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Weird Recycling (Ep. 52)

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(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.)

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We also visit MedWish International in Cleveland, Ohio, which repurposes medical “waste” — often unused supplies or outdated equipment — and sends it to needy hospitals in 90 countries around the world.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.”


Myhrvold did not mention the waste products of depleted Uranium reactors. Are they even more radio active than nuclear waste or inert?

Vicki Hannah Lein

I wanted to Talk BAck, but I am legally blind and I could not find where to do that. So here goes:
1. Do you know any examples of people, who, when presented with evidence that overturns their life's work, met that evidence with an "Oh, boy! I love truth!"

2. You seem to assume that test results correlate with actual learning. do you know Alfie Kohn? His book The Case Against Standardized Testing will get you thinking. I'd love to listen to an interview with him.

Thanks for your pursuit of truth and not caring what people think about the questions you ask or the answers you get.
Vicki Hannah Lein

Kevin H

I really liked this episode, especially the nuclear waste recycling. But I would like to know how dangerous is the waste of the wasted material. I mean when the Uranium 238 becomes Plutonium Can it be used for other purpouses? or at least is this new material not radioactive?


Hello-- If you are ever thinking of updating this podcast, the Arizona Snowbowl has a creative new way to make snow... with waste water!



Donald Da Duck

The rate of children death and leukemia had skyrocketed in Serbia which was bombed with depleted uranium. One child per day gets leukemia. Serbia had 7 million people when it all started. (to give perspective of % of people that got ill)

So, we have people who created the Microsoft Windows, program that any a bit computer educated person knows as a biggest ruin of a program in existence. It is synonymous with everything that is bad with pc.
Now said that somebody is about to give money to people that created the "blue screen" disaster a chance to play with nuclear waste. What are the odds of their new blunder? Judging from the past it is very high.