Americans throw away up to $68 mn in coins a year. Here is where it all ends up.

In 2017, Reworld started its operation to recover the millions of dollars worth of coins that are thrown away every year. CAROLINE GUTMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In 2017, Reworld started its operation to recover the millions of dollars worth of coins that are thrown away every year. CAROLINE GUTMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Summary

So much change ends up in the trash that one company is digging them up for profit.

At a waste-management facility in Morrisville, Pa., workers load incinerated trash into industrial machinery that separates and sorts metals, then sends them to get hosed down. The reward: buckets of quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies.

Americans toss as much as $68 million worth of change each year, according to Reworld. The sustainable-waste processing company is on a treasure-hunt to find it. The company says that in the seven years since it started the effort, it has collected at least $10 million worth of coins.

Coins are as good as junk for many Americans. Buses, laundromats, toll booths and parking meters now take credit and debit cards and mobile payments. Using any form of physical currency has become more of an annoyance, but change is often more trouble than it is worth to carry around. The U.S. quarter had roughly the buying power in 1980 that a dollar has today.

“If you lost a $100 bill you’d look for it. If you lost a $20 bill you’d look for it. If you lost a book you’d look for it," said Robert Whaples, an economic s professor at Wake Forest University. “But a penny, you’re just not going to look for it."

Whaples has encouraged the government to kill the penny, which costs about three times its value to make. The U.S. Mint spent $707 million making coins last year. Canada, New Zealand and Australia have removed their 1 cent pieces from circulation.

Because coins can be hard to spend, they circulate slowly through the economy—or don’t circulate at all. More than half of the coins in the U.S. are sitting in people’s homes, according to the Federal Reserve.

Spotting change in the trash

Many coins are also getting left behind. At airport checkpoints, the Transportation Security Administration collects hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of them each year. Coins are left in couch cushions or cars, then sucked into vacuums and sent to landfills, said Dominic Rossi, Reworld’s director of finance and business support.

Reworld started collecting change in 2017 after noticing more of it in the trash. The company recovers 550,000 tons of metals, including soda cans, old pipes, keys and silverware.

On a recent Monday, a bucket loader lifted trash from its waste facilities into various sorting machines. A rattling gray one separated out anything that was the color of a coin. Another one separated anything round and flat, like a coin. And another machine separated heavier metals like coins from lighter metals like aluminum.

It took 35 minutes to clean what the machines spat out. Then, squeaky clean coins were spread out on an iron rack to dry. They were still mixed in with euro cents, coins from Kuwait and D.C. metro tokens.

In a trailer, human checkers wearing gloves sorted through buckets of this material, separating the good coins from everything else.

Because the trash was incinerated before it reached the facility, some coins were mangled beyond recognition. Of the $10 million in coins the company has recovered, some $6 million has been in good enough condition to use.

Reworld gathers anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million in coins a year, which it turns over to a third party to count and deposit to local banks.

Checkout counter annoyances

Most coins don’t end up in the trash. But that doesn’t mean they are wanted, either.

When Cassandra Raposo worked as a Dollar Store cashier, customers would often come to the register to pay for $5 to $10 purchases entirely with bags of change.

On busy days, Raposo helped them count every coin. Sometimes, they counted twice to double check, while she looked apologetically at the other waiting customers.

“I could feel the annoyance and almost even rage," said Raposo, now a copy editor in Rhode Island.

People tend to bring their extra change to the bank to trade in, but it is getting harder to do even that. Capital One and PNC removed their coin-counting machines about a decade ago due to low customer use. In 2016, TD Bank pulled the plug on its coin-counting machines after an investigation found that it was giving customers less money than they were putting in.

Today many people cash in their coins at Coinstar kiosks in grocery stores and gas stations. The company has said it operates about 18,000 kiosks across the country and has processed more than 800 billion coins.

Another person’s treasure

This year, Sara and Justin Ilse finished building a floor for their home’s 230-square-foot entryway out of 65,507 pennies.

“It was a way to encase something that doesn’t get viewed with much value in daily life," Justin said.

More than 20,000 of the pennies came from jars that Sara’s father and brother-in-law kept in their closets. They bought the rest of the pennies they needed in 2,500 increments through their local bank. In addition to the $655 they spent on pennies, they also spent $1,195 on supplies such as glue and epoxy.

In one social-media video where they posted about the yearlong process of building the floor, they tossed a handful of pennies onto the finished product and watched them practically vanish.

Reworld employees also have a soft spot for hard currency. They set aside the buffalo nickels they find. These coins were only made between 1913 and 1938, and they can be worth thousands of dollars.

“As a child I used to get excited about buffalo nickels, I thought they were rare," said Angelo Geraci, the facility’s operations supervisor. “Here we have jars and jars of buffalo nickels."

The coin recovery program is just a small part of Reworld’s revenue. The company makes most of its money from operating incineration facilities that burn trash to generate fuel.

Employees believe that one day coin usage will cease altogether, and so will the collection operation. But they’ll always have the buffalo nickels.

Write to Oyin Adedoyin at oyin.adedoyin@wsj.com

Americans Throw Away Up to $68 Million in Coins a Year. Here Is Where It All Ends Up.
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Americans Throw Away Up to $68 Million in Coins a Year. Here Is Where It All Ends Up.
Americans Throw Away Up to $68 Million in Coins a Year. Here Is Where It All Ends Up.
View Full Image
Americans Throw Away Up to $68 Million in Coins a Year. Here Is Where It All Ends Up.
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