Scavengers Find Newspaper Recycling Lucrative

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Yesterday's news isn't worthless anymore. It's so valuable, in fact, that people are stealing it.

In Washington, scavengers in rental trucks have been prowling neighborhoods before dawn, swiping the newspapers out of residents' recycling bins.

In Sun City, Ariz., the Lions Clubs posted off-duty police at some of their newspaper recycling boxes after people in trucks pulled up in the middle of the day and cleaned them out, making off with tons of newsprint at a time.

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And in Toronto, they're called the Blue Box Bandits, named after the colored containers they plunder for paper.

This run on the news - or at least the paper on which it's printed - has been sparked by skyrocketing prices for recycled newsprint: They rose from about $30 a ton in June 1994 to about $160 a ton a year later.

''Up until really fairly recently, recyclables did not have that much of a value economically,'' says Linda Grant, a spokeswoman for the District of Columbia's Department of Public Works. ''The intrinsic value of doing something for the environment was there, but to actually be able to sell these materials and reap a profit had not been possible within the last year or so.''

In the past, scavengers concentrated their efforts on aluminum cans, which can bring around $800 a ton, according to Chris Combs of Waste Management Inc., a nationwide waste disposal and recycling company based in Oak Brook, Ill. But it takes some 56,000 12-ounce soda cans to make a ton, she says.

Debbie Garcia, editor of the trade publication Paper Recycler, says that not long ago, the price of used newsprint was so low that it cost localities to get rid of it.

As recently as January 1994, paper mills were paying only $14.38 a ton for old newsprint, Ms. Garcia says, ''which really is negative, because you have to spend at least $25 to $30 (a ton) to bale the stuff.'' Collection and transportation raised the costs even more.

''Now, it's become a big business,'' Garcia says. ''It just goes to show, when the price is right, you don't need laws to force the collection.''

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