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Consider this: Each year Americans accidentally throw away over $60 million in loose change every year.

According to Steve Bossotti, senior vice president, Covanta Metals Management, at Covanta’s Energy-from-Waste (EfW) facilities, they have seen the immense quantity of metal that remains in waste – not only steel, but nonferrous metals like aluminum, copper and brass. They have even noticed coins in the waste stream, It’s because of the opportunity to recover more value from the waste stream that Covanta has made investments to recover and recycle more metal.

“As part of our efforts and analysis to recover more metal, the team at our EfW facilities in Pennsylvania discovered an incredible amount of coins in the waste stream and built a system to separate and sort them from the nonferrous metals we had previously recovered at the facility,” Bossotti said. Using a process that was engineered in-house by the facility team, they began collecting thousands of coins that had been swept off of restaurant tables or sucked up by vacuums.

What Covanta’s team found was shocking. “Most of that money ends up in landfills where its value is lost,” Bossotti said. “In keeping with our mission to sustainably manage waste and divert it from landfills, Covanta is recovering that value and is continually developing new and better ways to salvage other valuable metals.”

Historically Speaking

Starting in 2011, Covanta increased the company’s investment in their metal recycling program, adding new systems to recover more metals and increase the quality of the product that Covanta ultimately sells to metal recyclers.

“Over 5 years we increased the amount of material we recover for recycling by over 125,000 tons,” Bossotti said. “We now recover more nonferrous tons in a calendar quarter than we used to recovery annually. Recycled metal is Covanta’s third largest revenue stream, totaling $61 million in 2015.”

While there are undoubtedly monetary benefits to reap in recovering discarded or mutilated coins, there are also significant environmental benefits.

“The production and mining of new steel, aluminum, copper and other metals products are carbon intensive processes that negatively impact the environment,” Bossotti said. By recovering and recycling the nearly 600,000+ gross tons of metal each year, Covanta’s operations save approximately 1.2 million tons of greenhouse gases, the equivalent of pulling 112,506 cars off the road for a year.

When Covanta first began their coin recovery program, they would return the salvaged coins to the U.S. Mint as part of its mutilated coin redemption program where damaged coins are bought in bulk and melted down to make new ones. The Mint’s Mutilated Coin Redemption Program, was first implemented in 1911, historically has paid on a per pound basis for copper nickel clad dimes, quarter dollars and half dollars redeemed. By definition, mutilated coins are “all coins that are bent, broken, corroded, not whole, melted together and not machine countable.”

The mutilated coins are then eventually melted for reclamation by one of two vendors that provide the U.S. Mint with coinage strip for the three denominations. However, this past November, the U.S. Mint suspended the program due to suspicions of counterfeiting by China sourced vendors.

According to federal prosecutors, several U.S-based metal recyclers – using large mutilated quantities of allegedly counterfeit U.S. coins imported from China – conspired to bilk the U.S. Mint out of more than $54 million under the Mint’s Mutilated Coin Redemption Program. The Chinese importers of the coins claim, according to the federal complaint, that the coins they submitted for redemption to the U.S. Mint were recovered from salvaged automobiles shipped to China as scrap metal, or from other scrap metal sources.

However, there proved to be one big problem: The actual number of half dollars redeemed was higher than the number the U.S. Mint has produced, according to prosecutors. In fact, the U.S. Mint allegedly believes that more half dollars have been redeemed by China sourced vendors in the last 10 years than the U.S. Mint has ever manufactured in its history. What’s more, although the Chinese importers claimed the coins came from salvaged automobiles from the U.S, based on number of cars exported to China and amount of coins submitted for redemption, each car would have had to contain the equivalent of $900 worth of coins.

Perhaps, most importantly, samples of the millions of pounds of mutilated copper-nickel clad dimes, quarter dollars and half dollars – all allegedly part of shipments from China – proved to be counterfeit.

As a result, the U.S. Mint hasn’t been purchasing salvaged coins since November 2015. A federal judge in Philadelphia dismissed the case in July after the three identified U.S. companies reached a settlement with prosecutors. While the alleged counterfeit issue was resolved in the summer of 2016, the Mint hasn’t said whether it will restart the program.

Any recovered mutilated coins can’t be melted down or returned to a bank, so Covanta has continued to stockpile the recovered coins in droves – essentially waiting to see what the Mint does.

“We’re hoping that the U.S. Mint will reinstate their program soon but are making alternative plans to further refine the coins for return to the U.S. Banking system,” Bossotti said.

Further Inroads

And while Covanta is leading the coin recovery efforts, Republic Services, Inc. and Lab USA recently unveiled a state-of-the-art ash metal recovery facility at the Roosevelt Regional Landfill.  The advanced process allows for the reclamation of metals found in ash previously lost through traditional methods of resource recovery – including mutilated coins. The facility is set to process all newly delivered ash to the Roosevelt Landfill as well as systematically process all of the existing ash currently in the landfill.

“We strive to learn and compare knowledge with others that have scrap as their primary business like traditional metal recyclers and coin sellers, including auto shredders and heavy metal plants,” Bossotti said. “However, our process is unique by recovering coins that remain after the EfW process.”

Having creative and industrious employees has allowed Covanta to streamline their coin recovery process – spending nominal dollars on this system.

“In fact, we have had industry experts express interest in our design for its simplicity and effectiveness,” Bossotti said. “We are taking essential components of what our Delaware Valley facility engineered and are applying it to a centralized metal processing facility which we expect to be operating this year.”

So what does the future hold for Covanta’s coin recovery program? The company is optimistic about the future of the coin collection program and hopeful that the U.S. Mint will reinstate its program.

“Several of the trade cases related to the program have been recently settled, in fact,” Bossotti said. “However, we won’t be solely reliant on the program moving forward and intend to use our innovative team to optimize the return of coins directly to the U.S. banking system.”

Published in the March 2017 Edition of American Recycler News