In his flannel shirt and stocking cap, George Cooke pokes around trash bins on Seminary Street in Rockford with garbage tongs, loading mangled pop cans and bits of wire into a grocery cart. When he’s done, he limps past Victorian homes and run-down housing projects to Joseph Behr & Sons, a recycling company, where he’ll earn about $6 for his efforts.
In his flannel shirt and stocking cap, George Cooke pokes around trash bins on Seminary Street with garbage tongs, loading mangled pop cans and bits of wire into a grocery cart. When he’s done, he limps past Victorian homes and run-down housing projects to Joseph Behr & Sons, a recycling company, where he’ll earn about $6 for his efforts.
Cooke, 82, spends the money on food and toiletries, and said he’s walked the same route from his Brewington Oaks apartment to the recycling plant for years.
“I stay on my old route,” Cooke said. “Or I might get lost.”
But the way Cooke and many others supplement their income annoys some residents, who call the area “Scrappers Highway,” a nebulous network of side streets and alleys that wind south to Joseph Behr.
“I am tired of scrappers literally ripping open my garbage bags, and if they rummage through my garbage cans, they don’t pick anything up,” said Joe Owen, who lives in the ORCHiD Third Union College Neighborhood, which encompasses part of Seminary Street -- a main artery of Scrapper’s Highway. “To watch the endless parade of scrappers walking by every day, it does kind of bring the neighborhood down a little bit.”
Cooke and other scrappers in the area said they sell their items to Joseph Behr. The company pays about 65 cents a pound for aluminum cans and 10 to 20 cents a pound for electrical wire.
“People with carts are the least likely to have stolen goods,” company President Richard Behr said. Scrappers are not a serious problem, he said, and exist in communities around the country. “They are people who need some money and bring their little scraps to us.”
The Police Department’s Community Services Unit routinely patrols ORCHiD and nearby Haight Village, Sgt. Marc Welsh said. But cracking down on scrappers is difficult because they aren’t committing a crime by peddling scrap unless it’s stolen, which is often hard -- if not impossible -- to prove.
Ordinance not enforced
“It really is quite a conundrum,” city attorney Jennifer Cacciapaglia said. A lesser-known city ordinance bars people from removing trash from garbage bins, but she said it “isn’t enforced on a consistent or regular basis.”
“We certainly don’t know, driving up and down the street, whether garbage has been removed,” she said. “This would definitely be an ordinance we would only be able to enforce realistically on a complaint basis.”
During stings, police officers are on the lookout for pedestrians walking in the middle of the road, who can lead to a citation for walking in the roadway. That’s one way to control scrappers who walk in the street, Welsh said, but, according to department statistics, police have issued only two citations for that offense in the area since the start of 2007.
Mike Molander, of Haight Village’s neighborhood association, and Owen said they’ve seen scrappers with aluminum ladders, chunks of siding and other items they suspect once belonged to residents.
“Every time they go past your house, they are looking for any little thing that they can make five cents off of,” Molander said.
Scrap buyers keep records
Behr and the city’s other recycling plants are in compliance with ordinances regarding stolen scraps, Cacciapaglia said.
Because of the spike in the price of scrap copper in recent years, state law now requires that buyers keep detailed information about the people who sell them copper, including names, addresses, copies of their photo IDs, dates and times of the sales, and descriptions of their purchases. Businesses must keep logs that police can routinely check.
A recent complaint prompted the city to check 21 businesses in the past 60 days, Cacciapaglia said. A handful were not within city limits, and the rest were law-abiding.
Still, neighborhood leaders want scrappers to find a new neighborhood to find their metals.
“We’re trying to put a better face on the neighborhood, and this (problem) doesn’t help,” Owen said.
Sadie Gurman can be reached at (815) 987-1389 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.