Pluck Something Shiny From the Recycling Bin? That'll Be $2,000, Says City

03.16.12 Bucky Turco

Last February in Brooklyn, “found object” artist Albert Prince saw a “rooftop television antenna made of recyclable metal, as well as metal cans” placed out for garbage collection. Instead of letting them go to the scrap heap, he put them into his car according to court papers. A vigilant Sanitation Department officer witnessed him remove the recyclable stuff from in front of a Flatlands residence and cited him for violating NYC Administrative Code § 16-118(7)(b)(1):

“Except for an authorized employee or agent of the department, it shall be unlawful for any person to disturb, remove or transport by motor vehicle any amount of recyclable materials that have been placed by owners, tenants or occupants of residential premises, premise occupied by city agencies or institutions, or vacant lots, or by their servants, within the stoop area, adjacent to the curb line or otherwise within or adjacent to such premises or lots for collection or removal by the department unless requested by the owner of such residential premises or vacant lot or his or her agent.”

The punishment for this type of violation? Two large, plus expenses and an impounded car:

NYC Admin. Code § 16-118(7)(f)(1)(i) imposes a $2,000 fine for the first such offense and § 16-118(7)(g)(1) requires that the motor vehicle used in committing the violation be impounded.

A month later, Prince appeared before the Environmental Control Board (ECB),” a type of court,” and was granted an expedited hearing, which went terribly. Administrative Law Judge Judith E. Stein fined him the whole two grand. Maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned to the sanitation officer that he occasionally sold metal scrap when he didn’t use it in his art? On March 31st, Prince filed an appeal against the decision and asked for the fine to be waived, claiming economic hardship.

While that was pending, he worked out a deal with the Sanitation Department on June 24 to get his car back. Officials agreed to reduce what had become a long term parking fee to $500, which is cheap by NYC standards: Remember, the City has been holding this car for four months now. They even allowed him to drive away without paying the whole bill at once. Isn’t that courteous?

A full year later, on March 1, 2012, the New York State Supreme Court ruled on his appeal and it was…denied. Surprise!

In the decision, Judge Cynthia Kern wrote that it doesn’t matter if the Department of Sanitation testified and said the provision was designed to prevent “those [taking recyclables] for commercial purposes… and in great bulk,” the law is the law:

“It is not the role of the courts to rewrite the statute to make exceptions for people taking items in small number or for artistic purposes. If the legislature so chooses, it may amend the statute or the Department of Sanitation may direct its employees not to issue notices of violation for people taking recyclables in small amounts.”

So, fine. The law is the law, but are people who are pulling useful goods out of the recycling harming anyone? Most trash and recycling pickers tend to be conspicuously neat and courteous, as making a mess of the garbage isn’t going to make them the most welcome sight when they come around to pluck out their treasure next week. We’ve reached out to the Department of Sanitation for comment, as well as to ask if they will be willing to make a policy change with their employees to allow some flexibility for their street-level employees to determine whether a person is a commercial, large-scale recycling harvester or just some citizen who spots a way to save some perfectly useful junk from going for a trip to the dump.