Why isn't household refuse a commodity in the USA?

Culture shock alert: when I arrived in Thailand last year, I was amazed to find out that you can take your recyclables to a nearby junkyard and get paid for them. No, it’s not a princely sum by any means, but it beats the heck out of having to pay some waste management company to come to your house and collect your plastic bottles and metal cans!

Example: about twice a week or so, an beat-up old pickup truck will drive up and down my street making announcements asking for recyclables - especially metal. We gave them two old desktop computers that were filthy and in pieces, along with two smashed-up monitors. In my mind, these things clearly had no value - in fact I was wondering how much they were going to charge us for doing a ‘trash pickup’. Instead, they gave us the equivalent of about $5. This knocked my socks off.

I flattened and bound up all the cardboard boxes that I used to transport my household belongings from the U.S. - about 80 medium-sized U-Haul boxes - and took them about 2 km away to a junk yard. Reward: just over $20!

In short, the trash here has value at the household level.

I am sure that, in the US, the raw materials become valuable once they are semi-processed and can be sold to manufacturers. But why does the source of that material have negative value (a liability) for the American household?

One, many things that are worthless to Americans are worth more to poorer countries. People in Thailand are much poorer. It’s not just recyclables, but clothes, shoes, glasses, etc. We just have a much higher standard of living.

People there may be able to take the scrap and resell it to someone else, or maybe make something useful out of it, for prices that the average American wouldn’t bother with unless they were homeless (and even the homeless here typically pick out bottles from busy areas, not normal households).

If that Thai collector guy can make $12 in one day doing that, he’s already ahead of the national average there. $12 a day would be terribly little for even a homeless American panhandler. So maybe the margins just aren’t there in the US because of the much higher incomes and costs of living.

And here in the US, even big recyclers sometimes have trouble getting rid of their (sorted, compacted, transported) materials. The market fluctuates and on occasion the demand is so low that they just have to landfill it or ship it to other countries (where everything is cheaper).

Lastly, how would you convince American customers to deal with you instead of with the municipal trash disposal company? Your collection outfit would have to be reliable and regular enough to compete with curbside pickup, or at least pay better prices than the neighborhood scrapyard. And for truly worthwhile scrap, you have to deal with a population that generally knows about eBay and Craigslist. And who would you sell the stuff to after you collect it? Why wouldn’t their demand already have been met by the big recyclers?

In the Bay Area schools and the like frequently have fundraisers where you bring your old computer material. There is a lot of gold and stuff in there, so they are valuable - just not enough to make it worth while for the average person to try to recycle individually. And I believe there is a kind of tax on new equipment to pay for safe disposal of the toxic components - fewer now after the ROHS effort.

Actually it is a commodity in the US - I previously worked for a waste management company[not Waste Management, that was entirely different from the corp I worked for.]

The company I worked for did not own one dump, recycling center or truck, what we did was write a contract with Sears or your local grocery store to have a hauler in their area pick up their garbage and recyclables, we wrote the other half of the contract with the local hauler/s to pick up the garbage and recyclables. Frequently the cost of the cardboard compactor was actually much diminished because of the sale of the cardboard inside to a recycling company to be turned into new cardboard. [we had many issues with people stealing bales of cardboard because the person could sell the bales to a recycler as I remember at one point it was running about $100 a bale, for a 1 ton bale. And yes people did steal a 2000 pound bale by loading it into a pickup truck. I saw footage of one guy managing to load it single handedly with the use of a liftgate, a winch, and a long pole/pipe and huge brass balls:eek: The manager of the store was so impressed with the guy he decided not to press charges even though they had a clear shot of the license plate.]

Yup - waste stream management is a multibillion dollar concern in the US and Canada.

Right, but why does this happen at the corporate scale and not the individual entrepreneur scale like in the OP’s example?

(I guess stealing from the corps is sort of, but not exactly, similar)

The whole “it’s not worth it for the average schmo” doesn’t make sense. I mean there are plenty of people who will spend half their Sunday morning combing through the newspaper looking for “25¢ off” coupons.

I know that city dumps are more massive and generally not convenient to most metropolitan city dwellers, but my point is they DO come to your house and take your things, and those things arguably have value. Why doesn’t the household get some kind of compensation? At the very least, why doesn’t the value of the recyclables pay for the collection costs?

I guess I’ve started looking at the consumer being on the supply side of the recycling chain, but not getting compensated for it - in fact they are actually paying to be a supplier.

In Thailand do they have environmental regulations that are strictly enforced, making the cost of recycling more expensive like in the U.S.? Do they just ship all the computer parts cheaply to China so that children can pick the metal bits out and poison the ground water for miles?

edit: Not trying to be snarky, but there’s plenty of things that make a lot of sense in certain places that don’t make sense in others. Remember the Seinfeld episode where they tried to make a profit driving their cans in Newman’s mail truck to Michigan for the extra nickel per can?

Patty O’Furniture writes:

> The whole “it’s not worth it for the average schmo” doesn’t make sense. I mean
> there are plenty of people who will spend half their Sunday morning combing
> through the newspaper looking for “25¢ off” coupons.

Unless those people can find a dozen or so coupons in each paper, they’re wasting their time. Even if they only spend an hour finding a dozen coupons worth $.50 each (and they actually use those coupons), they’ve made just $3 an hour for their work. $3 an hour might be an acceptable wage in the third world, but it’s not in the U.S.

Well, not for cardboard and such, but there’s certainly entrepreneurship on the household level of waste disposal in the US - check out the rag and bone guys with the trucks cruising around on trash day, if you like. They don’t pay you for it, of course, but they keep it out of the waste stream.

You have to know where to look. There are recycling centers around, and they will take almost anything recyclable (some only do metal, or paper, of course). I used to work near one, and tons of regular people used to drop off cans and bottles and whatever.

When cutting coupons, you don’t have to bundle up cardboard or smelly empty cans and sit with it for 20 minutes in your car to get to a recycling center. You just snip snip snip while watching Judge Judy.

Recyclables ARE commodities, just on the municipal level instead of the personal level. My town sells the recyclables that the Dept of Public Works picks up and uses that money to offset expenses and ease the tax rates a little bit. The town regularly debates moving from dual stream recycling to single stream recycling, weighing differences in collection cost with differences in market value. They also weigh the reduced cost of waste disposal for every ton of recyclables that don’t wind up there.

There have been many analyses of the economics of recycling in the U.S. You can probably find an individual one to come down on any side you like, but my impression overall is that the economics of recycling are not good. It probably costs more to pick up than it returns in revenues.

A huge problem is that getting materials sorted is still a huge challenge. My household can now recycle any plastic that has a recycling number in a triangle, from 1 through 7. But at the other end they must be sorted because if mixed they make the material unusable. There are some huge machines that try to make this work.

These plants are expensive and have to work almost perfectly on material that is often wet, dirty, crumpled, and stuck together.

A good result can then be sold, but the more good raw material that is produced the cheaper per unit it becomes, which of course brings in less revenue. The balance is borderline at best. What used to be breakeven years ago has gone into the negative in many places today.

If using the economics of scale can’t be made to work at the city level, then it’s not worth the individual’s time for almost anything. Reality is hard.

The value of the recyclables does subsidize the cost of collecting them. I’m not sure if it completely pays for it, but if it more than pays for it, that would go into subsidizing the trash collection. My community works with Recyclebank, and I signed up with them. I get points based on how much I and everyone else on the route recycles. I have no clue what those points are good for, however. At some point I’ll look into it.

In my basement are lots of young kids toys, and we have lots of usable kids clothing. Those are, I hear, prime attractions for a garage sale, and we could make money that would perhaps be a small fortune in Thailand, but I just can’t be bothered. My kids aren’t even interested, either.

some materials are recyclable based just on their intrinsic value; e.g. metals.

other items are recyclable because of their intrinsic value value and the cost of disposing of it. there are dumping fees and the cost of transport to a dump which can be many hundreds of miles away. these costs can be lessened by taking the stuff out of the waste stream and into the recycle stream. materials technology finds ways to use was was waste into a useful product component.

That’s sort of what happens with me. I live in a town with no curbside recycling service, but we (and I think everyone else on the block) have a deal with some guy with a pickup truck who comes by and picks it up and runs it to the recycling center.

If you’re comparing it to a minimum wage job, $3/hour when you don’t have to commute at all, show up on time, wear a uniform, smile and be polite to assholes, deal with someone else’s schedule, interview for new jobs, etc. and you get to watch TV while doing it starts to sound pretty good.

There’s a lot of overhead to most jobs that isn’t accounted for in the hourly rate and can make a lower-than-minimum-wage effective wage still look pretty good.


America, in general, has a mentality in which everything is “disposable.” We are wealthy enough that most people don’t see a lot of value in breaking down and recycling things that can easily be replaced. The products we are sold are manufactured as cheaply as possible, and some (especially electronics) are expected to be disposed of quickly.

As has been observed, it’s the poorer countries where you see (for example) children stripping electronics for their base metals and stuff like that. America’s lower class are still far wealthier than poor people of other countries. I’ve never seen an American shingle their roof with aluminum cans or stack a truckload of commercial goods on the back of a scooter. It’s just people making do with what they have.

I am surprised OP did not know recyclables could be sold until moving to Thailand. In the Boy Scouts we collected and sold recyclables. Currently “scrappies” prowl the streets in their antiquated pick-up trucks collecting what the towns will not.

IMO selling recyclables individually sure does not ‘beat the heck out of’ having them collected and disposed of at least for me.

As to examples given in OP - Wow! Price for corrugated cardboard in Washington state is 1/2 cent per pound. To recover over $20 one would have to recycle just over two tons of U-haul boxes. Just a few more than 80.

At the same commercial recycler aluminum cans are bought at .45 per pound. Weighing under an half ounce apiece, they are worth just over a penny apiece - 20.00 worth is a bit less than 50 pounds of soda or beer cans - well over 1500 cans.

Of course residents of towns with recycling do get paid in terms of lower fees for trash and recycling services. It’s just not worth it for most to do it on their own.

Oh - i want to ask the OP - arriving in Thailand last year, how did you end up with " two old desktop computers that were filthy and in pieces, along with two smashed-up monitors"? Bring them with you?

I recently got rid of an ancient metal desk, which weighed a ton, by taking it apart and hauling it to my dumpster at work. I was worried the hauler might complain and was prepared to slip him twenty bucks. Surprise! A few hours later it was gone (the rest of the dumpster contents were still there). Scrap metal is more valuable than I realized.

I think that the second part is much more true than the first; plenty of stuff is recyclable, but economically, the market’s not there. For example, 80 medium-sized U-Haul boxes is a LOT of cardboard to deal with. Certainly more than most non-destitute people would want to fool with for a paltry $20, especially if they had to schlep it there themselves.

If someone came by and took it for recycling, I’d do it if it was free or if they paid me, otherwise I’d just probably end up recycle them piecemeal in the weekly recycling bin.

Conversely, who’s going to pay someone $7-something an hour in the US to get maybe $8 worth of recyclables per hour? That’s $1 in gross profit, before removing the building, heating/cooling, etc… It makes sense in a country like Thailand where labor is extremely cheap- that $8 per hour of recyclables may only cost them $1 in labor and other costs.