Dozens of uncollected trash cans and recycling bins crowd an alley between T and Westminster streets in Northwest Washington. The District has struggled with a backlog of requests to remove the cans. (Aaron C. Davis /The Washington Post)

The yellow stickers affixed to the trash and recycling bins said “Take Me!”

And so they did.

Mina Karini said she read the cute notes as an invitation that the tubs were up for grabs. The D.C. artist saw an opportunity to turn trash into beauty — she said she planned to convert the bins into flower planters.

Authorities saw things differently. The District, which is in the process of replacing the bins, had handed out the stickers so residents could mark the old ones for city removal. But the effort to pick up and recycle the bins has lagged, leaving containers with “Take Me!” stickers littering alleys and empty lots all over town.

Karini, 30, and her friend Timothy Logan Melham, 27, of Northwest Washington trolled the streets in and around Georgetown last month and picked some up, police said. They were arrested, briefly jailed and charged in a criminal summons with theft.

“We wouldn’t have done this if we thought we did wrong,” Karini said. “We just wanted to re-purpose them for something.”

The plan seemed simple. Karini wanted to spruce up her rowhouse in Northeast, and she set out with her friend to collect the makeshift pots. They were careful to stay on public property and, Karini said, to take only bins with stickers.

They were out late, after 1 a.m., because people put out their trash before they go to bed. They were so open about it that at one point, Karini said, she double-backed to explain to a homeowner what they were up to. “The words ‘Take Me’ mean people don’t want them anymore,” she said.

But a Secret Service agent, who happened to spot them while guarding a Georgetown home, found the scene suspicious and alerted D.C. police. In their report, police intimated a scheme far more sinister than seeking free flower pots. The agent, it says, saw a man “walk stealthily down the sidewalk with a hood over his head to conceal his face collecting DPW recycling bins.” By the time they were arrested, police said, the pair had 51 bins stacked in a vehicle, though Karini disputes the number.

The duo were handcuffed, put into a squad car and taken to the cell block in the 2nd Police District station on Idaho Avenue. “It’s a sad-looking place,” Karini said. She and Melham, who did not respond to interview requests, are due in court May 15.

To complicate the case, the April 21 arrest came as many people in Northwest were complaining that trash and recycling bins that were not destined for removal had disappeared. Replacing those cans cost residents around $50 each.

This week, in response to the arrest of Karini and Melham, the city’s Department of Public Works tweeted, “Mystery solved!”

But was it?

Karini is complaining that the District has vilified her and Melham as the sole perpetrators of trash-bin theft in the District. “I think we’re being blamed for a lot more than we did,” she said.

If she and Melham are guilty, she said, it is only of taking bins that were being discarded anyway. But regardless of whether the bins had “Take Me!” stickers, the police report notes, the “bins are D.C. government property.” An officer estimated the value for all 51 at $100, which works out to $1.96 a bin. A Public Works spokeswoman said the District gets 10 cents a pound for the recycled bins, which weigh on average 15 pounds.

The District delivered the more than 210,000 new garbage and recycling cans beginning in March, but they have acknowledged that many more were discarded than they were prepared to pick up. “There have been many more to collect than we anticipated,” said Linda Grant, spokeswoman for Public Works.

From Georgetown to Anacostia, abandoned trash cans have drawn the ire of neighborhood activists and lit up community e-mail lists with expletives. In Bloomingdale, a city hall employee recently returned home to a commotion in an alley, finding a police cruiser blocked in by the cans and an officer tossing them out of the way.

Near U Street, a vacant apartment building recently sold to a developer has become a dumping ground for more than a dozen unwanted cans, their “Take Me!” stickers washed off by last week’s deluge of rain.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), whose committee oversees the Department of Public Works, said she has yet to receive a satisfactory answer as to why the city did not have a plan to pick up the old cans as quickly as the new ones were being delivered.

“They just delivered them massively, all over the place, and with these stickers, inviting people to leave out the old ones,” Cheh said, adding that the only good news she has heard is that the department has committed to finishing the recovery of the old cans in four to six weeks. “Then there will be no confusion,” she said, “Nothing to take.”

Mark Rosenman, a member of his Cleveland Park neighborhood citizens association, was so fed up he told the mayor’s office Wednesday that he had entertained the idea of renting a flatbed truck and dumping the dozens in view of his Newark Street home on the steps of the Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Told of Karini’s case, Rosenman quipped, “I’ll make her bail if she’ll take mine.”

“It’s patently absurd,” he said. “She’s clearly performing a service that the District seems unable to manage.”

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