Last week, “Tombstone” Bill Pearson sat in the darkness outside his home waiting for the interloper he knew was regularly ripping him off.
Long before the sun rose, the culprit showed up, pedaling down the 2600 block of East Liberty Street on an old bicycle. Pearson, in a T-shirt and his underwear, stormed to the street.
Nobody was going to steal his trash.
Actually, the loot was the recyclables he had put in his blue bin by the road for the city’s collection truck, which wasn’t expected to show up for hours.
“I basically had been putting aluminum cans for the recycling division in my blue box and putting them out there at 12 at night,” said Pearson, a retired professional wrestler who grappled under the name of The Bruiser in Tampa for a couple of years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “I had been waking up at 6 in the morning before trucks rolled by and checked. The bins were empty.’’
The same thing was happening to his neighbors, Pearson said.
So he set out on a surveillance mission and it wasn’t long before the recyclable reprobate appeared.
“I caught somebody,” Pearson said. “It was not violent. There were no weapons. It was a man, just an old man riding around on bicycle with big old plastic bags, stealing the cans.”
On the bike were six garbage bags full of cans, he said.
That irked Pearson, 59, even though the cans probably ended up in the same recycling facility, with just one more middle man added to the chain.
“I called the police and they came right up,” Pearson said. “We stood right there. The man stood right there. He didn’t run or nothing.
“I’m a big guy,” said Pearson. “I was walking out there in my underwear and he saw me and he went all jellybeans.”
“I said, ‘Don’t move or I’ll lay you out.’ ”
Though police did show up, they said there was nothing they could do on Pearson’s behalf. “They said anything you put out there next to the curb is abandoned property,” he said.
That’s right, said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis.
“If you put your garbage out on the curb,” she said, “somebody’s going to come to take it. There’s no harm to the homeowner and it’s not illegal.”
That is unless the recyclable container, which is the city’s property, is pilfered.
“If they take the bin,” she said, “that’s actual property; that might be something.”
How many calls does the department get about theft of trash or recyclables? Davis pondered the question a moment and then chuckled.
“I talked to a couple of officers in the office and asked if they had ever heard of any calls like this and they said no,” Davis said. “It’s not a crime so I can’t pull any stats.”
In some locales, such behavior is a crime. New York City recyclables on the curb become the property of the collector, who is the only one legally allowed to take them away.
San Jose, Calif., city officials passed a law saying that the recyclables on the curb belong to the collector, whose money is made by taking the material to a processing center. In San Jose, anyone else who dumps the bins into their trunk or garbage bag is committing a crime.
And this from the city of Santa Cruz, Calif., in a 2010 newsletter: “The practice of stealing recyclables from city-owned blue recycling carts is called recycle theft, cart theft or scavenging, but whatever you call it, it’s illegal. Once the material is in the blue cart, it becomes the property of the city of Santa Cruz.”
Not so here.
Recyclables, no matter who collects them from the curb, more than likely will end up at a processing facility, and the end result – helping the environment by reducing the amount of refuse in the landfills – is served.
Either way, homeowners aren’t out anything. They leave a bin of recyclables at night and wake up to an empty bin in the morning.
“We get about one complaint a year, and that’s out of about 250,000 residential customers, regarding somebody taking recyclables from their curbside,” said Michelle Van Dyke, spokeswoman with the Hillsborough County Public Works Department, which oversees garbage collection.
“When you put something out by the curb,” she said, “it’s going to disappear.”
Still, the practice bugs Pearson, who turned to driving an 18-wheeler for 16 years after his short career in the ring and now survives on a disability check.
“Why are we spending all this money to take all this stuff away?” he said. “I support the city’s recycling system. It’s mandatory and we pay a big bunch of money. I pay big utility bills.
“If we give this crap away,” he said, “why are we letting these trucks roll, why are we paying all this money?”
He said he’s reconsidering putting out his recyclables. Maybe he’ll load up the cans and take them in himself to make a few bucks.
“I’m not putting anything out in the blue box anymore,” he said. “My neighbors aren’t, either.’’