FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — Investigators wearing bulletproof vests sit in unmarked cars outside a Southern California recycling center, swapping license plate details over two-way radio before dawn.
"It's big, big money — for somebody," said Steve Rivera, a senior investigator with the San Bernardino County District Attorney's office who has been conducting sunrise surveillance to track, educate and cite the culprits. "People don't recognize the fact that it's actually theft."
The crackdown in gritty, industrial suburbs east of Los Angeles aims to put a stop to a long-running practice that surges with cardboard prices and wallops trash company revenue — and could eventually push up trash collection rates for homeowners and shopkeepers.
New York City has battled cardboard theft for years. Local authorities elsewhere have cited those who swipe recyclables from waste hauler-provided bins, but the efforts haven't curtailed the theft of cardboard, which can net anywhere from $100 to $200 a ton.
When the economy booms, cardboard prices rise as manufacturers make more goods and need more packaging to sell them. Thieves are more brazen, and steal much more, when cardboard prices peak.
Waste haulers count on selling the recyclables they retrieve at the curb to offset the cost of collection, industry experts said.
"Our industry loses millions of dollars a year due to cardboard," said David Biderman, general counsel for the National Waste & Recycling Association. "One piece of cardboard by itself isn't valuable. But customers often generate substantial volumes of it."
The price of cardboard currently hovers around $100 a ton — much higher than during the 2008 recession but down from last year due to weaker demand from China, which is the largest export market for U.S. cardboard, Biderman said.
Under most state and local laws, people can collect cardboard left outside by a business or doled out by a shopkeeper for recycling. But they can't remove materials from recycling bins left out at the curb, which are considered property of the local waste hauling company, said Ronald Steiner, a professor at Chapman University law school in Orange County, who teaches case law related to privacy rights and garbage.
In San Bernardino County, officials are citing offenders with misdemeanor petty theft. So far, two citations have been issued, Rivera said.
Burrtec Waste Industries, which is working with county investigators, has seen the problem grow since a California law required many businesses to recycle, which has meant more trips for trash trucks but also more thieves, said Michael Arreguin, the company's vice president.
"We can't absorb it completely as a company," Arreguin said. "If it continues, the return value of the material has to go down, and therefore it increases the cost of that recycling container."