Trash can be treasure: don't throw away valuable recyclables

Oct. 31, 2006
You might be paying too much for dumpster hauling if some fraction of what you throw into them has value to somebody elsewhere on the economic food chain. In the ideal world, you’ll be able to find someone willing to pay you for your trash.

The idea of recycling and refurbishing has been around for some time now. Every backyard auto mechanic is familiar with the idea of paying a core charge that motivates one to return the replaced hardware instead of dumping it into a landfill. Many states require you to pay a deposit on each bottle of liquid refreshment you purchase. You can, of course, toss your bottles along the side of the road, but you’ll be paying for the privilege of littering. Other examples of forced recycling include beer kegs and computers, air conditioners, tires, car batteries, lubricants and Freon.

In general, a higher standard of living exhibits a positive correlation with greater per-capita trash generation. At the business level, bigger tends to be better, which helps us capture any economies of scale that might exist. The resulting growth generates a commensurate quantity of industrial detritus, some of which is out-and-out useless trash. But, you might be paying too much for dumpster hauling if some fraction of what you throw into them has value to somebody elsewhere on the economic food chain. In the ideal world, you’ll be able to find someone willing to pay you for your trash. To that end, I invite you to join me for a romp through that digital morass we call the Web in search of practical, zero-cost, noncommercial, registration-free resources that could turn into a new cash flow for your plant. Remember, we search the Web so you don't have to.

Not a new concept

I wonder why the idea of recycling industrial waste streams isn’t a major topic at conventions and trade shows aimed at American manufacturing. The industrial recycling concept has been around for at least 20 years. Consider an article by Steffen W. Plehn and Donald Huisingh that appeared in the July/August 1985 edition of the EPA Journal. Reading “Strong Incentives for Industrial Recycling” will show you how four industrial plants made the system work. One plant reacted two streams of chemical waste to produce a salable product; another segregated its dust collection systems to produce cleaner, more marketable waste; another recovered its oil waste and the last, a power plant, segregated radioactive and ordinary waste. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” played a role in prompting the plants to make changes in their normal mode of operation. Don’t take my word for it — read it yourself. The good folks at the North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance make the article available for you at Then, when you’re done with the read, go back to check out the other offerings found on the organization’s home page.

Lining up your ducks

Your recycling initiative will become a reality only when you have certain prerequisites in place. Most important is having somewhere to store all this recyclable scrap. When a container is full, what will you do with it? What can you do to ensure the project is economical? Before anyone starts asking these sorts of questions, you might consider learning what the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has to say about the subject. Send your scrap mouse to and enter the phrase “Industrial Facility Recycling Program” in the search function at top right corner of the page. This will access two documents. The first, “Industrial Facility Recycling Program,” is the relevant one. It tells you what industrial materials you should consider for a recycling program. It offers a list of vendors that make a variety of containers you’ll need to hold the scrap as it accumulates in your staging area, and has a link to a list of equipment you’ll need for processing the materials to make them suitable for transport. Another link accesses a list of facilities that will accept your scrap materials.

Minimize paper

We wouldn’t need to do so much logging if everyone made a reasonable attempt to reduce the per-capita consumption of paper, another product that’s quite amenable to recycling. Waste in this area is endemic. For example, fast-food sandwiches usually are wrapped in paper and dropped into a clamshell paperboard box, which is then dropped into a paper sack for the convenience of carryout customers. And business isn’t blameless. People still print e-mail missives, even though a digital version resides on a server’s hard drive. Industry could annually save a few dollars by adopting some of the paper reduction and recycling measures cited at by the government of Harford County, Md. If you go to this site, select “Public Works” from the drop-down menu. When the page loads, select “Business & Institutional Recycling” from the new drop-down menu and click “Go.” Scroll down past the questionnaire section to learn about setting up a paper recycling program.

Fish and lamps

If completely and uniformly dispersed, the mercury content in a single fluorescent lamp is capable of contaminating nearly 5,300 gallons of water to levels beyond Canadian drinking water standards. With fluorescent lamps so ubiquitous in manufacturing plants, you can understand why it might be a good idea to recycle used lamps to prevent mercury from escaping back to the bosom of Mother Nature. That’s why Canada’s Ministry of the Environment established an initiative called Environment Canada. It uses a Web site called Green Lane to serve as the country’s resource for weather and environmental information. Part of the site, “Mercury and the Environment,” is devoted to recycling the shiny, liquid metal. I direct your attention to for a comprehensive, link-rich environment in which to learn about the bioaccumulative dangers that mercury presents. If nothing else, if you’re one of the many fishermen out there in readerland, you should examine this Canadian offering to be forewarned about your favorite protein source.

Recirculating plastic

For more than 50 years, many products, both consumer and industrial, have been made from polyvinylchloride. Its physical and chemical properties give it utility in countless applications. Just look around you. No doubt, some PVC is now within your reach. It’s so common that PVC has a trade organization of its own. The Vinyl Institute in Arlington, Va., represents manufacturers of PVC, vinyl feedstocks, additives and products. As you’d expect, this single-focus organization has a Web site devoted to its raison d’etre. And that’s where you can learn the ins and outs of this plastic material that can be so easily recycled. Point your trusty browser in the general direction of and click the “recycling vinyl” link at the right side of the screen. You’ll find a list of companies that accept vinyl for recycling and a list of companies that use recycled PVC in their manufacturing processes. But, recycling won’t work unless each party to the transaction can derive some economic benefit. As a case study, I recommend that you click on “Vinyl Siding Recycling: A How-to Guide” that you’ll find on the left side. It shows how home builders and others can make money by recycling the house covering. Adapt this long, comprehensive document into a template for your own recycling projects.

Creative wood conversion

What does a pallet shop do with broken wooden parts? Recycle them, of course. That’s the topic for this column, after all. The next Web citation features the problem statement for a class project at Staffordshire University in the U.K. The owner of the fictional company being highlighted expanded his market after he did some creative thinking. The point I’m trying to make is that the basic principle presented can serve as a guide for finding a way to dispose of certain classes of scrap you might find in your plant. Anyway, pop in at to learn one possible way to unload scrap.

From your Gov

When you need straight answers about waste, the go-to people are our hired hands in Washington, D.C. Consider the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste. It maintains a Web site dedicated to those things so characteristic of the throwaway culture in which we live. Send your taxpaying mousie to and investigate the nine offerings listed under the “Recycling/Pollution Prevention” heading. When you get there, clicking on “Materials and Waste Exchanges,” for example, accesses a list of national, state and international organizations that can help you network yourself closer to either a source or a user of recycled scrap. On the other hand, clicking sequentially on “Jobs Through Recycling,” “Economic Benefits,” “Recycling Economic Information (REI) Project Results” and “Results” provides you with a unique 2001 report that documents the size of the domestic recycling and reuse industry. The EPA should be proud of this particular example of your tax money at work. Check out the site when you have time to explore the great number of possible paths you can travel once you leave the initial page. It will take you a while.

Digital largesse

Your plant probably relies on ever-faster digital processing to maintain and improve on whatever productivity you’ve attained so far. In response to evolving market needs, developers crank out better, more sophisticated software that’s designed to operate on faster computers. Everyone feels a need to stay competitive, so they hop on that endless cycle of computer replacement every few years or so. This leads to issues surrounding the so-called obsolete units that get pulled out of service. Although the machine might be obsolete for some purposes, many schools and not-for-profit organizations are in desperate need of computers to help train the workforce of the future. But, each such box contains valuable metals and hazardous materials as well as sensitive data. There’s a risk of your data getting into the wrong hands if you simply throw the unit into the scrap bin. I’m sure you’re aware that deleting files doesn’t physically remove them from the hard drive.

The ideal recycling solution here is to sanitize the hard drives and donate the units. That might even qualify as a tax write-off. Anyway, stripping the data is straightforward. You can access free disk-wiping software utilities by performing a Google search on Smart Data Scrubber 3.2, CHAOS Shredder 2.4, Zilla Data Nuker or Darik's Boot and Nuke.

Once the disks are sterilized, find a eleemosynary outlet by investigating Share the Technology, a computer recycling project based in Rancocas, N.J. Its main feature is a free, public-service database to help computer equipment donors connect with nonprofit organizations and disabled individuals seeking improved digital prowess. Pay a visit to if the donation concept is consistent with your plant’s sense of social responsibility.

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