Don’t take the garbage

The Brooklyn Paper
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One man’s trash is another man’s treasure — though not legally.

A Cobble Hill filmmaker’s documentary looks at the legal consequences people face for collecting recyclable materials off the street for cash.

The movie, called “Mettle” and directed by first-time filmmaker Andy Arrow, features scrap-haulers hit with thousands of dollars in fines for “theft” of discarded household appliances and other recyclable stuffs left at the curb for pickup by the Department of Sanitation.

“It was a complete surprise — I was like, ‘Are you kidding me,’ ” said Arrow, who had no idea that once you put those materials out on the street in any of the five boroughs they become the city’s property under law.

The 57-year-old graphic designer began investigating the matter after his heavy-duty air conditioner, which he left discarded on the sidewalk, was mysteriously picked up within minutes.

“By the time I got upstairs, it was gone,” he said. “There was no sanitation truck.”

Curious Arrow decided to take his new handheld video camera out and walked the streets of the Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood in search of who might have picked up the metal appliance.

What Arrow thought would be a mere 10-minute YouTube video turned into an hour-long documentary that he made for less than $1,000 over the span of a year-and-a-half.

Using the average camcorder, Arrow interviewed and followed around trash-pickers who scour Brooklyn streets for discarded household items like ironing boards, refrigerators, microwaves, and other metal objects that they trade in at local scrapyards for cold hard cash.

“What they told me was quite surprising,” said Arrow, that the scrap-haulers often get ticketed and could even get arrested in some cases for picking up the tossed trash.

Solomon Washington, a scrapper of Bedford-Stuyvesant who is featured in the documentary, said that when he first started collecting metal scrap two years ago, it was a way for him to earn a living.

Washington said that he regularly drives around in his pick-up truck and packs it with discarded scrap. Cashing in the materials could land him anywhere from $50 to $250 a day, he said, adding that he has been hit with summons for “hauling construction material without a license.”

It is against the law to remove by motor vehicle recyclable materials, including paper, metal, glass, and plastic bottles, from the curb that have been placed out for trash pickup, according to the Department of Sanitation.

The fine for this offense is $2,000 and vehicle impoundment, and a $5,000 fine for each subsequent offense within a 12-month period.

Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kathy Dawkins said that an individual picking up the trash and moving it on foot is “technically not illegal” but is “frowned upon.”

In the film, Arrow also interviewed neighbors, activists, and politicians including Councilman Brad Lander (D-Park Slope). His requests to interview the Department of Sanitation and other city agencies were denied.

Arrow said that he tried his best in the ultra low-budget documentary to present the facts without any bias opinions, but that “you feel for anybody that’s being unjustly punished, for sure.”

“I haven’t found anybody else anywhere that said, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea — let’s arrest people for picking up trash,’ ” he said.

“Mettle” premiering at the Jalopy Theater [315 Columbia St. between Hamilton Avenue and Woodhull Street, (718) 395–3214,]. July 28, 7 pm. $10.

Reach reporter Natalie Musumeci at or by calling (718) 260-4505. Follow her at
Updated 10:12 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

ty from pps says:
This topic was also covered badly by the Brooklyn Paper a couple of years ago... and this "filmmaker" also seems to miss the point.

It's not "theft," it's theft -- no scare quotes.

Do you know *why* it is illegal to remove the scrap metal and other recyclables from the street? It's because the City subsidizes the operations of the Sanitation Department with the revenues from these items. The City coffers receive millions of dollars from contracts to help offset the costs of garbage.

Now let's put the question another way... Not, "Should we arrest people for picking up trash?" ... "Should we pay *more* in taxes and fees because some individuals are interfering with the operation of the city?"

Yeah, I get the empathy for the little guy argument. It's just not convincing. These folks only pick up the valuable things from the streets, leaving behind the garbage. When they start picking up the garbage bags and old mattresses along with the air conditioners and refrigerators, then we can talk.

By the way -- the DSNY and its contractors actually drain the refrigerants from condensers properly... that's not part of the "deal" for the thieves. They simply cut the line before they get to the scrapyard.
July 15, 2013, 8:52 am
tee gee from sunset park says:
A garbage "guy" with a truck took a mattress & box spring from my front gate. In doing so, he flipped it over the fence and dislodged it. When I confronted him he told me the fence was broken already.

I've had garbage "people" - both men & women come into my gate with tools and disassemble aluminum window frames (leaving broken glass & screws laying about) and even a hot water heater - just taking the parts they wanted and making a mess for me to clean up.

And the bottle collectors are the worst - they move recyclables that they don't want to my regular trash as they seek bottles - leaving me open to a ticket for mixing household trash with recyclables.

Once I "caught" a woman taking the liner from my pail to use to carry her bottles because my liner was thicker. And once a person decided to relieve himself while picking thru my trash....

I really don't feel sorry for any of them - including the one that shakes the last drops of liquid from my bottles on the sidewalk and tossed the bottle caps to the ground.
July 15, 2013, 9:47 am
tee gee from sunset park says:
btw, i have tried putting redeemable bottles in a separate bag hanging from my fence (for the collectors) but they still go thru my pails & rip open my other bags.
July 15, 2013, 9:49 am
tee gee from sunset park says:
btw, i have tried putting redeemable bottles in a separate bag hanging from my fence (for the collectors) but they still go thru my pails & rip open my other bags.
July 15, 2013, 9:49 am
Bob Scott from Brooklyn says:
The city wants to have it both ways — it ENCOURAGES people to pick through our trash for cans and bottles (creating the problems reported by tee gee), yet is upset while other pickers take scrap metal.
July 15, 2013, 9:09 pm
Andy Arrow from Cobble Hill says:
Response to Ty, from the "filmmaker:" Pleased to see that the article is initiating a small but spirited public conversation. A few of points, though: the journalist, not the "filmmaker," put "theft" in scare quotes, which is okay with the "filmmaker." Yes, DSNY and others (ie, Sims) make the claim that an estimated $3M per year in theft of recyclables affects the city's bottom line (please note: $3M is 0.002 of their $1.5B annual budget, if my math is right); meanwhile, the Sims Recycling facility in Brooklyn, which will ostensibly earn the city millions in revenue, is in fact millions over budget in *each* of the six years it is currently behind schedule -- quantifiably and inarguably "costing the taxpayers millions" each week that it is not operational. Finally, the notion of *should we arrest people for picking up trash/should we pay more for city services* is a classic example of what is called a false dilemma -- a rhetorical device that, in my view, obscures issues and exacerbates, not solves, problems. I do hope to see you at the screening -- I'll waive the cover charge.
July 15, 2013, 9:41 pm
ty from pps says:
Andy Arrow --
So, you think just presenting the sensationalist side of the argument both in this article and in your trailer is helping the problem? The problem is not a "false dilemma." There is a REAL issue of city revenue to cover expenses.

Since you've brought up fallacious arguments... How exactly, Mr Arrow, does the construction delays of the Brooklyn recycling facility (and it's associated costs) somehow mean that even *more* costs to the taxpayer is justified?

Should we also let folks "rent" parking spaces on the streets? Ya know, set up cones and privately tow cars that overstayed their welcome?
July 16, 2013, 7:48 am
ty from pps says:
By the way -- $3 million is still money *not* finding its way to the City's coffers.... chump change? That's 40 school teachers (educating 1200 children).
July 16, 2013, 7:54 am

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