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One man's trash: A look at the hot commodities of the 'junk economy'


People in the U.S. toss out nearly 300 million tons of trash every year. Lots of that stuff could be reused or recycled for its raw materials. From NPR's Planet Money team, Erika Beras and James Sneed spent a day with a man in San Francisco who makes a living off of other people's trash.

ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: Jon Rolston wants to let us in on the big thing he has figured out.

JON ROLSTON: The secret to life is the garbage.

JAMES SNEED, BYLINE: Jon is who you call when you move and need the stuff to just go away. He charges by the truck load to take your junk.

BERAS: But what he really wants to do is find your clutter a new home, either for the raw materials or as is.

ROLSTON: Hopefully, you're smart enough to pick out the valuable things quickly and have a market for it. I'll show you. We'll go see.

BERAS: All right. Let's go see.


SNEED: We get into his pickup truck, and it's loaded with two weeks worth of castaways he thinks he can save. And we're going to watch him haul it around town as we discover this world of scrap economics. He's already sold off what he can on Ebay. That's the easy stuff. As we approach our first stop, the air takes on this strong metallic smell.

BERAS: So here we are at Circosta Iron and Metals.

SNEED: This is the ferrous side.

BERAS: Ferrous is the iron-based stuff, like steel. Basically, anything a magnet can stick to.

ROLSTON: This is the only tool you need to be a scrap guy.

SNEED: Is that a magnet?

ROLSTON: A magnet.

BERAS: That's it. That's all you need.

SNEED: Jon offloads 1,400 pounds of steel, and he makes 55 bucks for it. Steel is valuable because it can be infinitely remelted into new steel.

BERAS: That was like the majority of the stuff in the truck, though.

ROLSTON: The majority of the volume, though, minority of the money.

BERAS: Yeah, the real money maker is the non-ferrous stuff, the things that don't stick to a magnet. Jon dumps that stuff - lead, brass, aluminum and a box full of tangled copper wires.

ROLSTON: This is the most valuable. It's - that's worth more than regular household...

BERAS: What's in that that makes it so valuable?

ROLSTON: I guess it's just more copper.

SNEED: When it comes to scrapyard metals, copper is often the most valuable. It's in everything techy like phones and electric vehicles.

BERAS: Jon says the purer or cleaner the copper is, the more valuable. Like, an actual bare copper wire is worth more than a string of Christmas tree lights that has copper in it.

SNEED: For all his non-ferrous stuff, he gets $100.15.

BERAS: Our next stop is a recycling center at the Port of San Francisco.

ROLSTON: Cardboard. I have cardboard.

BERAS: What Jon has is called old corrugated cardboard. It can be recycled about seven times. The price for it is at a high right now - $95 a ton because there's more demand for recycled paper products.

SNEED: Jon tosses out his cardboard.

BERAS: Wait. This is it? This is the payout?

ROLSTON: Ninety-five cents.

BERAS: That's ninety-five cents?

ROLSTON: Wow. Thank you.

BERAS: That's it?

SNEED: The cardboard looked like a lot, but it was actually only 20 pounds.

BERAS: As we leave, we see other truck drivers with cardboard heading to the warehouse.

ROLSTON: I call them cardboard cowboys 'cause it's alliterative, but I don't know what you would call it. They're just - yeah, hustlers. They're recyclers.

BERAS: And this is the kind of hustle it takes to make recycling economical.

SNEED: Jon is kind of a matchmaker. He has objects and bears the weight of being the one who has to find buyers for them.

BERAS: So if you're looking at things and you are constantly assessing them and you are seeing their value, is it a blessing or is it a curse?

ROLSTON: Oh, it's an overwhelming burden.

BERAS: Why is that?

ROLSTON: Because I'm the last hope for this stuff. And if I can't figure it out, it's going in the ground.

BERAS: I'm Erika Beras.

SNEED: And I'm James Sneed, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Beras
Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.
James Sneed
James Sneed began his career at NPR as Planet Money's Winter 2020 intern. Previous to that, Sneed worked at KBOO Community Radio and attended the Transom Story Workshop. His other professional experience includes Open Signal Media Center, KSMoCA and MASS MoCA. Currently, Sneed is an associate producer with Planet Money where he has produced stories about a comic book character from the public domain, the business of Black joy and the Christmas tree market — as well as reported on the racial wealth gap, the NCAA at the Supreme Court and why the New York Mets don't always Mets everything up... necessarily.