Who owns your waste? Thefts from bins and backyards anger recyclers

There's been a spate of thefts of discarded cans and bottles, with victims claiming thieves just take the stuff they've stolen to recycling depots to get the 10 cents refunded.

One pensioner said the old containers  she had been collecting to return and get money for Christmas had been stolen from her backyard.

Another said thieves climbed a high fence to get bags of material she was going to return for money herself. Each item returned to the recycling depots gets 10 cents.

One council has warned this is theft even though the material had been thrown away. It said victims should call the police.

But others argue that some scavenging enhances recycling and that the new and expanding schemes in Queanbeyan and the ACT have drawn in many more people to gather discarded cans and bottles. Kids making a few cents might be involved.

Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council put out a statement: "The contents of someone's bin is the legal possession of the property owner when on private land and of council when on the kerbside for collection."

It added that taking from the bin was illegal and the police should be called. "We have had some calls about overly zealous container collectors raiding bins looking for ways to claim 10 cents via the Return and Earn program."

The schemes in NSW and the ACT are slightly different. In NSW, there are "reverse vending machines", often in supermarket carparks.

In the ACT, there are now nine centres, with more on the way, so that, according to the territory government, there will 18 return points by next July. The current centres are at the Salvos stores in Fyshwick, Mitchell, Phillip and Tuggeranong and Vinnies stores in Belconnen, Dickson and Tuggeranong.

The ACT government reckons that in the four months or so since the scheme has been running, nearly six million containers have been returned to collection points.

"Return rates have more than tripled since the scheme began and participation is continuing to grow as more and more Canberra residents get involved," a spokesman said.

Under both schemes, depositors of some types of cans and bottles (wine bottles are exempt) get money they can either keep or donate to charity. In NSW, it's often a voucher to cash in at the store where the machine is sited.

These money-for-garbage schemes seem to have created a whole new sector of recyclers - people who scour every nook and corner for discarded items each worth 10 cents.

In some small towns in NSW, thousands of items are deposited in the machines every day. Scavengers tour old people's homes and hospitals looking for cans the residents have discarded.

In the Woolworths car park in Queanbeyan, there are often long lines of people waiting to deposit cans and bottles, particularly on Saturday mornings. Some bring hundreds of cans on trucks.

Where the valuable refuse came from is not clear but some residents and the council believe the items are being taken from yellow-top recycling bins and backyards.

There are witnesses and victims.

Myrtle Fitzgerald, a pensioner who lives with her husband, Brian, in Karabar had been collecting cans and bottles in bags in her backyard when someone got in overnight and took them.

Thieves climbed Mirjam Herzog's gate to steal cans and bottles she had saved to recycle for cash. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Thieves climbed Mirjam Herzog's gate to steal cans and bottles she had saved to recycle for cash. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

They had hoped to cash the refuse in for a total of about $10 to help with Christmas presents - though the cash was not what she was most concerned about.

"It's not about the money", she said. "It's about a horrible person - an intruder - coming on to our property and taking a few lousy cans."

Mirjam Herzog said she had been driving past the site of the Spilt Milk festival the morning after the event and seen the sea of debris. She was so disgusted that she and her family stopped and collected four big black bin bags of rubbish with the aim of cleaning up but also taking it for recycling.

She left the full bags at home, went to work and returned to find that thieves had climbed her 1.75-metre gate and taken the full bags but left loose cans strewn over her property.

"It was about two hours of picking up stuff and it was gone," she said.

She added that she wouldn't mind if scavengers took cans and bottles from a curbside recycling bin but taking stuff she had collected and which was worth about $30 was annoying.

She said others in her neighbourhood in Karabar had also had scavengers take recyclable material. On Facebook, some have taken pictures of people they have caught in the act. The "thieves" appear to be quite well-dressed kids on bikes.

This story Who owns your waste? Thefts from bins and backyards anger recyclers first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.