The Abrupt End to Human Computing’s Break-Room Recycling Experiment

Since moving into the new offices, we’ve devoted part of our tiny (and I do mean tiny—like 25 square feet!) break room to housing a big rubber trash can to be used for recyclables. The thought was: hey, maybe if we collect our cans, take them down to the recycling center periodically, then pool the money, we might be able to take everyone out to lunch some day.

Today, with the can overflowing from six week’s worth of recyclables, I decided to see firsthand whether our experiment in recycling would pay off (or at the very least, I had to get the can emptied!). So I pulled the can down to the elevator, loaded it into my car, and drove the 3 miles down to the nearest recycling place—a huge operation run by Sims Metal. There was some waiting around involved (in 4 lines!) but the time involved was employed usefully by me meeting the many requirements of modern recycling: The many drippy cans, bottles, and plastic containers had to be sorted by type; all lids had to be unscrewed and removed; excess water drained, etc.

30 minutes after I started, a much messier me had arrived at the front of the line where automated scales tallied up my various materials and issued me a receipt which then had to be taken to a different part of the plant and given to a cashier, who then gave me an ATM-style card and pointed me at another (short) line. I inserted the card into the register and got my $13.14.

It took about a second to figure out that this was utter madness from a business standpoint, and another minute or two to put some numbers to the exercise:

Gross income: $13.14
Gas burned travelling to and from center: ($0.90)
6 week’s rent on 4 square feet of floor space@$1.75/sq. ft ($10.50)
Net income: $1.74
Income/hour: $1.60
   

$1.60 an hour—for some fairly icky and tedious work. And that doesn’t count the extra laundry involved, depreciation on my car, etc. — not to mention the cumulative seconds devoted by all my staffers to sorting those hundreds of cans and bottles into the right container in the first place.

What’s more, this is taking full advantage of the fact that California charged 5 cents per container “redemption value”, which artificially raised the value of the containers. Without this, my trash can full of aluminum, glass, and plastic would have been worth just $3.33. Tellingly, the glass and plastic had a raw materials value of $0.00 each. Without that additional incentive of essentially reclaiming money that had been taken from us at the time we bought the beverages in question, the whole exercise would have gone from simply being a waste of time, to a net payment by me of $7.58/hour for the time I spent doing the recycling.

As they say, “your mileage may vary”, but I’ve abandoned the fantasy of saving up my recycling dough and buying the staff lunch. And I’ve reclaimed the precious 4 square of space at the entrance to our break room so we can store something useful like water containers in its place.

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