Last year the Chicago Tribune published an interesting article on alley scavengers, mainly the scrap metal collectors who comb the alleys in Chicago and the surrounding area for old bicycles, appliances and anything else with a bit of scrap metal that might be turned into cash.
I don’t know how it works in other regions, but in alley-heavy Chicagoland, those right of ways serve as a disposal system that’s as eco-friendly as recycling and more convenient than a trip to the charity resale shop or even Freecycle. In fact, one of my friends compared casting unwanted household items in the alley to farmers back in biblical times leaving the corners of their field unharvested for the poor to glean.
I think that’s a stretch, but nevertheless, I appreciate the alley scavengers. I hate throwing things in the garbage if they’ve got a little life in them through reuse or recycling, so the alley offers a reprieve. The old, stained umbrella stroller that my boys outgrew? It goes out next to the garbage and recycling can and it was gone by morning. A piece of a sectional sofa that’s been around longer than my marriage? Gone. Old household appliances and the odd pieces of this and that vanish overnight.
For those unfamiliar with the practice, true garbage is left in the alley or curbside in appropriate bins or bags, while the items that are ripe for scavenging are simply placed alongside the real trash. There’s no need to place a special “Take me; I’m free” sign. It’s implied by the placement of the items.
Last night my husband put out an old broken globe. This morning it was there, picked clean of its metal stand. Like any scavengers, the alley pirates, as they are sometimes called, serve a purpose- they see that little goes to waste.
Some municipalities charge disposal fees for large items like old washing machines, but the alley scavengers will take them away at no charge. Apparently some towns feel they are losing out these fees and have taken a disliking to the scavengers.
More importantly, there’s concern that the scavengers are getting more aggressive and actually stealing items from people’s yards. That’s never been a problem for us, though.
And finally, there are concerns that the alley pirates are driving unsafe, overloaded, not to mention uninsured, vehicles.
Can the alley scavengers be regulated? Should they be? Interesting questions, especially given that since the Trib article came out, the economy hasn’t improved much at all. It seems the population of pirates has grown. I image turf wars taking place, “You get Evanston South of Church Street, but we call dips on Winnetka during dump week.” Okay, the talk is likely a bit rougher, the moves more aggressive; this is their livelihood, after all. And it’s not an easy way to make a buck, but in most cases, it is an honest one.
Whether they grab your cast-offs in the alley or on your driveway hours before the official garbage pick up, do you see Chicago’s alley guys as ne’er do well pirates or helpful scavengers?
Photo of a step stool I may have scavenged, much to my husband’s horror, and repainted with a cute little rocket ship.