Recycling and the Street-level Entrepreneur

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The ingenuity, work ethic, and diligence of people who make a few bucks on recycling never ceases to impress me.

On my way home earlier this week I stopped for a few minutes to watch three men and a woman chip mortar off of old bricks at the site of a demolished building on Front Street. It was a hot day and it looked like hard work. A brick hammer is a nasty tool, with a business end that can take off a finger as easily as a piece of dried concrete. A foreman told me brick cleaners are paid by the pallet, and a good cleaner can do five pallets a day. One pallet has ten layers of bricks, 50 bricks to a layer, or 500 bricks in all. So a day's work could be 2,500 bricks. The foreman and the brick cleaners didn't tell me how much they make, but one pallet, cleaned and wrapped in plastic, would cost me $175-$250, I was told. For whatever reason, I noticed that the brick cleaners did not come back the next day or the next although there was still a big pile of bricks to be turned into cash.

Can hunters occasionally patrol my street and alley in Midtown, bagging aluminum cans from the recycling bin and dumpster that would otherwise be emptied by the city. It's small change, at best. Iskiwitz Metals Recycling pays 52 cents a pound, and it takes about 30 cans to make a pound. So to earn five bucks for a meal at McDonald's, you need 300 cans. Still, people do it.

Old tires can be turned into cash at a slightly better exchange, but this requires a vehicle to haul them. The going rate is 50 cents a tire. But City Councilman Harold Collins tells me the city only has $61,000 in its tire recycling program that began a few years ago and the county is not on board.

Old computers, phones, and iPads can be sold on Craigslist or websites such as Gazelle, but now we're talking about a different class of consumer, even if some computers occasionally show up on the sidewalk for the overnight scavengers. A few weeks ago I was reliving the days of Tennessee Waltz with a federal prosecutor. The undercover operation was based on a phony company called E-Cycle Management that acquired used computers and supposedly sent them overseas to be reconditioned and sold. The business model was not as far fetched as the feds thought at the time because I have since seen stories about real companies doing this.

One of the most creative recycling ventures I have seen recently involved the bundles of Memphis Flyers on the loading dock on the north side of our building next to the parking lot. An unfortunate occupant of one of the condos upstairs parked his sports car near the dock and came out the next morning to find his wheels missing. The car was propped up on, you guessed it, bundles of Flyers.

I was curious about container recyling on a large scale, and called Marge Davis of Scenic Tennessee, which produces a bottle bill resource guide. Proponents of a bottle and can deposit bill took this year off after failing to get a bill to the floor in previous years, but plan to introduce a new bill in 2013 if they can find sponsors. Senate sponsor Beverly Marrero of Memphis was not reelected.

Davis believes a bill would pass if it could get to the floor. Ten states have a cash deposit on plastic and aluminum drink containers, ranging from a nickel to ten cents. Michigan, where the deposit is a dime, claimed a 97-percent return rate. Tennessee, without a bottle bill, has a 10 percent recycling rate, Davis said.

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