Trash Piles Yield Treasure as Sifters Seek Coins in Ashes


(Bloomberg) -- There’s a Covanta Holding Corp. incinerator outside Philadelphia that produces electricity from burning garbage. It also produces something else: stacks and stacks of blackened, sooty coins.

Over the course of a year, those nickels, dimes and quarters add up to about $360,000. That’s seven times the average income in the Philadelphia metropolitan region, and the money is piling up as Covanta waits for the U.S. Mint to resume coin purchases under an exchange program it suspended in November.

Trash Piles Yield Treasure as Sifters Seek Coins in Ashes

The facility generates electricity by burning household garbage and recovers $360,000 in sooty coins annually.

Photographer: Joe Ryan/Bloomberg

About $61.8 million of loose change is accidentally thrown away every year in the U.S., Covanta estimates. The coins get swept off restaurant tables, mixed in with scraps when people empty their pockets, and vacuumed up from carpets or sofa cushions. The money used to end up in the dump, but as trash volume increases and open space dwindles, landfill-disposal costs are up 25 percent in the past decade. That’s created an incentive for Covanta and other companies to develop ways to sift through mountains of garbage and extract steel, iron, aluminum and copper for sale to recyclers.

“It’s amazing what people throw away,” said Alex Piscitelli, who manages the plant in Chester, Pennsylvania, where Covanta developed its technique to separate change from other burnt metal. 

Trash Piles Yield Treasure as Sifters Seek Coins in Ashes

90 Golden Gate Bridges

Americans toss an estimated 7.5 million tons of metal into landfills every year, including enough steel to build 90 Golden Gate Bridges and enough aluminum for 40 billion beer cans, according to Covanta. The Morristown, New Jersey-based company operates 45 waste-to-power plants in North America, China and Europe.

Covanta stepped up its efforts in 2011 to recover metals from the ashes at its power plants, spending about $70 million on powerful magnets and other equipment. Over five years, it has recovered more than 2 million tons of metal that was sold to recycling companies. That generated $61 million last year, or 3.7 percent of Covanta’s revenue. In 2017, the company plans to open a central facility to sort aluminum, copper and coins captured at plants in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Program Suspended

However, Covanta’s coin recovery effort has been on hold for almost a year. The U.S. Mint used to buy salvaged change from almost anyone, usually melting it down to make new coins. But the government suspended all purchases in November amid suspicions of counterfeiting by some sellers. Prosecutors filed a civil forfeiture suit accusing three companies of cashing in $5.5 million in fake coins imported from China.

A federal judge in Philadelphia dismissed the case in July after the companies reached a settlement with prosecutors. The Mint, meanwhile, has declined to say whether it will resume accepting damaged coins after the order suspending the program expires Nov. 2. That’s left Covanta, which wasn’t involved in the case, stockpiling buckets of sooty nickels, dimes and quarters.

“You can’t return them to the bank,” said Steve Bossotti, Covanta’s senior vice president of metals management. “You can’t melt them down. You basically have to wait to see what the Mint does.”

The company’s facility in Chester stands along the Delaware River, 15 miles (24 kilometers) southwest of Philadelphia. Its steam generator has as much as 80 megawatts of capacity, fueled by about 3,500 daily tons of garbage from surrounding towns in Delaware County, Philadelphia and New York City. Inside, workers bulldoze mountains of trash onto conveyor belts climbing slowly toward incinerators that reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,100 Celsius). The air is hot and sour, tinged with the smell of burning plastic.

Power From Trash

The flames produce steam to power the generator, consuming every flammable scrap of trash and reducing it to a pile of ash, stone and metal. The blackened byproduct moves onto conveyor belts, past powerful magnets. Any metals containing iron leap onto the magnets. Aluminum, copper and other non-ferrous metals are repelled in the other direction, leaving nothing but ash and stone behind.

Trash Piles Yield Treasure as Sifters Seek Coins in Ashes

Aside from coins, Covanta recovers other metal objects, including silverware.

Photographer: Joe Ryan/Bloomberg

After installing the system, workers began noticing valuables in the non-ferrous metal pile, including silverware, game tokens from Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza parlors, and the occasional diamond ring. There were also coins. Lots of coins. Since the currency can be sold to the Mint for far more per pound than what scrap buyers will pay, Piscitelli and his team built systems to filter them out, using a chute lined with quarter-sized holes. 

The U.S. Mint established the mutilated coin redemption program in 1911, to buy damaged coins in bulk and melt them down to make new ones. The program pays $19.84 a pound for dimes and quarters and $4.54 for nickels. That’s not a bad deal, considering a pound of either quarters or dimes comes to $20. A pound of nickels is $4.50.

“I’ve been in this business 30 years,” Bossotti said. “When I saw the amount of coins coming out of that one plant, it was absolutely an eye opener.”

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