Picking Up Discarded Items From Sidewalks Is Illegal, Officials Emphasize

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Unwanted items are often left on New York City sidewalks for garbage pickup, but turning someone else’s trash into your treasure could land you in trouble with the law.

As CBS2’s Weijia Jiang reported, such scavenging is even costing the city money.

Riding along with New York City Sanitation police, one can see their eyes stay on the sidewalks.

“I’m hunting,” said Sanitation Police Officer Ed Burke. “That’s what it is. I’m a hunter.”

Thieves search the sidewalks for trash to turn into treasure.

“They have a box truck like this mail truck here. They’ll fill it up five times a night, and they’ll get about $600 each truck,” Burke said.

They take anything and everything made of metal, or bails of cardboard –- recyclables that add up to a lot of money at a scrap yard.

“It could be in the millions of dollars,” said Deputy Sanitation Commissioner Vito Turso. “Millions of dollars — there’s lots of money left at the curb.”

You may not know, but as soon as anything is left on a curb, it becomes the property of the city. It is illegal to grab and go.

CBS2 saw one man allegedly try to do it.

“When the super gave me the authorization, ‘Come pick it up,’ I think it’s no problem,” he said when Jiang pointed out that picking up discarded items is illegal.

Inside the man’s van was a residential microwave, refrigerator and washing machine – all appliances containing metal, police said.

Only sanitation crews or licensed vendors are authorized to take items. When they pick up less, the city loses money.

For that reason, police look for scavengers around the clock.

Police know exactly where to go, using the city’s schedule for recycling pickup. In Chinatown, sanitation police drove exactly the route that crews were to take the following morning – which means residents and businesses were putting out their recyclables the night before.

“By the morning, it’s gone,” Burke said.

Police said there are more thieves than ever, getting in on a surprisingly lucrative secret business.

The alleged thief who appeared in this story was given a court date, and could face a fine of up $2,000 if convicted. And even stealing a picture frame or a lamp could cost you $300.