Cardboard Thieves are Making Millions Off Your Trash

If the cardboard in your recycling bin disappeared overnight, would you complain? Probably not. Instead, you’d just be happy it’s gone. After all, that’s why you’re putting it in the bin in the first place – so waste haulers can take it away. 

However, in cities from Los Angeles to New York to Madrid, it’s often not the legitimate recycling firms doing the pickups. Instead, it’s cardboard trafficking gangs beating them to the punch.

Southeast of LA in Huntington Beach, waste management and environmental services companies claim that half to three-quarters of the cardboard that gets thrown in commercial recycling bins is stolen before their drivers pick it up. 

“They know our routes and they get there before we do, and they pop the lock and they pull it out,” said Sue Gordon, vice-president of public affairs at Rainbow Environmental Services in an interview with The Associated Press.

At the recycling centers, these cardboard gangs are pulling in nearly $100 per ton of cardboard. They’re often soaking their stock in water to increase the weight. The sheer amount of cardboard that a city produces means that these thieves are making tens of millions of dollars – and you can bet that they’re not paying a cut to the city like legitimate haulers do. 

Across the ocean in Madrid, police estimate that almost half of all cardboard put into recycling was being stolen. In February of 2020, the Spanish Guardia civil police force arrested 42 suspected cardboard gang members on suspicion of environmental offenses and money laundering. These gang members were accused of stealing more than 67,000 tons of cardboard per year since 2015. By Madrid’s estimate, they cost the City Council a total of €16 million in recycling revenues. That’s just under 19 million USD.  

In New York, gangs circle the city in large rental trucks, scooping up the so-called “beige gold,” and delivering it to processing centers. It’s tough work, but the payout is quick and reliable. Their biggest enemy is New York City’s Business Integrity Commission, whose mission is to eliminate organized crime from public wholesale markets, trade waste and shipboard gambling industries. The BIC was formed in the early 2000s after the Mafia began inserting itself into the city’s waste management trade in the 1990s. 

The BIC licenses legitimate waste-removal companies who sign contracts with the commercial establishments in the city to haul away their waste. These licensed companies are losing millions of dollars in revenue every year on cardboard, simply because the thieves are beating them to it. 

According to AMCS, a global software solutions platform designed for the solid waste, recycling and material resource industries, the annual value of legitimately recycled cardboard and other paper is expected to climb to $5.4 billion globally by 2024. 

So next time you throw some cardboard in your recycling bin, keep an eye out for the unmarked Econolines and rented U-Hauls prowling the streets. You never know who could be looking to make a quick buck off your trash!