This is the tenth interview in our Fairfield Small Business Challenge series.
One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. This adage fits well into the world of recycling. The cans you throw away could be part of a recycling collector’s daily income. Tim Laurent, who started collecting recyclables as a Boy Scout, has been on both sides of the recycling fence. He co-founded ecycler, which matches people discarding recyclables to those collecting them, to make collecting, disposing of, and cashing in on recycling easy.
BP: How did you get into recycling?
It started in the Boy Scouts years and years ago. One thing my partner and I did to help bring in money to the troop for summer camps, equipment and whatnot, was to go around and have recycling drives. It was back when newspapers and bottles and aluminum cans were the fundamental recycling products. And they had real value. My partner Craig Robertson said that he had a similar experience, picking up cans. His first computer was purchased with aluminum cans.
BP: That’s impressive.
It was. This was decades ago, but we both had this idea. People tended to have this greater sense of community on their minds, back then, where curbside recycling pickup didn’t exist.
So that’s really the foundation of our going into ecycler. We built a place, an exchange, where people can put up their recyclables, whether it’s aluminum cans or glass bottles or plastic, on the website, and people sign up as collectors and pick that stuff up for free.
BP: What if I decided I was tired of sitting in front of the computer and just wanted to make a living by recycling. How much money do you think I could make?
Let’s frame it up with some real numbers. It depends on whether you’re in a bottle bill state or a non-bottle bill state.
Basically, a bottle bill state is a state with legislation that dictates whether a container or vessel is worth a certain amount of money. Of course, you pay that money when you buy the drink or whatnot, then that container is redeemable for a certain amount of cash.
There are currently ten bottle bill states, including California, Vermont and Maine. On top of cans and bottles, you can see the state abbreviations; they receive a state initiative for recycling.
So, for example, in California, cans and bottles are worth a nickel, 5 cents, because that’s dictated by the state of California. If I lived in California, if I were to go out and pick up bags of aluminum cans every day, five days a week, on a normal work schedule, then get two weeks off for vacation and holidays, I could easily make $30,000.
Really, and that’s only twelve bags of aluminum cans a day. If you were to go to 24 bags a day, that’s $60,000. So, it’s real money to be had.
And then in Michigan, where a can is worth 10 cents, an aluminum can, and some bottles, you only need six bags a day to get to the $30,000.
Then, of course, there are the non-bottle bill states. There are forty of them, like Illinois, where our company is founded. In a non-bottle bill state, the government isn’t dictating that a can is worth 5 cents and a plastic bottle is worth 5 cents. You only get the intrinsic value of the metal in the can or the materials in the plastic. So in non-bottle bill states, an aluminum can is worth about a penny. And it’s a commodity, so every day, every minute of every day, that price is changing, like gold or silver changes.
What that means is, back to the California example, you can recycle crushed aluminum in a normal garbage bag. In Illinois, of course, you still get 200 cans per bag. They’re worth five cents a can for California, so 5 cents times 200 is approximately $10 for the bag. Now in Illinois, you’re getting about a penny, times 200. So that’s approximately $2.00 per bag. So, about a fifth of the value.
In non-bottle bill states, getting to the $30,000 level would mean five times as many bags per day or work on the weekends. The numbers aren’t as exciting. Nevertheless, there is real money to be had.
BP: Yeah, that’s really not bad. What about plastic bottles? I’ve heard various things about whether it’s worth it to recycle plastic bottles or not. What’s your take on that?
There are so many views behind it. If you could take just the fact that society is going to use plastic bottles, whether they’re green or not, our society is using plastic bottles. Let’s do something about it, because a plastic bottle that’s shredded and baled and made into say, a picnic table is much better off than a plastic bottle sitting in a landfill.
My partner Craig and I are 100% behind the effort of recycling plastics. Ideally, there wouldn’t be plastic bottles, but the way it is now, it is expensive to recycle plastic. Especially in small volume.
Now, when you have the major waste carriers like Waste Management collecting tons of plastics, there is money to be made in tons of plastics. Unlike aluminum cans, like I said, a can is worth about a penny, one plastic bottle is worth nothing, you have to get a ton of bottles to make them worth something.
With plastic, we have to adjust our thinking and use a bifurcated approach. You must educate the public on why not to use the plastic bag or the plastic bottle. The other side of it is let’s innovate and create technology to recycle those plastics at a reasonable cost. And that’s happening.
BP: Do you have any demographic information from your website of who tends to pick up your recycling, who puts it out, who’s involved?
Definitely. Let me give some “for examples,” and I can give you general percentages after that.
We have people that are owners, business owners of recycling centers. And they’ve set up a site on ecycler. We also have professional recyclers, whether they’re the homeless guys with a cart or the guys driving around the neighborhood with trucks to just recycle, that’s what they do.
We also have teachers that have signed up who want cash for their pets and for animals in the classroom. We’ve had a gentleman sign up to furnish money for his Cub Scout pack so they could go to summer camp. And those are real people, and there are clubs besides. We’ve had a couple of schools and different church groups sign up to also try to earn extra money for their cause.
Now, the percentages: It’s about 60-65% recycling centers and professional recyclers, the guys who go around with trucks and make a living out of just recycling. Together, we target groups and the people who want to earn just some extra money, as a supplemental income. Whether it’s for them personally or family or for their group. That’s really the power of the site, enabling local entrepreneurs/local people to come on board and make money–and make the world a greener place.
Follow Tim’s Fairfield Small Business Challenge travels and progress on his Fairfield blog.