Chicago’s Alley Scavengers: Boon or Bane?

| August 4, 2010 | Comments (7)

Painted Stool with rocket chipLast 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.

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Category: Environment

About Kim Moldofsky: Kim Moldofsky is a Chicago-area Social Media Mom of tween boys. Blogging since 2005 at Hormone-colored Days and around the web, she has a reputation as an insightful blogger who supports the momblogger community. She connects brands and bloggers for conversations, events and product reviews at MomImpact. View author profile.

Comments (7)

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  1. Lisa says:

    we live up in the suburbs but have LOTS of scavengers around us and yes they’ve stolen from us. we had a nice HEAVY bench towards the front of our fenced yard. one morning I went outside to notice something missing, when it hit me what it was my husband went looking and sure enough they’d taken it apart and left the wood slats in a pile in our back alley by the garbage. I have NO respect for our scavengers at all. my husband considered letting them in our house to pull out a broken chest freezer but I refused as we’ve had our home broken into after letting some questionable individuals in to look at something my husband wanted to sell!

    • That’s horrible! And I agree, I would not bring them into my house. Even when we’ve sold stuff on Craigslist, we usually meet them on the front stoop or maybe let them come into the foyer (which was about 3×3, not sure if it even counts as a foyer).

  2. selfmademom1 says:

    I have a love/ hate relationship with the alley scavengers. On one hand, I agree with you that the scavengers provide a purpose. On the other, it really bothers me when they speed through the alley and create more traffic. Most of them are nice and get out of the way, but the occasional rogue one really drives me nuts!

  3. Carrie says:

    It’s all love here. We had this awful thing out by our trash. It was part of a basketball hoop set into concrete, which my husband had sledgehammered out of our yard. The backboard went to Freecycle and the long metal pole got scavenged right away, but the chunk of concrete with a sharp metal end sticking out from where my husband sawed it off? It sat there for a month or more.

    I was really getting concerned that some kid playing ball in the alley was going to sever something on that cut-off metal pole. It exceeded the weight for our local large items pick-up service. We hated to pay by the pound to have something so heavy removed.

    Then, one day, it was just gone. Someone finally decided it was worth lugging away, and whoever that scavenger was, I sure hope they made a few bucks off of it.

  4. Molly says:

    I have no problem with the scavengers. The ones I’ve dealt with are polite and drive slow through the alley. Some of my neighbors, however, don’t seem to get a clue that there comes a time to shell out the couple bucks for a large-item waste sticker. We’ve had furniture in our alley for months in rain and snow that it’s painfully obvious no one will re-use or recycle.

    • That is pretty lame on the neighbor’s behalf. We no longer live in the house with the helpful alley scavengers. In our new location, the garbage gets put in the front of the house and the scavengers only stop by on garbage night. Sucks for us as we put out an old, large, heavy ping-pong table that the garbage truck left behind. I was out getting eaten alive by mosquitoes last night chopping it up with a circular saw, so it will get taken away next week. It was a lot of work, but power tools are empowering to a tiny mom like me.

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