Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade
By ADAM MINTER
BLOOMSBURY PRESS Copyright © 2013 Adam Minter
All rights reserved.
Here's something true in all places and times: the richer you are, and the more educated you are, the more stuff you will throw away. In the United States, wealthy people not only buy more stuff but they buy more recyclable stuff , like the recyclable cans, bottles, and boxes that contain the goods they covet. That's why, if you take a drive through a high-income, highly educated neighborhood on recycling day, you'll see green and blue bins overflowing with neatly sorted newspapers, iPad boxes, wine bottles, and Diet Coke cans. Meanwhile, take a drive through a poor neighborhood, and you'll invariably see fewer bins, and fewer recyclables.
The people in the wealthier neighborhoods who did that sorting, that harvesting, were good stewards of their trash. But they wouldn't have had the chance to be good stewards if they weren't also very good consumers of stuff (just as poor people don't harvest as much recycling in part because they don't buy as much). There's statistical support for the observation: between 1960 and 2010 (the most recent date for which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides data) the volume of recyclables that Americans harvested from their homes and workplaces rose from 5.6 to 65 million tons. Yet during that same period the total volume of waste generated tripled, from 88.1 to 249.9 million tons. No doubt Americans were doing a better job of recycling their waste, but they were also doing an equally fine job of generating it. The more numerous and wealthier they became—and the period from 1960 to 2010 was a period of intense wealth accumulation—the more waste they generated. In fact, over the course of the last five de cades, the only significant annual decline in total generated waste occurred in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and recession.
The correlation between income and recycling has been well established for de cades. Consider, for example, Hennepin County, Minnesota, population 1.168 million. I was born in Minneapolis, Hennepin's largest city, and as of 2010, my hometown's recycling rate ranked thirty-sixth out of forty-one Hennepin County communities, with an average annual house hold recycling harvest of 388 pounds. Meanwhile, west of Minneapolis, house holds in the highly affluent lakeside community of Minnetonka Beach had an annual house hold recycling harvest of 838 pounds, putting them atop the county rankings. Why? One reason is that the median house hold income in Minnetonka Beach was $168,868 in 2010, compared to $45,838 for Minneapolis, a city with large pockets of poverty. Sure, there are other factors at play (at the time the data was taken, Minneapolis required residents to sort recyclables into an irritating and time-consuming seven different categories, while Minnetonka Beach required only one), but it's hard to escape the fact that places like Minnetonka Beach generate many more neat white recyclable iPad boxes, and Sunday editions of the New York Times, than the housing projects of Minneapolis.
Back when I lived in the United States, I had blue bins and green bins, and I felt an ethical compulsion to fill them—and, if possible, fill them more than I filled the trash bin. The paper went into one, and everything else went into the other. Then I'd drop them at the curb, but—owing to a childhood spent in my family's scrapyard—I felt as if I'd just cheated myself. Aluminum cans, I knew, were priced by the pound; during summer breaks from school I'd oft en be the person assigned to weigh the ones dropped off by bums, college students, and thrift y home recyclers at our family business. In her later years, my grandmother—raised in a depression-era house hold that saw value in everything reusable—would still insist on driving her modest number of cans to the business, rather than give them away to a municipal recycling program for free.
More oft en than not, in the United States and the rest of the developed world, the people who have to figure out what to do with the trash that we toss out of our homes are not teenagers on can machines but cities and a handful of large corporate waste-handling companies. In some cases they have no choice but to take what's tossed into those bins. If they had a choice, they'd take only the stuff that they can sell for a profit—like the cans that my grandmother liked to deny them. Those things that can be sold for a profit are generally things that can be easily remade into something new. An aluminum can is easy to remake into a new aluminum can; a leather suitcase, however, is hard to remake into anything at all.
Occasionally, when I drive through an American neighborhood on recycling day, I'll notice bins filled with things like old luggage, placed there out of a misplaced but righteous conviction that the companies need to do the right thing and "recycle" them too—whatever that means. But the recycling companies aren't resisting the chance to do the right thing. They just haven't found a profitable way to separate, for example, the plastic that constitutes the luggage handle from the different kind of plastic that constitutes the luggage itself. That sort of work has to be done by people who can see a profit in it, and so far the large-scale recycling companies that pick up blue and green bins haven't figured it out. But what they have started to figure out is how to dig deeper into your trash to get at the stuff that can be recycled profitably. It's not the most glamorous work, and it's generally not the sort of thing that politicians and environmentalists discuss when they discuss "green jobs." But for the right person, it's an opportunity as endless as anything dreamed up by Silicon Valley.
Alan Bachrach is the right kind of person. As director of recycling for the South Texas region of Waste Management Corporation, North America's largest recycler of house hold waste, he has a professional, profit-driven interest in recycling. Like so many of his peers in the global scrap and recycling trade, he has a youthfulness to him that belies his late middle age—a youthfulness that suggests nothing so much as that he really, really enjoys machines that sort trash. If there are those who feel shame for working in an industry that handles other people's waste, Alan Bachrach isn't one of them. He loves it.
We meet early in January 2012 in the visitor's area of Waste Management's $15 million new Walmart-sized recycling plant. Bachrach played a major role in designing the facility, and he's now responsible for running it. But even though we're kind of having a conversation, Bachrach's eyes don't focus on me, but rather on what's on the other side of a plate-glass window and two stories down: swiftly moving Class A rapids of plastic bottles, cardboard, and paper, riding up and down conveyors, over and under, around and around, until they emerge as perfectly sorted hay-bale-sized blocks of bottles, cardboard, and paper, tied together with steel ties. "You either love it or you hate it," he tells me about those who work in the industry. "You're either gone after six weeks, probably before six weeks, or you don't ever leave."
In a sense this is Green Heaven, the place where all that home recycling set out on recycling day—the paper, bottles, and cans lovingly harvested—eventually ends up. Alan Bachrach isn't exactly Saint Peter at the gates, but he's definitely in the chain of command. But then if this, the Houston Material Recovery Facility, is Green Heaven, then it must be said that Houston itself is a kind of Green Hell—at least if you care about what happens to residential waste and recycling.
The numbers tell the story. In 2010 the United States recycled approximately 34 percent of its "municipal solid waste." That is, 34 percent of the waste generated by homes, schools, and office-based businesses (but not industrial facilities, construction sites, farms, and mines) was diverted from landfills into some kind of facility that sent it on its way to a reusable afterlife. Give or take a few percentage points, that 34 percent is roughly the same percentage achieved by New York, Minneapolis, and other U.S. cities with long-standing recycling programs. But Houston? As recently as 2008 Houston only managed to recycle 2.6 percent of its municipal solid waste. The other 97.4 percent? By and large, it was landfilled. Since 2008, the rate has been pushed up to "six or seven percent," according to a sheepish Alan. That's not good, by any definition. How to explain it?
For people who live in places like San Francisco, where the recycling rate exceeds 70 percent, a popular explanation is that rednecks don't like recycling. But that's not only condescending, it demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of how and why San Francisco's trash is recycled at such a high rate.
No doubt culture, education, and income play a role in how much actual waste a particular person or place recycles. But in my experience, no culture encourages a high recycling rate quite like the culture of poverty. In essence: if you can afford very little, you'll tend to reuse a lot. So in San Francisco a glass jar of Trader Joe's bruschetta is likely headed directly to the recycling bin; in the slums of Mumbai that same jar—if somebody could afford it—might very well become a kitchen implement. The slum dwellers of Mumbai have a far higher recycling rate than the suburbs of San Francisco because (a) they consume less—for example, no iPad boxes to recycle—and (b) daily survival requires thriftiness. But no matter how poor or eco-conscious a particular population is, the degree to which they recycle primarily comes down to whether or not someone can derive some economic benefit from reusing waste. In Mumbai the benefit is largely a matter of personal economy; in wealthy San Francisco, where few residents worry about the pennies they might generate from a pile of newspapers, it's a recycling company that has to find an answer to the question of whether there's economic benefit in picking up someone else's waste.
Houstonians, like most Americans, don't share an interest in practicing Mumbai-style thriftiness. So that places pressure on recycling companies, who unfortunately have found it very, very difficult to be profitable in Houston. The problems are several. First, Houston is big, but its population density is very low—around 3,300 people per square mile. San Francisco, by contrast, has a population density that exceeds 17,000 people per square mile. From a demographic standpoint, that means there will be more recycling bins per square mile in San Francisco—because there will be more house holds per square mile—than in Houston. What that means, from a recycling business standpoint, is that a recycling truck has to drive much farther to pick up, say, a thousand pounds of newspaper in Houston than it does to pick up the same weight of newspaper in San Francisco. In other words: a Houston recycling company has to work harder, and pay more money, for the same revenue as a San Francisco recycling company.
One way to overcome this problem is for local governments to subsidize recycling—and some do. But in tax-and fee-averse Houston, that's a tough proposition, especially because Texas has some of the cheapest landfill rates in the United States. Reasonable taxpayers—not to mention politicians—might ask why they're being asked to pay more to recycle, when the same trash can be landfilled for so much less.
The other way to overcome the problem is to encourage Houston's house holds to harvest more recyclables so that each pickup is potentially richer for the recycling companies. Believe it or not, that's really easy to do (and to do without encouraging an increase in consumption). Here's how: take away the two, three, and sometimes seven bins into which some American house holds are expected to sort waste recyclables, and replace them with one big bin where everything recyclable can be dumped. This is called single-stream recycling (as opposed to dual-stream recycling, which requires one bin for paper and another for everything else). In communities where this has been tried, recycling rates have increased by as much as 30 percent. And why not? Like it or not, even eco-conscious people are sometimes too busy to be bothered with the need to separate their trash into multiple containers ("playing with garbage" is how I like to describe it). So Waste Management has spent the last several years rolling out single-stream recycling in Houston.
But if Houston's house holds aren't sorting all of the extra recycling they're dumping into Waste Management's trucks, how is Waste Management supposed to extract more recycling from it? That's where Alan Bachrach, a bunch of engineers, and $15 million comes in.
In high school, some kids look for jobs at McDonald's, and some kids are happy mowing lawns. Alan Bachrach wasn't that kind of kid. Rather, he was the entrepreneurial kind, the sort who looked for things that could be sold for more than they cost to buy. He found two: the computer punch cards that were, until the late 1960s, the primary means of feeding data into mainframes, and continuous-feed computer paper. Both were 100 percent salable, for cash, to local paper scrapyards, where they were prepared for processing into new paper. Thus, Alan Bachrach had plenty of pocket money in high school. In fact, I'm guessing he had more money than most.
"I got very lucky," he tells me when I ask about how he was attracted to the recycling business. "It fit my aptitudes and my ADD and my OCD very well." As with many young entrepreneurs who find their calling early, Alan's college career didn't last long, and aft er dropping out he went to work for a friend's trash-hauling company. There he introduced the trash men to the revenue potential of selling recyclable paper and cardboard to scrapyards, and for the next three de cades he devoted his life to recycling paper and cardboard generated in Houston-area businesses (not homes). Everything changed, however, in 2008, when Waste Management, in search of recycling companies that could help it establish a residential recycling business in Houston, decided that Gulf Coast Recycling—the company where Alan had spent nearly three decades—was the one to help them do it. This was well timed. Alan wanted Gulf Coast to move into residential recycling, but they lacked access to large volumes of recyclables. "Those are collected by trash companies," he explains. "And so it's very difficult to justify fifteen, twenty million dollars of equipment when you don't have the feed materials secured." "You need scale," I respond.
Standing beside him, Lynn Brown, Waste Management's VP for communications, pipes up: "Or you need a municipal contract in the city of Houston."
Alan smiles widely. "Scale is very important in this business."
Waste Management acquired Gulf Coast Recycling in 2008, and in 2010 it began to transform this GCR facility into a single-stream recycling plant that opened in February 2011. Today it sorts between 600,000 and 700,000 pounds of single-stream recycling per day. That's roughly the weight of an Airbus A380 jet—measured out in newspapers, plastic milk jugs, beer cans, and shoe boxes. When I ask for an estimate of just how many house holds those pounds represent, Alan tells me that, on average, a Houston family generates fifty pounds of single-stream recycling per month. However, not everybody recycles, not everybody rolls out their container on a weekly basis, and some—like Alan's family, which rolls out six (!) containers per week—recycle more than the average. At the same time, a small percentage of the material handled at this facility continues to come from commercial sites, such as the Dumpsters filled with cardboard behind supermarkets. Still, a rough calculation suggests that—on a daily basis—the Houston Material Recovery Facility pro cesses a volume equivalent to the monthly recycling generated by approximately 12,000 Houston house holds.
"You ready to take a walk?" Alan asks me with that childlike gleam. We're accompanied by Matt Coz, the Waste Management VP in charge of growth and commodity sales—that is, making money off the stuff pro cessed at this plant—and Lynn Brown. Both of them have been through the plant many times—Matt was intimately involved in its planning—but I don't sense any weariness at the thought of touring it again.
The four of us walk outside and around the building, to an enclosed receiving area where a truck is tipping a load of recycling onto the concrete floor. Single-stream recycling hisses more than it clanks, mostly due to the fact that 70 percent of it is paper—junk mail, newspaper, office paper. A front-end loader of the sort most people are accustomed to seeing dig in the dirt at construction sites rolls up and digs into this mass of well-intentioned waste, picks it up, and dumps it into what Alan tells me is a device that feeds the stuff onto conveyors at a steady, uniform pace. "That's really important," Alan says, "if everything you're about to see is going to work properly and consistently."
Excerpted from Junkyard Planet by ADAM MINTER. Copyright © 2013 Adam Minter. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS.
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