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Taking cans can lead to trouble

At 4:30 a.m. each Tuesday, Robert Sprinkle walks the block around his home, a large trash bag in hand, in search of aluminum cans: soda cans, beer cans, juice cans.

Sprinkle, 50, says he is manic depressive and is emotionally unable to work. His only income is a $600 disability check each month and now, the cans. His wife lost her full-time job a few weeks ago and works only part time.

So Sprinkle began picking up cans six weeks ago to buy some essentials, like socks. Too humiliated to let his neighbors see, he starts out before the sun comes up. In six weeks, Sprinkle said he made about $35.

Still, he said, "I'd rather sell beer cans than apply for food stamps."

The food stamps may have been the better choice, as far as the law is concerned. Food stamps are legal. But taking cans that people put out for garbage collectors is stealing, said City Attorney Gerald McClelland.

Once at curbside, cans aren't up for grabs, McClelland said. Technically, "The property owner transfers title to the city on recyclables."

People have been taking cans from curbside recycling bins for years, but the issue came to the forefront last week when Mayor Thomas Feaster said during a meeting that someone _ not Sprinkle _ was stealing cans from outside his home. If Feaster catches the culprit, he said he will call police to make an arrest.

But what is the crime here, Sprinkle wonders. His family pays taxes. Tax money pays for the bins. He thinks that makes the bins open to the public.

"I'm ashamed of it," Sprinkle said about taking the cans. "What else am I going to do, though? I'm not going to let Thom Feaster turn me into a criminal just because I need some extra money for socks."

Feaster does not stand alone, however. Aluminum can profits may be small, but as far as some government officials are concerned, the crime of taking them isn't.

Clearwater City Attorney Pam Akin said aluminum can thievery is against Clearwater city code. The offense could yield a fine of up to $500, she said.

In Ormond Beach, a city employee roamed neighborhoods with a video camera to catch anyone taking recyclables, according to a 1996 article in the Orlando Sentinel. Conviction meant 60 days in jail, a fine of up to $500, or both.

In Sacramento, Calif., police conducted a sting operation last year to catch recycling bin thieves. According to the Sacramento Bee, police gave residents in at least one neighborhood a special dye to squirt on their bins. The dye was not visible to the eye, but glowed in the dark. Undercover police then camped out at recycling centers, waving light wands over cans as people brought them in. At least one person, a 66-year-old woman, was arrested when she brought in her load of recyclables.

In Plano, Texas, a recycling director was ready to receive calls about recycle bandits scouring neighborhoods. He would scurry to the purported location, with binoculars ready, hoping to catch the thief still in the act, according to a 1995 article in the Dallas Morning News.

If Sprinkle and others who take cans were filching bags of kitchen scraps or other household rubbish, no one would care. Years ago, before people recycled cans, no one would have cared about the aluminum cans either, McClelland said.

Today is a different story. Environmentalists have created a nation of recyclers, people willing to compile and sort their newspapers, plastic, glass and aluminum. A bin full of aluminum cans in 1998 is worth something.

"On today's market, you're actually getting something of value," McClelland said. "A crime is stealing something of value."

Value, yes _ but not much.

A family would have to drink about three 12-packs of Pepsi before they had enough cans to make 42 cents. That's how much Sprinkle gets per pound at Acre Iron & Metal in Pinellas Park.

Aluminum cans make up a small portion of Largo's recyclables, said recycling coordinator Helen Wertel. If people stopped stealing, the increase in cans probably would not be enough to help the city achieve its goal of recycling 30 percent of the garbage it picks up. The rate is 26 percent now.

No matter, Largo police say, they are ready and willing to make an arrest if they catch a thief. "Absolutely," said spokeswoman Allison Griffiths. "It's considered a theft."

It's a misdemeanor, to be exact, Largo police said. Getting caught could mean up to a year in jail or a fine, Griffiths said.

Wertel periodically gets calls from residents concerned that their recycling efforts are benefiting what McClelland called an "interloper."

Sprinkle can't believe the hoopla over cans. He said government officials should focus on more ways to help people like himself with disabilities rather than on who is taking their soda cans.

He said Feaster is living in "la la land," and that "there are a lot of people that supplement their incomes by taking aluminum cans."

Feaster has made his point clear. Residents put the cans out for the city, he said, not for people like Sprinkle.

"He needs to find some other source of income," Feaster said.

_ Times researcher Barbara Oliver contributed to this report.

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