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Violence at East Village Recycling Centers Alarms Locals

By Patrick Hedlund | August 25, 2010 2:04pm | Updated on August 26, 2010 6:36am

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

EAST VILLAGE — Each morning the lines outside a pair of supermarkets on East Fourth Street begin to swell with patrons waiting to drop off recyclables at the stores' bottle-deposit machines.

But this activity does not always come without incident, as evident from neighbors who have recently complained of violent and offensive behavior by some recyclers, including a reported fight last week between two patrons at the Key Food facility on Avenue A that led to an arrest and a trip to the hospital.

Some recyclers come toting just a few handfuls of assorted cans, hoping to make a quick dollar by dropping of each 5-cent item in the self-serve machines.

Others arrive with shopping carts and garbage bags bursting with recyclables collected from across the city — precious refuse that could fetch them up to $200 a day if they treat it as a full-time job.

Many understand and respect how this particular sub-economy works, and how it can prove quite lucrative for those who treat it seriously.

But the situation has become a nuisance for some residents who say they have had to contend with aggressive recyclers on the sidewalk, public urination and drunkenness, and the conflicts they say spill over from the trade on a regular basis.

"We have to be careful not to demonize people who are just trying to redeem their cans and bottles under a very widely popular program,"  said Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, whose East Side district covers one of the facilities at Fourth Street and Avenue C.

After hearing repeated complaints about the location, he convened a public meeting with local elected officials and the police last month to discuss ways to combat the quality-of-life disturbances posed by some recyclers.

"The precinct has increased their attention to the issue and their patrols there," Kavanagh said. "I think the community needs to be active in identifying behavior that needs to be stopped."

Frequent recyclers at the Key Food redemption machines near Avenue A said last week’s reported violence occurred because some people don’t appreciate the system that’s been established by users there.

"The only reason this gets better is because of us, individually," said Phillip Cameron, 47, an East Village resident who gathers recyclables from multiple buildings in Manhattan and deposits them for cash at different redemption facilities throughout the city.

He explained that he and others who use the machines frequently have tried to establish some sense of order for the crowds who congregate each day.

"We all get along and we all make money," Cameron said, adding that violence involving the homeless occurs "very rarely."

"We have a good system because we don’t spend the day dogging each other out," he said. "There’s money to be made — lots of money."

Those potential profits don’t go unnoticed by some male visitors who simply choose to rob recyclables from female patrons, many of them Chinese women.

"It’s been a rough place always," said Bob Arihood, a former neighborhood blogger who has lived across the street from the Key Food facility for 35 years and wrote about the recent violent episode.

"There’s a whole different level of reality out here with different rules. The strong take from the weak."

The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding arrests or complaints stemming from the deposit locations.

A manager at Key Food said some people can be "nasty," but that the supermarket doesn’t have the manpower to closely monitor the situation.

"People are going to be people," said the manager, Hennesy, who declined to give his last name. "They need to eat, too."

One user directly attributed the clashes to the shortage of employees, saying that disputes arise when patrons with hundreds of recyclables refuse to allow those with just a few-dozen items to use the machine before them.

"You got to wait one hour to cash in 20 cans," said Clarence Gatling, 66, who lives on East 30th Street and drops off recyclables at the Avenue A facility every so often.

"The store should do something about that," he added. "It’s not right."

Cameron agreed, saying he once saw a man wait more than five hours to redeem his recyclables.

"We’ve have no problems amongst us, but we have problems in the other direction," he said, referring to the supermarket staff. "All you got to do is hire one person to concentrate on all this."

Over at the Fine Fare supermarket on East Fourth Street and Avenue C, which has a nearly identical setup to the Key Food facility, employees explained that visitors often quarrel while jockeying for a spot in line.

"Most of the people come from the street," said store manager Alex Ruiz, noting that Chinese and Mexican recyclers use the machines most often. "We don’t let nobody do whatever they want. If you’re drunk, you have to get out."

Ruiz added that his employees regularly observe patrons to keep minor skirmishes from escalating.

"It’s the same people every day," he said. "Recycling is getting bigger and bigger now."

Most agreed that a combination of tough economic times and an influx of wealthy consumers in the area has only made the situation worse in recent times.

"This is good pickings up here, because there so much activity and so much waste," Arihood noted.

"This is trickle down economics, and when it gets to the bottom, it’s every man for himself."