Treasure hunting in Harvard’s junk yard

Marketplace Staff Sep 1, 2008

Treasure hunting in Harvard’s junk yard

Marketplace Staff Sep 1, 2008


This year, Harvard University plans to give away 200 tons of used furniture and office equipment. That’s a lot of desks and cabinets. They give this stuff away every week — for free. But these days, if you want to the items whole, you better get there first. Hammad Ahmed explains.

Hammad Ahmed: I’m here in a parking lot behind Harvard University Recycling Center. It’s Thursday morning, time for the weekly furniture giveaway and the atmosphere is frenzied.

Woman: A couch. Oh, my god.

There’s a guy in overalls pulling PVC pipes out of a giant bin. A grandmotherly woman is hefting a laser printer into an office chair and she’s pushing it along like it’s a shopping cart. And all around me there are men with hand trucks hauling away filing cabinet after filing cabinet. Off to one side, 8-year-old Gemma and her mother are holding hands as they look on. It’s their first time here.

Mom: We just had heard about free stuff, so we thought we would check it out and it looks kinda like a zoo.

Gemma: This is going crazy.

Mom: It is going crazy. Let’s watch out, so that we don’t get run over.

I lose them in the crowd, but soon I’m talking to Sergio Lopez. He’s one of the hand truck guys, and I ask him what he could do with so many filing cabinets.

Sergio Lopez: I come to pick up metal. I get a little money, you know, for the metal.

Rob Gogan: We’ve seen an unprecedented level of people coming for the metal. Just the metal value.

That’s Rob Gogan. He’s associate manager for recycling and waste at Harvard University. And he’s been overseeing this event for years.

Gogan: They pull out file cabinets, pipes and pumps, springs and sprockets, and even nails and screws.

Since January, the price of U.S. scrap steel has doubled, from $350 per ton to $700. That’s because in China, Russia and Brazil booming construction is fueling the demand for scrap steel at the same time as the U.S. dollar is depreciating. So now, recyclers can make more money than ever selling scrap, which not everyone is happy about. Danny is a tinkerer and a craftsman who’s looking through a bin of computer parts.

Danny: My real pet peeve is you’ll see a nice piece of equipment and you go to pick it up and you find out that one of the scrap metalers has come by with a pair of pliers and just snipped the power cord off. So, it’s now useless. It’s now a piece of junk, because they wanted the five cents worth of copper that was in the power cord.

Gogan: Our intention and our hope is that our furniture will be recovered for maximum utility or use.

Rob Gogan, again.

Gogan: Sometimes people say, “Well, you should give first preference to people who are going to reuse the furniture.” And I would like to, but I don’t have the staff to monitor and police who gets what.

The way Rob Gogan sees it, the furniture and office equipment may not always be reused the most efficiently, but at least it’s not ending up in a landfill. Back at the parking lot, Gemma and her mother are walking by this Dumpster that’s overflowing with metal rods and rusty poles. I ask Gemma what she sees there.

Gemma: A whole bunch of junk.

Mom: Yeah. So, you think they might recycle it.

Gemma: I think they might.

Mom: They’ll make something out of it.

Gemma: Like air conditioners or computers?

Like air conditioners, computers? Or shiny new office buildings in Shanghai.

In Boston, I’m Hammad Ahmed for Marketplace.

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