Smile Politely

Bad Laws: The Cord Cutters

Next week, the annual horror begins. Thousands of kids will dump the entire contents of their apartments in & around the dumpsters of Champaign-Urbana. It begins the week before Commencement, and continues ‘til Sunday night of finals week.

Throughout the week, The Metal People will scour our alleyways, collecting  anything shiny. They’ll tear apart bed sets for the mattress frames. They’ll hammer through CRT screens to fish among the innards for precious pieces.

You’ll see their loaded pick-ups wending a way toward Mervis Industries’ Advantage Recycling facility on North Cunningham, in Urbana.

Walking along the side of the road, you’ll see their impoverished brethren: The Cord Cutters.

The Cord Cutters can’t afford pick-up trucks. They carry their findings in a sack. You’ll probably see a lightweight rod in one hand. The rod is used to locate appliances in dumpsters. Its pointy end rips through garbage bags & their soft (and smelly) contents before finding the toaster oven, lamp or microwave within.

The Cord Cutter clips the electrical cord from this appliance, and leaves the rest. The cord goes in the sack.

Later, the Cord Cutter meanders toward his hovel by the railroad tracks, and sets a fire. It might be his cooking fire, or his keeping warm fire. But its first purpose is to burn the rubber from his collection of electrical cords.

The end product is a ball of singed copper coil. He’ll sell this to Mervis, getting enough money to buy the bottle of cheap wine that gets him through the night. He’ll do it all again tomorrow.

On his walk across town, The Cord Cutter might pass by your house. If you left your toaster oven on the curb, he’ll clip the cord from that as well. You won’t notice for a few days, but you’ll wonder why nobody wants your old toaster oven.

If you took a picture of your toaster oven and posted it in the Free section of, it’s much more likely that the Scrapper in the pick-up will get it. The Metal People love Craigslist, Freecycle and any other social media that directs them to your house, and your stuff.

The good news about your toaster oven is that it will be gone. Even without its cord, it’s good for scrap. You wanted to help the environment, and benefit someone in your community who needs a toaster oven. You failed.

It’s worse if you donated a microwave. Microwaves cannot be scrapped. Its hull will sit on your lawn until you retrieve it, and toss it in your garbage can. If your lamp is made of plastic, you’ll end up with a cordless lamp on your curb.

The worst scenario is you attempting to give away a CRT television or computer monitor. Those items are  forbidden by (bad?) law from deposit in Illinois’ landfills. You’ll have to pay someone to take them across state lines.

This column typically assails laws on the books, especially those laws which will never be enforced, should never be enforced, and have never been enforced.

Today I write about a law that’s never enforced, but should be. It might be vandalism, or illegal dumping. It’s probably not destruction of property.

We need to stop The Cord Cutters.

Our local law enforcement establishment disagrees about whether cord cutting is illegal. Urbana’s Libby Tyler (Community Development Director) had this to say:

The police do not think they can arrest people for this because the cord cutters are taking just part of an item that is set out for free and there is no way to require people to take the entire item.  They also said that they did not think this was happening very much any more.

State’s Attorney Julia Rietz agrees:

I don’t know what the criminal offense would be, given that if you leave property at the curb you are indicating that you no longer have a property interest in the item, so effectively no one is the victim of Criminal Damage to Property as there is no owner. I think a defense attorney could effectively argue that the property was abandoned when it was left on the curb.

I followed up:

Here’s my theory: You become the owner when you pick it up. You then abandon it on the property. Illegal dumping.

Rietz didn’t buy it.

Creative theory, but the dumping is not illegal if you are leaving property at your curb to be picked up by your garbage hauler. It makes for a good law school question.

Urbana Alderman Eric Jakobsson says “I think the behavior you describe would qualify as vandalism, which is already illegal.”

Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen forwarded this response from city attorney Fred Stavins, who found a possible solution in city code:

While it does not cover the situation precisely, it could be amended to do this.

·     Sec. 15-67. – Unauthorized tampering.
It shall be unlawful for any unauthorized persons to remove or damage any recyclable materials once placed into temporary storage containers, or the containers themselves. Title to recyclables, once placed into the contractor’s collection vehicle, shall vest in the City’s authorized contractor.

(C.B. No. 2010-216, § 7, 11-2-10)

·     Sec. 23-66. – Removing from or damaging property on vacant structures or buildings.
No person shall remove or in any manner damage any fixture, attachment or other property belonging to, connected with or used in the construction of any vacant structure or building, or break into any vacant structure or building unless authorized by the owner thereof to enter and remove any fixture, attachment or other property belonging to, connected with or used in the construction on any vacant structure or building, whether built or in the process of construction or damage the structure or building in any way, whether intentional or not, in attempting to enter the structure or building or in removing, or attempting to remove, any such fixture, attachment or other property belonging to, connected with or used in the construction of the structure or building.

(Code 1975, § 14-4)

·     Sec. 23-67. – Damaging property.
No person shall damage, destroy or deface the property of another without first having obtained the consent of the owner.

I’ve seen The Cord Cutters in action. They’re not hard to spot. Grizzled, disheveled and — of course — carrying a sack. They move quickly from block to block. By the time you’ve called the police, they’re long gone. But that’s not really a problem. You know where they’re going.

Mervis does not accept bicycles or bicycle parts. That policy deters bicycle theft. If Mervis were forbidden from accepting burnt balls of copper, cord cutting would stop overnight. Libby Tyler’s observation that it’s not “happening very much any more” may be true. If so, that’s likely the result of closing Marco Steel’s downtown facility. That depot was perfectly located for the Cord Cutters’ convenience. It was near the alleys, the railroad and the liquor store.

But if you need a drink, you need a drink. I know for a fact that The Cord Cutters make the long haul to north Urbana. In fact, I asked the guy working in the Mervis garage whether he sees more cords intact or burned. He said it’s usually the latter, because the raw metal is worth twice as much as rubber-encased metal.

I’ll be trolling the alleyways next week, collecting as many appliances as I can before they’re destroyed. International students leave entire apartment’s’ worth of furnishings & appliances, in neat little piles, next to the dumpsters. Last year I went with my friend Hua, and we collected a whole minivan full of goods, which she donated to Goodwill.

Via Freecycle, I gave away four microwaves just within the last month. I do it because I’m terrified by the amount of garbage spawned by today’s generation of young people. I hope the cities of Champaign and Urbana help me, by putting a stop to The Cord Cutters.

Ed. Note: This story previously was published on Wednesday but was not in full. Technical difficulties eliminated a number of paragraphs that significantly impacted the message. Apologies to those whose names were used in the first incarnation.

More Articles