) — awaits Mayor Bloomberg’s signature or veto, but it had the support of a veto-proof majority.
Ulrich said he threw his support behind the bill after witnessing some of the scamming.
“These people just drive around and will offer to buy them for less than they’re worth,” he said. “Collectors can collect $300 at one time and these scam artists are swindling them out of that money.”
Ulrich noted that he once called the police after witnessing scammers trying to cheat a collector near an Ozone Park school and the cops later impounded the truck.
“I’m not against people trying to make money, but I’m against people being cheated,” he said.
If signed into law, the bill will go into effect Jan. 1, 2014.