Thinking about snagging it off the pile? You may want to think again.
Grabbing it could be illegal and even get you arrested.
Some metro Detroit communities have laws against scavenging or ordinances that detail what can and can’t be taken from the curb or if a license is needed to even do that.
At least one scrapper said he would like to see the rules changed.
“This law is very wrong in so many ways,” said Matthew Urquhart of Royal Oak, who said he’s a scrapper on the side – mostly commercial, but every so often he’ll pick something off a residential curb.
The 38-year-old said he owns a remodeling business and scraps to make a little extra money for his family and to help pay the bills. He said he doesn’t scrap in his own city anymore because there’s an ordinance against it.
Urquhart said he was stopped by Royal Oak police two years ago and told he couldn’t scrap without a permit. After he moved to the city about four months ago, he said, he went to city hall to get a permit, but was told the city didn’t have one.
Urquhart said he has repurposed many items he’s snagged, even made some into art. He said he believes anti-scavenging laws are “based on discrimination,” that they take away people’s freedom, attack the poor and that folks are being denied an opportunity to make money.
Bill Anderson, local government finance and operations specialist at Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, said one issue could be is that recyclables "have a value." If materials with a value are taken, he said, a trash hauler could come back to a community and raise rates because it's not getting money to offset costs.
Laws vary from community to community.
The city of Grosse Pointe doesn’t have an ordinance about individuals removing items from refuse that is out for pickup, said City Manager Pete Dame, who said he talked with someone looking at a toilet at his neighbor’s house on his street’s pickup. The man said it was cracked and he left it, Dame said.
Dame said city public works employees pick up refuse, so "we don't have any problem with people reusing things they may see of value. It is less our employees have to load, and lowers our landfill disposal fees," Dame said in an email.
He said if a commercial business is removing items, it would be required to get a standard business license.
In neighboring Grosse Pointe Farms, there is an ordinance that prohibits scavenging rubbish or recyclable materials placed in receptacles or containers. Anyone found in violation of the ordinance could face a $500 fine and/or 30 days in the county jail, according to the ordinance forwarded to the Free Press by Derrick Kozicki, city clerk and assistant city manager.
Scrappers, however, are often seen throughout many of the five Grosse Pointe communities and other cities and townships in metro Detroit scoping out items left at the curb.
Clinton Township Trustee Mike Keys said he has seen garbage picking “every trash day since I was a young kid. It was something we saw in our neighborhoods.”
He said he was surprised to learn there was a township ordinance against scavenging, but said it’s not strongly enforced. He said police are more focused on keeping streets clean and litter-free.
In Sterling Heights, officials said a license is needed to scavenge in the city. No licenses have been approved for private collectors this year, they added.
Jeff McKeen, general manager of the Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority, said each of the dozen communities it services has its own ordinances. The 12 communities in the authority are Berkley, Beverly Hills, Birmingham, Clawson, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Huntington Woods, Lathrup Village, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak and Troy.
"In general, it’s legal to scavenge trash, but it’s illegal to scavenge recycling,” he said.
McKeen said that’s because the communities get money for the recycling, which the authority processes and then sells. The opposite is true for trash — taking off the trash pile would reduce costs for the communities, he said.
Communities are paid for every ton of recyclables it brings the authority, McKeen said. If the authority receives less recycling from the communities, they are paid less. The payments, he said, help communities offset collection of trash and yard waste, essentially keeping residents’ costs for those services lower.
McKeen said the authority recently put out 64-gallon recycling carts, making it harder to scavenge from recycling carts. But, he said, “we don’t really have scavenging police or the garbage police.”
While scrapping isn’t a “high priority” from a community's standpoint, McKeen said, officials don’t want people doing it, in part, because they are paying contractors to do this work.
“They’re taking money from their neighbors by doing that,” he said.
Mike Csapo, general manager of the Resource Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County, which covers nine municipalities, said some of the communities have anti-scavenging ordinances, while others do not.
“They’re not necessarily that strongly enforced,” he said of ordinances that are in place. “Law enforcement officials have other things to be doing.”
The authority has nine members: Farmington, Farmington Hills, Milford, Milford Township, Novi, South Lyon, Southfield, Walled Lake and Wixom.
Generally speaking, Csapo said, once items are set at the curb and in the right of way, it becomes the property of the community and is collected in accordance with the contract the community has with its trash hauler.
“There’s an expectation from an operational standpoint, that’s the volume and nature of the items,” he said. “If that’s disrupted because someone is out there scavenging material, that becomes a problem.”
Urquhart said there are scrappers who are a nuisance and may do things the wrong way. But he would like to see his city's law overturned or a suitable recycling program that would allow folks to pull things off the street and possibly put them into a community thrift store. He said he could even support a permit being needed to scavenge.
“My concern is the city isn’t making as much use of that actual stuff as the people would,” he said. “I don’t think we need to fill our landfills needlessly.”