TOM, Tom Outer Bridge, Stacey discussed on Planet Money

Planet Money


This message comes from planet money sponsor, United Airlines, whether it's a corner market or corporation with a big market, cornered United makes travel easier for companies of all sizes, visit United business products dot com. Slash NPR to explore a special offers, hey, Stacy manic Smith here. And today we are replaying an episode. I originally reported back in two thousand fifteen about recycling. A lot has changed in the world of recycling since then. So please stay tuned. We will have an update for you at the end of the show. A little while back engineers at MIT built these really small electronic tracking devices. The newly looks like he's almost like little tag. Imagine the just the one inch by half an inch and very, very thin. This is Carlo rati who ran the project. They wanted to track something that is all around us, but that is otherwise pretty invisible, trash? Yes, trash garbage. They did this incidental, and they asked residents to bring in a piece of trash and people did anything from from an all cell phone to raisins lives to banana peels. He put a tracker on a banana peel. Of course, people brought all kinds of stuff. Somebody came to us with a teddy. Bear on Endor in in. She told us that it was a teddy bear. She's been having all of her life, but actually now she had to throw it away for boyfriend was telling her so, but she wanted to know where teddy bear would end up. So she she came in, we put a little tag on the on the air. I think you throw the boyfriend, not the teddy bear in that situation. But anyway, I am a thousand percent with you. They through all this devout and they watched where it went. A lot of the trash ended up getting recycled, and it made these surprisingly long trips like across the country. Sometimes you could see an item, go debt that that that that to a port in that that that that that out to see, you know, it was amazing to see how how many thousands of miles something's travel. I've been looking into the recycling business and it's amazing. A lot of our plastic gets shipped to China where it gets turned into toothbrushes and carpet and fleece jackets to get. So back to us. And a lot of our shredded documents get sent to Mexico where they're turned into paper towels and tissue papers and toilet paper. I love that are shredded documents get turned into toilet paper. So some of the stuff this MIT project tracked got recycled, but other stuff got thrown out. Those items didn't go so far. A lot of them ended up with the short trip to a landfill. What is recyclable in what is trash turns out? There is an economic line between the two. It's a line that can move around a lot one day. It's profitable. Recycle a bottle and the next day, some global economic number changes, and that same bottle is trash alot and welcome to planet money. I'm Stacey, MAC Smith, and I'm David Kessler inbound that line between trash and recycling is moving around a lot these days for bunch of totally crazy reasons. It's a really tough time to be a recycler. Support for planet money and the following message come from TD Ameritrade like the economy investing can seem complicated until it's explained in simpler terms. That's how TD Ameritrade approaches investing by learning more about you and your goals before crafting a plan. It's that simple to schedule a complimentary goal planning session today. Visit TD, Ameritrade dot com slash podcast. Hey, this is strong. The hosts of what's good. We're back with a brand new season. We've got Erica, do Lenny Kravitz black thought and more. You'll hear a b side stories from A-List guests subscribe. Now. Every Thursday I do what a lot of people probably do. I hall a blue bin of my recycling out to the street to be taken away. What's in your been, oh, newspapers and yogurt, containers and soda bottles, things like that, like new York, Daily News and full fat yogurt. More like Wall Street Journal ends the no fat yogurt. So vista where you got to see where it actually went. I followed my yogurt container and Wall Street Journal to see who picks it up, where it goes and the business behind it. It goes to another part of Brooklyn. So a producer here via Ben, and I went to check it out and we had to go under a very shady looking highway overpass. And through this abandoned warehouse district area, it's a cold day. We're walking up to a guard booth kind of intense security through was totally frozen. You can see Kia. Oh my gosh, cranes bales of garbage were definitely here. This kind of looks like where you dump a body. Stacy, what's your plan. A man comes toward us. He's tall. He has red hair, sort of looks like he just walked out of an l.l bean catalog. His name is Tom outer bridge. Hi. Are you Tom. Is this your dog? Stacey, you love dogs. It's true. I do. I do have a soft spot, Tom runs this place and it's one of many operated by a company called SIMS recycling solutions and every hour. This one place processes, fourteen thousand pounds of yogurt, containers and Pepsi cans in Wall Street Journal's. And I found this weirdly exciting. My garbage comes here or my my recycling. Sorry, you're is that bad to call a garbage. Well, we don't call it garbage because we're not really in the garbage business. I mean, it's that people make that mistake all the time. Sorry. Okay. So awkward. I know it was Tom, you can kind of tell David is sort of a quiet guy. He kept turning away from my microphone and he got into recycling because he wanted to do something to help the environment. But he's the first person to tell me that recycling is a business. It's actually a huge business. What did you say? It's like hundreds of billions or something? Yeah, it's one hundred billion dollars. Yeah. So you have to think about this as a business to understand the problems. Recycling business is having right for it to make sense for him to recycle something he has to be able to make a profit at it. If he can, then that thing is recyclable. If he can't, then it's trash, trash, recycling, those are really economic ideas. Yeah, I mean, this place, it costs a lot to run. Tom shows me around. He takes me to this enormous machine called the liberator because it liberates the various valuable pieces. Of recycling exactly. They're just conveyor belts everywhere, going in every direction. The going is out of these electronic sorting machines. It's sort of like Willie Wonka and the chocolate factory except for garbage garbage, recycling a right? Yes. Just the beginning of the sorting system here we use magnets allow medal, reuse ballistic separators does decorate Babe Ruth plastic bags from bottle. Tom tells me what is trash and what's recycling has been changing a lot lately. He shows me this one thing that's right on the border between trash and recyclables, it's plastic bags. There's a conveyor belt right in front of us. Full prospects is just a river of them. And then we've got like bubble wrap and target bag in Dunkin donuts bag. Plastic bags can be a valuable commodity. Tom could sell them to clients in Asia, and they would use them to make toothbrushes and carpet, and coffee makers and things like that. But recently, plastic bags have not been selling very well. Tom. Can't get a good price for them. Plowed through prices are off almost fifty percent of the past six months go. That's a lot. No, it's huge. The reason for this, Stacey, I would not have guessed it in the plastics business. It is primarily, I would say due to drop in oil prices oil. So oil seems like something maybe totally unrelated. But of course, plastic bags are a petroleum product. They're made from oil. So if gets cheap, that means it's cheap to make fresh plastic. So if you're in the business of making toothbrushes, it's cheaper to buy freshly made plastic than it is to buy recycled plastic, at least recycled plastic from plastic bags. Yeah, this is especially true for plastic bags because they need a lot of processing before you can use the plastic in them. They have to be washed sometimes many times, and they also tend to get stuck in machine gears and gum up the works. So it costs a lot of money to recycle a plastic bag. The largest recycler in the country. A company called waste management recently gave up on recycling plastic bags altogether. They just couldn't make money at it. Tom in Brooklyn says he is still trying to make it work, but it's tough. This is really sort of the bottom of the barrel in terms of the plastics market, the value of it is relatively low, which means we can't afford to put a lot of time and money into trying to recycle it. And so then what happens to the plastic bags, if you can't sell them, you can get to the point where the these are going to landfill. I mean, either sort of borderline Thomas, he's not having any trouble selling higher quality, plastic things like detergent bottles and soda bottles, but the price for those has dropped in half to all right. So that's the misery on the plastic side of things. There's also great unhappiness in this other part of the recycling business. That is actually a huge part of the market accounts for something like ninety percent of our recycled exports paper. Tom takes me to another part of the processing plant, and there are pizza boxes and office paper and cereal boxes here. This is your milk carton. Oh yeah, and milk and. Juice cartons. Is this high quality or low quality? This is actually very high quality. Surprisingly, you wouldn't know necessarily, but this we sell to paper mills where the Saudi Arabia of recovered paper. That is Bill more. He runs a consulting firm that advises recycling companies and to understand the paper problem. You need to know one key thing. Most of our used paper gets sold to one place. One very big place. China's the eight hundred pound gorilla when it comes to using recovered paper there, they don't have many trees software trees. So they all their capacity to make boxes and newspapers. All hundred percent recycled fiber, enormous times. This is a very happy relationship newspaper that you read. If you still read a hardcopy newspaper, which I do you do if you put that in your recycling bin six weeks later, someone in China could read their newspaper on the same fiber. The problem is that recently China has not been buying as much of our paper. They've been getting a lot of it from Europe instead. And the reason is the most boring thing you can imagine, international currency, fluctuations. Basically, the dollar has been getting stronger. The euro has been getting weaker. Which means u. s. recycled paper is more expensive than European recycled paper. If you're China, looking out there deciding where to buy from Tom outer bridge in Brooklyn told me he's been on the phone a lot lately with clients in China, cutting all these deals that he does not want to cut in good days. A ton of paper sells for about one hundred and fifty dollars. And these days Tom says it's selling for less than half that like fifty or sixty dollars for a ton and buyers are literally nickel and diming him on this. Like can you sell it for ten cents less? Can you sell it for five cents? Less five? Ten cents can make a difference. Your negotiating around a penny or half penny a pound. That's really where you're negotiating to make things worse for Tom China has also recently started recycling a lot of its own trash. So that means they don't need as much American office paper and milk cartons so much anymore at all this up. And it's a hard time to be a recycler. David Steiner is the CEO of waste management. It's the largest recycling company in the country. I don't think crisis is too strong of a word to say that you're seeing a crisis and the recycling industry throughout the United States. So you're seeing recycling company, small recycling companies out of business left and right. You really are recycling exports have actually started to drop a little bit, but Steiner thinks this could continue as prices drop and private companies stop being able to make money recycling. Some states like California have policies that mandate recycling Steiner says, in those cases, the extra costs are gonna fall in tax payers. Other places are just recycling less stuff. Lots of places have given up on plastic bags. Waste management is shutting down some of its less profitable plants, Tom outer bridge, the guy who recycles your yogurt. Containers newspapers says, the recycling business has always had its good years in it's bad years. This just feels like a particularly bad stretch is profit. Margins are getting thinner thinner, and he doesn't want to send stuff landfills. Has that ever happened before? Oh, sure. Minutes, our worst case scenario, two. From environmentally and also for the business. Tom does not want to give up not even plastic bags. He's hired someone called a picker to stand at the plastic bag conveyor belt and pull out contaminants and bad plastic bags. So only the good ones get through so he can sell them for a higher price. The hope is that he can use this to move the line a little bit between trash and recycling, be so much easier. If the price of oil just went up a bit, I don't know if that's an easier way, but as you know, I'm has no control over global prices. Stacey wanted to the public service announcement. Oh yes. You can't recycle bowling ball's in Brooklyn. A lot of people try, Tom has to pick them out. He keeps them in his office has a full collection of them. Support

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