Weird Recycling: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Weird Recycling: Clever Ways to Not Waste Your Waste.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

I grew up on a little farm in a big family without a lot of resources. We reused, recycled, or repurposed everything imaginable. A lot of my siblings  worked at a diner and brought home one-gallon glass mayonnaise jars, which we used as milk jugs for our cow. All the junk mail got turned into scratch paper (and, if it was really high-quality, homework paper). We of course had a massive compost heap out back. Those cardboard tubes from wire coat hangers? We used them to make firestarters (and, sometimes, fireworks :-)). Recycling wasn’t remotely a political thing; it was a way of life. Not just because it saved money, which it obviously did, but also because it was satisfyingly creative and worthwhile on a lot of levels.

So I’m always on the lookout for recycling stories, the weirder the better.

The episode begins over lunch with Carlos Ayala at Golden Unicorn in New York’s Chinatown. Ayala is the Vice President of International at Perdue Farms. This means he’s the guy in charge of exporting products that aren’t so desirable in the U.S. — including chicken feet, or paws. On the menu that day at the Golden Unicorn: chicken paws in black bean sauce and a special, off-the-menu, ginger-infused chicken paw dessert. Ayala tells us that the U.S. exports 300,000 metric tons of chicken paws every year, nearly all of them to Asia. This export market is big business for chicken manufacturers in the U.S. and is not without drama.

We also visit MedWish International in Cleveland, Ohio, which repurposes medical “waste” — often unused supplies or outdated equipment — and sends it to needy hospitals in 90 countries around the world. (Tight regulations in the U.S. forbid MedWish from sending the stuff to needy hospitals or clinics in the U.S.) To date, MedWish has kept 2.2 million pounds of medical waste out of landfills. 

Finally, Nathan Myhrvold  of Intellectual Ventures, a recurring character in these parts, talks about the nuclear-energy firm TerraPower that he, Bill Gates, and others have founded. How is this nuclear-energy firm different than others? It uses a different technology and, most relevant to our episode, a different fuel: nuclear waste.

As it turns out, Myhrvold also shares with us his chicken-feet recipe from his uber-cookbook Modernist Cuisine.

If you need even more weird recycling stories after this episode, you may want to check out our earlier podcast “The Power of Poop.”

Audio Transcript



[MUSIC]

Stephen J. DUBNER: Hi there. Are you Carlos? Very nice to meet you.

Carlos AYALA: Great to meet you as well.

DUBNER: I recently had lunch in Chinatown – the Chinatown in New York City, where I live – with a very pleasant fellow named Carlos Ayala. We met up at a place called the Golden Unicorn, to eat something I’d never had before: chicken feet, also known as chicken paws. Carlos is the guy you want to eat chicken paws with. He works at Perdue Farms, the third-largest chicken producer in the U.S. He’s the Vice President of International...

Carlos AYALA: ...which means I’m in charge of everything that Perdue does on the food side of the business, so the chicken and turkeys, that’s outside of the United States. So my main focus is on exporting products that are not so desired in the U.S. and sending them overseas.

DUBNER: And you are a fan of the paw. You like to eat the chicken paw. It’s like Hair Club for Men. You are not just a spokesman, right, you love the paw?

AYALA: That’s very true. It’s actually the best part of the chicken as far as I’m concerned. It’s my favorite thing to eat.

[THEME]

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is Freakonomics Radio. Today: Weird Recycling: clever ways to not waste our waste. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

[RESTAURANT AMBIANCE]

DUBNER: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most Americans would vigorously not agree with Carlos Ayala that chicken paws are the best part of the bird.

DUBNER: Now, we haven’t seen them yet. We will soon. Just describe what they are going to look like. Cause when I use Mr. Google to help me out and I say chicken feet or chicken paws, it looks to me like a kind of sweaty human hand missing a finger.

AYALA: (laughs) Yeah, they are kind of brown and wrinkly. And that’s actually one of the reasons I prefer the black bean sauce because they look less like a human hand.

DUBNER: We ordered. Some dumplings, a noodle dish, some Chinese broccoli – and a basket of feet for everyone at the table. And then we tucked into those little suckers. They were about the size of my kids’ hands. My kids are 9 and 11. The paws were fleshy and bony at the same time …

AYALA: You have to spit out...

DUBNER: Yes you do.

AYALA: You have to spit out the little bones.

DUBNER: Yeah. I discovered that.

AYALA: So what do you think so far?

DUBNER: So, here’s what I think. I think it’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t, you know, disgust me or repel me in the least.

AYALA: Mmm. Hmmm.

DUBNER: I can’t say it’s the best thing I’ve eaten in the last even five or six hours. Or, or five years. But I love that you love them. So I’m just going to be with the paw for a little while.

AYALA: OK

[MUSIC]

DUBNER: Our order caused a stir with the Golden Unicorn’s waitstaff. Here’s Bourree Lam, who works on Freakonomics and came with us to lunch.

Bourree LAM: So they just asked me in Cantonese where Carlos is from because they said that Westerners never ever order chicken paws and they...we have about five baskets on the table right now so all the waitresses have just come and accosted me and asked me who he is, what he does, and where he is from.  

DUBNER: Once they find out that Carlos Ayala works for Perdue – which makes him chicken-paw royalty – we get first-class treatment, including a special, off-the-menu, ginger-infused chicken-paw dessert, which I’d rather not relive right now. But you got the feeling that even without the Perdue connection, they would have smiled on our party – because, as they said, it’s the rare American who orders the paw. In China, meanwhile – watch out! It isn’t the chicken breast they crave, like we do here. The drumstick? Okay, but … what really floats their boat is the chicken paw. Ayala says the U.S. exports about 300,000 metric tons of chicken paws to China and Hong Kong every year. That’s roughly the mass of the Empire State Building!

DUBNER: It’s amazing that you are taking something that for your company in this country is pretty much valueless. In fact it may be negative cost. You normally would just dispose of it, yes?

AYALA: That’s right. So, nothing goes to waste on a chicken, but the chicken paws absent the export market just have no value. I mean it is very minimal.

DUBNER: Where did all of those hundreds of thousands, millions, no millions of chicken paws. Right? You produce about twelve million chickens per week, so that’s about half a billion chickens per year that just Perdue is producing.

AYALA: That’s right. And they each have two feet.

DUBNER: So over a billion chicken paws.

AYALA: So over a billion chicken paws.

DUBNER: Ok. So take me back a little bit, however many years we need to go back to the time before there was a robust export market. Where would those billion plus, if there were that many then, feet be going?

AYALA: So, they’d go to rendering. And it might end up in dog food or something like that. But certainly not for human food. And then in 1991 we started harvesting paws in our first plant and it’s actually a huge upgrade, so, using opportunity costing, and the alternative is almost zero, so the upgrade is tremendous. In fact it’s one of the more profitable items for a chicken company right now, are the paws.

DUBNER: And what was the general feeling within Perdue about this idea of creating an export market for... I can tell by the look on your face that it wasn’t greeted with open paws.

AYALA: It’s not going to work! (laughs)

DUBNER: Yeah.

AYALA: Yeah, the idea that we are going to spend a lot of money in infrastructure for the feet? I mean, you know, what are you thinking? But it has turned out to be one of the most profitable items that we have. In fact there’s a lot of chicken companies that would be out of business if it wasn’t for the chicken paws.

DUBNER: Is that right. Perdue included?

AYALA: Um, it would be very difficult for us to survive without chicken paws.

DUBNER: No kidding.

AYALA: Yeah. It’s a critical part of the business. Demand in China is bottomless for chicken paws. If we produced literally twice as many paws, they’d be sold by 9 AM tomorrow.

DUBNER: And why don’t you? Because you don’t have enough demand for the rest of the chicken?

AYALA: That’s exactly right.

DUBNER: So you just need to learn to grow chickens with four feet?

AYALA: I’ve asked our geneticists about it. But no luck yet.

[MUSIC POSTS]

DUBNER: The idea of a four-footed chicken aside – and assuming you have no problem with people eating chicken in the first place – don’t you love this idea? I mean, what’s not to love? One man’s trash is another man’s dinner. I am very attracted to this kind of thing. I grew up on a little farm in a big family without a lot of resources. Anything that could be reused or repurposed was. Big glass mayonnaise jars got turned into milk jugs for our cow; junk mail became scratch paper. The cardboard tube from wire coat hangers? We used them to make firestarters. Recycling wasn’t a political thing; it was a way of life. So I’m always on the lookout for recycling stories, the weirder the better. Which brings us now to Cleveland, Ohio …  

[WAREHOUSE AMBIANCE]

Tish DAHLBY: And we’ve got a little bit of radio that we might want to turn off over here that lot of our volunteers kind of listen to.

DUBNER: That’s Tish Dahlby. She’s the executive director of a non-profit called MedWish International. MedWish repurposes medical waste and sends it to poor countries. Now if you’re like me, you hear “medical waste” and start picturing used syringes and bloody gauze. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Of the more than two million tons of medical waste generated each year by U.S. hospitals, a lot of it is perfectly good, even unused, equipment and supplies. Radio producer Dan Bobkoff walked through the MedWish warehouse with Tish Dahlby.

DAHLBY: And over here as you can see, it looks a little bit different in terms of in the front we have a lot of boxed supplies but as we work out way back we’ll see more exam tables, even baby cribs, and equipment that will be going overseas.

Dan BOBKOFF: What is this, this over here?

DAHLBY: This is an ultrasound machine, and this is going to Mongolia. We have a shipment that will be going to Mongolia later this year.

BOBKOFF: I see surgical masks. What else do we have here? Collections for Sharps, blood collection sets.

DAHLBY: Syringes, basically a lot of items that you’re going to need for diagnostic and lab work.

DUBNER: There are plenty of underfunded hospitals and clinics in the U.S., but MedWish can’t send stuff to them because of liability issues and regulations on disposing of medical waste – even unused medical supplies. So they ship it off to more than 90 countries around the world. Africa is a common destination.

Lee PONSKY: When I went to Nigeria and I saw what having nothing really meant, it blew me away.

DUBNER: That’s Lee Ponsky, a urologic oncologist at Case Western Medical Center in Cleveland. He started MedWish during college, after he volunteered as a surgical assistant in Nigeria in 1991.

PONSKY: We started our day literally sewing up rubber gloves from the day before. So, we had a little lady who sat in the corner, filled them with water, the surgical glove, and if there was water dripping from one of the fingers, there was a hole, she would take a needle and thread and sew it up until there was no water dripping. We would make out own saline water and add salt and sterilize it. We would literally, we could buy very inexpensive fishing line, nylon fishing line, to use, and we would cut it up and use it in the sutures to sew people up for the days surgery. We made out own gauze. And you know what? At the end of the day it worked. But it was amazing to me there were sometimes surgeries that we couldn’t do because we just didn’t have the instruments or the tools, simple stuff often. The doctors there had the training, and they had the capability, but we just didn’t have the instruments and the tools to do certain things that we needed to do. And we literally saw a few people die. And that’s when it blew me away. I said this should just not happen. It doesn’t make sense that there are literally people dying to see one person right in front of your face dying because you didn’t have a certain tool or instrument that you know you’re throwing away in the U.S. That just doesn’t make sense. And that’s where I came and said we just need to do something about it.

DUBNER: Talk to me for a minute…Talk to me for a minute about why some of these supplies get tossed. Why does, why do a bunch of boxes of gauze, let’s say, get tossed, or tongue depressors, or surgical gloves? Why on earth aren’t they just kept in the closet and being used?

PONSKY: A great story is recently one of the medical supply companies had, there was an error in the way the instructions were printed. And it said, you know, the instructions in Spanish were messed up. But the product was still good, but they couldn’t sell it in that format. They couldn’t sell it marked inappropriately. So they called us and said, hey we’ve got five palettes of, I forget what the product was, let’s say they were rubber gloves. But the instructions are misprinted, would you guys put those to good use? And we said absolutely, those are still very usable pieces of equipment for us.

DUBNER: I understand that wooden tongue depressors have an expiration date, is that true?

PONSKY: Isn’t that amazing? I mean, that is, as far as…Again, if our organization points things out like that, that can help improve things here in the U.S., I would love it. Yes, that kind of stuff drives me crazy. And the manufacturers, the worry of the manufacturers and the concern of liability is pervasive everywhere. So, all these products have expiration dates, and some of them just don’t make any sense, and so, yeah, so little product even like a tongue depressor, a wooden tongue depressor will have an expiration date. Now, maybe there’s reasons, maybe it splinters after it sits in the wrapper for thirty-five years, but I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be useful if it expires six months after its expiration. I’ve always said that if what we’re doing make the hospitals in the U.S., in our country, more efficient, so efficient that there’s no more supplies being thrown away, great we’ll find something else to do, we’ll go on to the next thing. But until that time, let’s make use of the stuff that’s getting thrown away.

[MUSIC]

DUBNER: In 2011, MedWish kept nearly 200 tons of so-called medical waste out of landfills.

[MUSIC]

DUBNER: Coming up ... so far we’ve filled our bellies, saved some landfill space, maybe even saved some lives ... so: what if we could light up the world with waste?

Nathan MYRVOLD: We could take American up to say 80% nuclear and run it for more than 100 years!

[UNDERWRITING]

NARRATOR: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is Freakonomics Radio.  Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner  

DUBNER: Ok, so first say who you are and what you do. The what you do might take three hours, but go ahead.

MYHRVOLD: Okay, I’m Nathan Myhrvold. I’m CEO of Intellectual Ventures, a company that invents new technology. And I’m also a cookbook author.

DUBNER: All right, there you go. So, this episode is about weird recycling, people who are reusing, recycling, repurposing something that is thought to have little or no value, or even negative value maybe, and turning it into a big positive. And we’re talking chicken paws, we’re talking medical supplies, but I understand that you have your own entry into the weird recycling sweepstakes, perhaps the weirdest entry in the weird recycling sweepstakes.

MYHRVOLD: Nuclear waste, we love it.

[MUSIC]

DUBNER: Nathan Myhrvold is a physicist by training. He’s also the former chief technology officer at Microsoft. He and Bill Gates and a few others have formed a company called TerraPower, which hopes to generate electricity – lots and lots of electricity – via nuclear power.

DUBNER: And how much money have you raised so far for Terra Power?

MYHRVOLD: You know, I’m not sure we even say.

DUBNER: You can tell me.

MYHRVOLD: Yeah, just here on this isolated soundstage no one will hear.

DUBNER: That’s not a microphone, that’s an amaryllis plant.

MYHRVOLD: Tens of millions of dollars, tens of millions tending towards ultimately hundreds of millions and billions because it takes a lot of money to build this.

DUBNER: TerraPower would create energy using new technologies, a new reactor – called a traveling-wave reactor – and old fuel. Old as in … used. As in used by traditional nuclear-power plants. Meaning … nuclear waste. What’s known as depleted uranium. You know, the stuff nobody wants in their backyard.

MYHRVOLD: When you concentrate the U-235, you’re left with a mountain of U-238 called depleted uranium. It’s slightly radioactive; it’s classified as nuclear waste. It’s not as radioactive as the spent fuel rods, but there’s a lot more of it, huge amounts of it.

DUBNER: And what’s done with that typically?

MYHRVOLD: It’s sent to Paducah, Kentucky.

DUBNER: And why Paducah?

MYHRVOLD: And not just Paducah.

DUBNER: It’s one of three places…

MYHRVOLD: It’s one of the primary places where there is a government-run storage facility where armed guards patrol this vast…We have these great aerial photos of it that show these thousands and thousands of canisters of U-238 that’s sitting there.

DUBNER: Canisters, what size? Like a natural gas tank canister? Or gigantic, the size of a tractor trailer?

MYHRVOLD: They’re big. Each one is, I think, ten tons of the stuff.

DUBNER: Okay.

MYHRVOLD: So they’re relatively large.

DUBNER: And how big, how much is there, how many tons of this?

MYHRVOLD: So that takes us to the recycling thing. We have a reactor that can burn that stuff as fuel.

DUBNER: That can burn the leftovers from…

MYHRVOLD: The leftovers. So, if we just take the stuff at Paducah, the depleted uranium, we could take America from its current mix of being about fifteen percent nuclear up to say eighty percent nuclear as France does, and run it for more than a hundred years. Paducah, Kentucky is the Saudi Arabia of this new world.

DUBNER: So you’re talking about a new kind of power plant, a new kind of nuclear power plant that uses a different technology that’s fundamentally different in some ways and similar in other ways to existing nuclear plants. You’re talking about however recycling a kind of waste product that nobody wants anyway and that most people consider worth less than zero. It should be made clear however that you don’t really know that this would work do you?

MYHRVOLD: Well, it’s a fascinating question. It will work. I can tell you with complete confidence that it will work. Now, if you asked me to prove that I would then take you to a set of theoretically calculations. And I would then take you to a set of computer simulations. You know, Fukushima was designed in the slide-rule era. Today, using modern computing technology, we can understand the properties of all parts of the reactor vastly better than anything we did before. And the results of those computer codes has been very closely calibrated against experiments for a very long time. Now, that said, no one is actually going to build a power plant just because I say so and because of my sunny confidence. So, of course we will build a pilot plant that will be the first true proof of principle.

DUBNER: The plants TerraPower wants to build would be much smaller than traditional nuclear plants, and buried deep underground, with little need for tending. If all that sounds too good to be true, keep in mind that, for the moment at least, it’s not yet true. The world’s appetite for nuclear power – and its fear of nuclear power – waxes and wanes.

MYHRVOLD: So, thirty years ago, the United States decided that we were freaked out about nuclear. The accident at Three Mile Island, which by the way killed zero people, and an amusing thing is there’s three reactors at Three Mile Island, not only are the other two still going, they’ve just been re-licensed for another twenty or thirty years. So everything has continued to work just great there. But the combination of that and a Jane Fonda movie called The China Syndrome…

DUBNER: Which came out twelve days before the accident at Three Mile Island.

MYHRVOLD: Yes. Coincidence, I wonder?

DUBNER: I think not.

MYHRVOLD: But nuclear r&d, the idea of doing exciting, new things in nuclear, the air went out of the balloon. There was no energy around it.

DUBNER: But the thing that I wonder, Nathan, is you’ve had this new plan for a new type of nuclear plant on the board for several years, right, you’ve been working on this, right?

MYHRVOLD: Yes.

DUBNER: So you’ve got all of this momentum. You’ve got worldwide electricity demand rising, rising, rising, rising, rising. And then last year when the tsunami happened in Japan and this nuclear power plant started to fall apart, what are you thinking. We’ve got this wonderful nuclear power project here, but is this another Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl, and Jane Fonda rolled into one? Is that what you’re thinking?

MYHRVOLD: Yes, that’s what we were worried about. There was a period of time when I was getting sort of commentary every hour. My BlackBerry was going off with a zillion different messages. And we had people in Japan, and we had all these tremendous amount of focus trying to understand what the hell is going on, and it was not the easiest few weeks to be out there promoting a new nuclear project.

DUBNER: So talk about what happened, talk about how bad it was, and talk about what it means for nuclear power.

MYHRVOLD: Well it turns out that the stretch of coast where the built the Fukushima Daichi Plant in the last hundred years there’s been a couple of twenty meter high tsunamis. So, you build a nuclear plant on that same coast that can only survive maybe a three and a half meter tsunami. This was not a good decision. Then the whole reaction to the plant, once it occurred, things were okay, or largely okay. Yes, there was a little damage, but all of the really seriously radiological leaks that occurred at Fukushima occurred because of human error, because the guys involved really had not done any level of safety drills or planning. You know, if you live on the seashore in Japan you’ve got to do tsunami drills. They really didn’t see to have done that. They were all left thumbs when it came to their response. You know, it’s easy to sit back and say that in retrospect, but they could have done a much better job.

DUBNER: When I think of using this waste that nobody wants, that’s considered dangerous, it’s costly, and so on, and you have this plan to turn it into fuel that could power the world, electricity of the world, I have to say it makes me think a little bit of the chicken foot, the humble chicken foot that nobody wanted until American chicken producers realized that China wanted it. So I wonder, you know, where you mind goes when I ask you to compare the depleted fuel stockpiles with the chicken paw?

MYHRVOLD: Well, I love chicken feet, as it turns out. In my new cookbook we have a fantastic recipe for puffed chicken feet.

DUBNER: Puffed chicken feet? Like they need more puffing. You mean, do you blow air in like a Peking duck?

MYHRVOLD: What you do is you cook them sous vide first, which makes them sort of soft. You pull the bones out. Then you dehydrate them a little bit. Then you deep fry them. And if you’ve ever had chicharrones, or fried pork rinds, it puffs up amazingly. Well, you do that with chicken feet, but it’s got this great chicken flavor. And they also look like these weird, twisted, puffed little gloves. Obviously they’re three-fingered gloves,(laughs) but it’s great.

[MUSIC POST]
    
[CREDITS]

ANNOUNCER: FREAKONOMICS RADIO is produced by WNYC, A-P-M, American Public Media and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Suzie Lechtenberg. Our staff includes Diana Huynh, Katherine Wells, Bourree Lam, Collin Campbell and Chris Bannon. David Herman is our engineer. Special thanks to Jacob Berman. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or go to Freakonomics-dot-com where you’ll find lots of radio, a blog, the books and more.

DUBNER: Hey podcast listeners, we’re putting together another FAQ episode soon. That’s freak-quently asked questions, so if you’ve got a burning question you want us to answer go to our website its Freakonomics.com slash radio and click the talk-back box on the right hand side. And if you’re not careful you might just hear your question on the radio someday.

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  1. danny says:

    you know, both you guys and planet money get distribution help from some form of public radio. one program talks about Myhrvold as a patent troll while the other (you guys), seem to slurp his koolaid. why don’t you do an episode about the hidden side of technology patents?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 3
  2. @mrtnprnj says:

    So, isn’t that ‘upcycling’?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. Mike B says:

    I am not so certain that exporting less desirable production outputs should count as recycling because those products aren’t being put back through the production cycle…they are just being used instead of thrown away. Making a product then using that finished product at some later point in its lifecycle as an input to make new products is clearly recycling. Simply selling something that is ordinarily discarded due to lack of demand is more on the Reduce side of the sustainability triangle.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2
    • Enter your name... says:

      So pre-consumer paper recycling isn’t “recycling” (e.g., scraps from packaging) in your mind? Why not? It turns into newsprint just as well as the post-consumer stuff, and if we didn’t recycle it, it would end up in the landfill or incinerator.

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  4. jLudlam says:

    I’m surprised by Mr Ayala’s claims of nonexistant US demand for chicken feet. Has he ever been to a supermarket in Georgia? If Purdue isn’t supplying the chicken feet down here in the south, somebody seems to be.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  5. Arne says:

    The recyling you talk about happens a lot through the “food” production chain. For instance a batch of frito lays that went stale end up in animal food and is fed to cows, pigs and chicken. The same goes for by-products from sugar production. The “waste” from the beets or sugar cain also end up in animal food, usually fed to them as pellets.

    The same happens further on in the chain, were the “waiste” from slaughterhouses ends up as glucose (basically hydrolysed collagen) in various products like candy or soda’s.

    The animal feed industry uses a lot of these “recycled” products. That’s why most of the various scandals regarding polluted meat can be traced back to this industry.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. goobergrape says:

    Patent troll ALERT!

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  7. Tom says:

    Isn’t Nathan Myhrvold the same person that was in the expose done by “This American Life”? The episode “When Patents Attack” claims that his company Intellectual Venture is one of the largest patent trolls out there?

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  8. Keith says:

    Hearing about the MedWish International medical donations made me remember a TEDx talk about how medical donations are often hurting the communities they’re trying to help: http://www.equalitise.org/2011/12/10/talk-on-economics-of-donated-equipment-counterpoint-to-recent-freakonomics-podcast/

    I was a little surprised that there wasn’t greater discussion on the podcast of the implications of the economics of these donations. (I admit it would have been out of the scope of this particular podcast, but this hot-button issue seems just right for a Freakonomics discussion…)

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