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Treasuring of trash 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 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."

Clearwater City Attorney Pam Akin said aluminum can thievery is against Clearwater city code. The offense could yield a $500 fine, 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. The maximum penalty was 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

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 eager to receive calls about recycle bandits. He scurried to reported locations, 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 them either, McClelland said.

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

Something _ but not much. About 36 cans would yield 42 cents. _ Times researcher Barbara Oliver contributed to this report.