CHICAGO -- For three years, Antonio Carsonetti pushed a small rowboat he
mounted on a chassis and three bald car tires, collecting loads of street-side
junk that sometimes weighed 10,000 pounds more than his slim, featherweight
Like a conquistador searching for El Dorado gold on a backwater finger of the
Amazon, Carsonetti combed the side streets and alleyways of Edgewater with an
unchecked entrepreneurial spirit and a steely desire to turn metal into money.
Recently retired from the junk trade, he carted around the large
wheelbarrow-like structure with relative ease. Its "balanced design" and the
lack of government interference in what he was doing made it easy; the city had
a laissez-faire attitude toward the junk trade.
The days of free-wheeling junk peddling may soon hit a bump in the road,
Changes are creeping up on this group of lone workers as the city attempts to
control a trade that occupies a nebulous realm somewhere between treasure
hunter and glorified urban janitor.
In early November, the City Council required all junk peddlers to register
their motorized vehicles with the city by providing proof of liability
insurance. All peddlers must now obtain a $70 license from the city Department
of Revenue and renew it yearly.
While the ordinance passed with little fanfare, the changes are sweeping for
peddlers; they must comply with the law before year's end, when the city starts
to enforce it, or face fines that could drive them out of business.
At first glance, the law appears to impose safety measures on a relatively
unrestricted trade. But it may have other consequences, said Ken Dunn, director
of Chicago's Resource Center, a non-profit recycling organization.
The tonnage totals of the city's blue bag recycling program have been
disappointing, Dunn said. The city could make its program look better by
reducing the amount of recycling in non-blue bag programs, he said.
The city has "no incentive" to curtail voluntary recycling, said Jessica Rio, a
spokeswoman for the city Department of the Environment. "The material is still
going to be there. We're not taking steps to lower the (recycling) rate."
About 27 percent of the city's recyclable garbage is captured in the blue bag
program, Rio said. City garbage trucks collect the blue bags from residences
and bring them to recovery centers, where workers pull out the recyclables.
About 11 percent was captured in 1996, the program's first year, she said.
But the city's support for other recycling efforts has tapered off since the
blue bag program was introduced. In 1986, for example, when Souma Phosaraj
started as manager of the Uptown Recycling Center, the city footed 100 percent
of the bill to keep the facility going. In 1996, that support dwindled and the
following year there was nothing, Phosaraj said. Now, Dunn's Resource Center
funds the center's operations.
"The city looks at it as if some people choose bottled water over tap," Dunn
said. The city offers to pick it up from your home, but won't pay for
facilities where you could drop off blue bag contents yourself, he said.
The ordinance is almost certain to put some peddlers out of business, Dunn
said. And in a trade dominated by immigrants operating on shoestring budgets
with barely enough room to make needed improvements to deteriorating trucks,
news of the law has been slow to trickle.
Many North Side peddlers, who come to Phosaraj's Uptown buy-back and drop-off
facility to sell their metal, will be caught by surprise, he said.
"They live on the street, they don't know what the city wants them to do,"
Phosaraj said, over the roar of a rickety conveyor belt that passes metal
underneath a strong magnet -- a device resembling a clackety tank tread
scooping and sifting steel from aluminum.
Amelio Torrez, a 56-year-old peddler who was wheeling his converted shopping
cart out of the Uptown facility, shrugged his shoulders and turned up his
"I didn't know about it, but the pay is no good, so I guess I'll do something
else," Torrez said.
The economy already has taken its toll on the recycling business.
Phosaraj points forlornly at the half-full tractor trailer in front of his
recycling center. The trailer, which hauls aluminum away for processing, should
be full by now, Phosaraj says. But because prices are so low, peddlers are
doing other things to make ends meet.
Indeed, junk prices are at an all-time low. A surplus of inexpensive imported
steel has saturated demand and a high number of demolitions over the summer has
flooded the market with an overabundance of scrap metal.
"I was getting $70 a ton for cast iron, $40 a ton for stainless steel, and 35
cents a pound for aluminum. Now cast iron is down to $35 a ton and aluminum is
down to 30 cents a pound," Carsonetti said.
"There is no money for the guys out here in the pickups. If the prices went
back up to where they were, we would see some decent pickups on the road doing
At the General Iron buy-back facility, 1909 N. Clifton Ave., a fleet of rusty
trucks teem for space at the unloading dock. Adam Labkon, a worker at General
Iron, appreciates their work. "If the city had to pay people to pick up scrap
metal, the costs would be phenomenal," he said.
Under the new law, peddlers must carry their licenses at all times, but a more
obvious difference for those who comply will be to display their names and
license numbers on both sides of their vehicles.
Even the size of the lettering will be controlled (It cannot be less than 2
And, for the first time, peddlers must wear a kind of uniform; a reflective
safety vest or similarly reflective clothing.
The ordinance also bans vehicles from parking on any residential or business
"Many of the trucks park in alleys and that means $50 every time they are
ticketed," Carsonetti said. "It gets expensive so they rent garages to hide
their trucks or rent 'parking pads'" -- small concrete parking spaces that sit
just off the alleyways and are usually owned by businesses. Pads are
technically on private property.
One method some peddlers use to conceal their vehicles is to put a camper shell
on the pickup bed at night, transforming it to a "recreational vehicle."
Peddlers will be forced to keep proof that they've disposed of prior loads at a
junk facility, recycling facility, transfer station, landfill or other solid
waste facility that has been issued a permit by the city.
The city also plans to punish peddlers who take the contents of blue bags.
Peddlers who take blue bags from alleyways may face a $500 fine. Dunn estimates
that about 50 percent of the aluminum sold at the drop-off centers comes from
Stopping peddlers from stealing blue bags may be more difficult, however.
"Putting a mark on the cans, a transistor, or setting up a kind of sting" would
be the only way to catch pilfering peddlers, Dunn said.
Thinking about being nabbed by a transistor is the last thing Miguel Cruz is
Clutching a receipt for $27.39, his payment for an eight-hour day that began at
5 a.m., Cruz, a seven-year peddler, paces nervously back to his truck.
"How can I make any money when I have to worry about gas and insurance for my
truck?" he said. Over the clanging of steel in the alley next to General Iron,
where a loud crane picks over strands of metal piled two stories high, Cruz
raises his voice, his Spanish quickening.
"If people could see how hard I work, could see how terrible this work is, they
would see that the city should be paying me to do this -- to keep the streets