Christopher Erickson considers himself thrifty. The Painesville city man finds treasure in others’ trash, taking parts of unwanted items like old slow cookers and hair dryers and recycling them for cash. With the rising prices of copper, aluminum, and other nonferrous metals, that hobby can be profitable. “It’s good for gas, coffee, or cigarette money,” Erickson said. However, Erickson, 48, who has been collecting for 20 years, was surprised a few weeks ago when he was cited for looking through someone’s trash for recyclables. Cited for a seldom-used ordinance passed in 1999, Erickson was outraged. “I was informed that a piece of aluminum molding that I had removed from the trash on the treelawn was against the law in the city of Painesville,” Erickson wrote in a letter to the editor. “I was astounded.”

City police officers say they are trying to combat a growing local problem. With higher prices, thieves are searching for scrap, breaking into vacant buildings, stealing from new construction sites, and even taking supplies from people’s homes and garages in broad daylight, said Painesville Police Chief Gary Smith. Although these criminals are not violent, Smith referred to them as petty thieves and said they are causing havoc for businesses, homeowners, and landlords.

In Mentor, thieves took five 100-foot spools of copper wiring and 600 pounds of scrap from storage trailers at new-home construction sites, said Mentor police Lt. Gil Urcheck. Police have not found the materials or those responsible, Urcheck said, but they have sent out bulletins to other communities to look for scrap showing up in large quantities. “Take that (the stolen materials) to a scrap yard, and they’re going to raise an eyebrow,” Urcheck said.

Officials from numerous scrap yards in Lake and Ashtabula counties declined to comment on the phenomenon. Painesville police said the price of copper is over $2 a pound, which is more than a dollar higher than it was this time last year, according to scrap metal recyclers in Painesville. Piles of copper pipes and tubing sit in the Painesville Police Department basement as evidence in ongoing cases. Smith has contacted city Law Director Joseph Gurley and asked him to look into an ordinance that would require scrap metal yards to check personal identification before accepting metals. Smith said city pawn shops practice that policy, making it easier for police to find stolen items and arrest thieves. “Trouble is, they are in the business to take the materials,” Smith said. He mentioned that the Painesville Recycling shop is experimenting with a new policy to no longer accept foot traffic.

Police arrested a man in June after a witness spotted him walking down the street with the end of a copper pipe sticking out from his suitcase. Thieves often use rail lines or other covert routes to hide as they make their way to scrap yards, police said. A Fairport Harbor man recently appeared in court, accused of stealing scrap metal from a Painesville auto body shop. He was also found with drugs. The Associated Press recently reported that the problem has grown across the country and state. Police in Warren receive reports of stolen copper, mostly from vacant homes, almost daily, according to that report. Police find that many different kinds of tools are used to extract the metals, including hacksaws, wire cutters, pliers, and hammers. “This is not easy work,” Smith said.

Erickson was told by police he could continue searching through garbage as long as he got permission from residents beforehand. He plans to start a scrap salvage logbook, in which he will keep track of which residents have given him permission to collect and which have not. “Obviously, I did learn something,” Erickson said. But he also mentioned he’d rather go to jail than pay a fine for a law he had no idea existed. Police said the law was passed to prevent people from taking aluminum cans from curbside recycling bins before that program was abandoned. To discourage theft of scrap metal, Smith recommends making homes look occupied, even if they are vacant. Police will step up patrols around potential target areas, he said.

Call Now