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Recycling smuggling scam netted $16.1 million

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Authorities arrested three suspects in connection with running a recyclable smuggling operation that transported cans and bottles to California to cash in on its recycling program.
USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES – California authorities say they’ve broken up a smuggling ring that was hauling empty cans and bottles into the state so they could cash in the recycling refund.

Three suspects were arrested in a case that resulted in fraudulent payouts totaling $16.1 million over three years, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery reported Monday.

About 27,860 pounds of empty beverage containers were seized in a Phoenix collection yard that authorities said were bound for California. The raid was conducted jointly by California and Arizona officers.

The containers had an estimated redemption value of $41,836.

The arrests are part of an ongoing battle against those who bring cans and bottles to California or other states that offer a 5- or 10-cent bounty to recycle them from states that don’t have a similar program.

This year, so far 27 people have been arrested in charges related to smuggling of recyclables, department spokesman Lance Klug said, the most since 2011 when 32 suspected smugglers were arrested. Last year, the total was 11.

Arizona hasn’t been the only base of smuggling operations. Past cases have also unfolded in Washington state and Nevada, Klug said.

“California’s recycling program is one of many publically-funded programs used to incentivize better treatment of our environment and communities. Those who choose to undercut these efforts…will be apprehended,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

In April, the department announced eight truck drivers were arrested on charges of felony recycling fraud, conspiracy and attempted grand theft. That operation took place on the Arizona-California border involving trucks that allegedly tried to dodge inspection stations en route to a recycling center.

Photos of that case, along with the current one, show mountains of plastic trash bags filled with cans and bottles neatly stacked. The arrests announced in April came after a three-day sting operation and involved 59,000 pounds of empty beverage containers.

Arrests in the latest case occurred last month. The owner of Bustillos’ Trucking, Miguel Bustillos, 49, of Glendale, Arizona, was arrested along with truck driver Anthony Sanchez, 57, of Tucson, by Arizona Department of Public Safety officers on Nov. 7. The following day, the suspected broker, Amaury Avila-Medina, 56, from the Sylmar section  of Los Angeles, was arrested.

Authorities said the Bustillos’ trucking operation existed entirely to smuggle cans and bottles into California. 

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