For most people navigating the sidewalks of New York, the corrugated-cardboard bundles that stores put out for recycling are either an obstacle or nothing at all – invisible stitches in the city's zippy visual drapery.
But for a subset of underground scavengers, they represent a drool-inducing resource, something to be urgently carried away to a recycling plant in exchange for cash money.
"Cardboard poaching," as it's become known, is a multimillion-dollar cancer growing in the diseased corpus of recycling crime. Though the media have lately zeroed in on scrap-metals theft and restaurant-grease rustling, the stealing of cardboard still hovers below most people's awareness level. That might change soon as the bandits become even more brazen and as recyclers bear down on the papery perps who propagate this unusual black market.
The racket probably dates back decades, say industry sources. But in the past couple years the word on the street has really gotten out: Cardboard equals quick cash. To believe folks like David Biderman, there are crews in rental trucks circling New York every day in the feverish hunt for beige gold.
"We see the same trucks night after night in different locations. We have reason to believe there is some organization to this activity," says Biderman, a general counsel and lobbyist for New York's solid-waste professionals. "It's not as if 50 people woke up one morning and said, 'Today, instead of getting a real job, I'm going to go steal cardboard.' It seems highly unlikely that would happen at the scope and scale we're seeing in this city."
The way it's supposed to work is that approximately 150,000 commercial establishments in New York contract with waste-removal companies* who are licensed with the Business Integrity Commission, which among other duties is responsible for helping fight corruption in the city's garbage-management trade after the Mafia's intrusion in the 1990s. These authorized haulers schedule pick-up times with the businesses and whisk the waste away in professional-looking trucks.
The thieves, on the other hand, drive in trucks rented from U-Haul and Penske or even unmarked Econolines. They cruise slowly down the street manhandling bales of cardboard into the vehicles. Or they'll dodge behind a large store like Costco to retrieve spoils left outside by the Dumpsters.
It may sound like a tedious way to earn a living, but it's quite suitable for folks who like a good workout and fast payouts. "You rent a van and drive down Second Avenue [in Manhattan] or Atlantic in Brooklyn, you pick up a ton and a half of cardboard and get paid 150 bucks for it," says Biderman. "Do that twice a night and you're doing OK."
Sometimes, as in the case with three men busted recently in New Jersey, recyclers will allegedly form a front business ("Metro Paper Inc.") to support their cardboard ring. A favored tactic of this particular heist squad, according to the authorities, was to back their vehicles up to stores while pretending to be licensed haulers. With nobody on the loading docks apparently questioning their authority, they're suspected to have made off with 900 tons of cardboard in just three months this year, a weight that represents $103,000 in free money.
This stuff isn't just happening in New York, but in any city that leaves boxes lying around. In the past two years, police have busted people in Roseville, California, who were using a jack to lift stacks of compressed boxes into a rented Penske. There have been incidents in Virginia, Connecticut, Georgia, and Miami, where burglars went on an adrenalin-fueled cardboard spree from a CVS to a Toys "R" Us to a Dollar Tree to a Home Depot before finally falling into a dragnet at the Babies "R" Us.
But New York City is prime time for pulp plunderers. As CEO of the city's largest commercial-waste hauler, Action Environmental Group, Ron Bergamini has a front-row view of this mad dash for musty, decrepit cardboard. He's noticed his drivers are coming in with less and less material, and "you don't have to be genius to know something's amiss."
"We will have our guys on street watch, sitting at Lincoln Tunnel, and they'll see 50 trucks [filled with suspected stolen cardboard] go through to New Jersey in the course of a few hours," he says. "Two or three weeks ago, we saw a guy driving and he had his girlfriend in the truck. He took her along with him!"
Due to such excursions and other great dates, the city's recyclers estimate that they're losing anywhere from $8 to $10 million a year. They argue that this loss hurts consumers as well, because haulers who can't make as much profit are less likely to grant discounts to business owners. Those businesses might then resort to raising their prices on consumers, and so on.
Maybe because this argument is more suited for an Economics 101 course than an alarmist report on the evening news, cardboard theft remains a milkable cash cow for urban foragers. It helps that cardboard is in itself direly unsexy, linked with synonyms like "dull," "humdrum," "lifeless" and "stodgy." Just say it, cardboard, and you might find your lips lingering on that last syllable. Bored.
The authorities are not exactly doing zilch. Last year, New York's Business Integrity Commission helped arrest 15 suspected thieves and impound an equal number of hauling vehicles. When I contacted the BIC for this story, Commissioner Shari Hyman wrote back: "We aggressively investigate reports of theft that come in and what we’re starting to see is activity that stretches across jurisdictions. The way we’re addressing this added complexity is by partnering with our sister law enforcement agencies and advocating that businesses get to know and monitor their waste."
Still, some recyclers view the city's current enforcement to aiming a pea shooter at a swarm of army ants. It's hard clamping down on these guys; one source I talked with said if a trucking company refuses to rent to suspected thieves, they'll just seek out another rental company who will. The licensed haulers want New York to engineer stricter regulations for cardboard recycling, and the City Council might do so, with a bill in consideration that adds enhanced criminal penalties for box rustling that's titled Intro No. 889 ("Unlawful Removal or Acceptance of Certain Recyclable Material").
"Even when the BIC catches a cardboard thief, it is evidently difficult to get the district attorney’s office to press charges. The Police Department with many pressing responsibilities, does not consider cardboard theft to be an enforcement priority. Finally, when a cardboard thief is arrested and the vehicle he is using to illegally pick up cardboard is impounded, we are told that City agencies do not want to deal with a vehicle filled with cardboard."
The city's impound managers might want to phone China. That country, along with other developing nations like India, is driving the market by paying top dollar for used cardboard. The foreign recyclers then blend it down to remold into new products, such as containers for exports eventually shipped back to the United States.
Again, though the business may sound humdrum, it can be extremely profitable. In 2010, China's richest woman was "cardboard queen" Zhang Yin, whose $5.6 billion recycling empire made her wealthier than Oprah.
The price of cardboard is fairly good right now, at around $100 a ton. That means crooks are scouring the sidewalks for anything boxy. But this isn't like copper salvaging, in which an individual thief can rip some wire from an abandoned building and quickly swap it in for cash. No matter how buff you are, you can't just push a ton of cardboard down the block to the recycling facility.
Cardboard capers require a truck and the scheduling ability of a high-priced Manhattan secretary. "There's a game that's played," says Bergamini. "Our trucks keep going out earlier and earlier to try to beat the thieves. We go out probably five hours early. And the thieves go out earlier and earlier." Now the haulers have to drive out around 3 p.m., whereas collection used to happen after nightfall.
It's gotten so bad, in fact, that the prowlers have taken to hitting up Bergamini's business for stash tips.
"A couple weeks ago, someone called our office asking if we accept cardboard. The woman operating our phone says, 'Sure we do, where are you getting it from?' And he says, 'Well, I don't know. I'm going to rent a truck – where do you think I should get it from?'"
The guys at the office are still talking about that mystery caller. "How bad would that be to buy our own stolen cardboard?” Bergamini says. "That would really make me crazy."
* Correction: The city itself does not "contract" with any haulers, it just authorizes and licenses them.