For Century-Old Pawtucket Business, Recycling is All in the Family
February 17, 2020
PAWTUCKET, R.I. — The longtime Front Street institution, which celebrated its 100th anniversary eight years ago, began with a simple business model: a junk peddler with a horse and wagon. Hyman Berger’s great-grandsons now run the business, but the operation is essentially the same.
“Recycling is a wonderful phrase, but we’re just junk peddlers,” said Adam Sinel, Berger Recycling’s co-vice president. “Recycling is an ancient business. A kid in Cambodia picking up a can on the side of the road is peddling junk.”
The 43-year-old Northeastern University graduate has been in charge of peddling junk for about a decade.
The fourth-generation family business has been in operation since 1912, when Berger immigrated to the United States from Austria-Hungary. The 2-acre facility along the banks of the Blackstone River processes more than 200 grades of commodities. The horse and wagon has since been replaced by Bobcat skid-steer loaders, a fleet of trucks, forklifts, and two powerful balers.
Before Adam and his 28-year-old cousin Joshua Sinel, a 2015 graduate of the University of Colorado, took the reins of the company, their fathers headed up Berger Recycling. Adam’s dad, Charles, 74, is mostly retired. Joshua’s dad, Sam, 70, is semi-retired, coming in some afternoons to lend a helping hand.
Joshua and Adam’s grandfather Abe ran the business until his death in 1958. Their grandmother Edith, who like her mother, Yetta, worked the yard, spent the next decade running the business until her two boys were ready to take control.
Single-stream recycling and Rhode Island rule-breakers, however, are putting the squeeze on the 108-year-old business and its 20 employees.
Besides not being cost effective and creating material of poor quality, Adam Sinel said Rhode Island’s shift to single-steam recycling and mandating that municipal recycling go through the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation has cost businesses like his customers — in Berger Recycling’s case, recycling from Block Island stands out — and titled the playing field in favor of a quasi-state agency.
Sinel also noted that businesses like his that have legitimate stormwater management plans and permits, follow the rules, file the paperwork, and pay the costs associated with doing so face an economic disadvantage when enforcement against violators is lax. He noted that to be in compliance and to run a business the right way takes time, money, and resources. That fact is even more profound for small, family-owned businesses like Berger Recycling.
“The playing field is not level and people and their businesses are at risk because of it,” he said. “It’s not an easy way to make a living. People don’t realize the struggle involved in moving things.”
A variety of things, including scrap metal, aluminum cans, waste paper, plastics, electronics, wire, batteries, catalytic converters, and precious metals, come through the facility seven days a week.
“The volume of stuff we push through here when we are humming is insane,” Sinel said in late January while sitting at a desk in an office of organized clutter he shares with Sam, Joshua, his cousin’s 1-year-old corgi named Ziggy, and his uncle’s 9-year-old black lab Kyla. “We’re like commodity traders but we touch every trade we fill.”
He noted that the facility annually processes about 10 million pounds of waste paper; 5 million pounds of non-ferrous metals, which include aluminum, copper, nickel, tin, and titanium and alloys such as brass; a million pounds of ferrous metals, most notably steel and much of it is brokered; and a million pounds of plastics.
Aluminum transmissions, however, are one valuable item Berger Recycling won’t touch, according to Sinel. Transmissions are filled with nasty fluids that, even with proper controls such as the large concrete blocks and the hay bales behind them that separate the scrap yard from the Blackstone River, can make their way into an already-stressed waterway.
“We’d make money taking them but it’s not worth it, unless you don’t want to follow the rules,” he said.
Sam Sinel noted that some stuff isn’t worth recycling. “It’s aspirational, not financial,” he said.
One of the more valuable items that make their way through the facility, on average about one a day, are catalytic converters, many of which contain valuable metals — platinum, palladium, and rhodium, to facilitate the reduction in the level of hydrocarbons emitted in exhausts. Catalytic converters can be worth anywhere from $2 to $1,000. Others are worthless. There’s skill required to sort junk. It involves a lot of math. A hundred pounds of vinyl siding is worthless; 40,000 pounds brings a profit.
On the day ecoRI News visited Berger Recycling, Jan. 30, Joshua Sinel, after a quick look at his desktop computer, said rhodium was selling for $9,000 an ounce, palladium $2,573, and platinum $1,000.
A Toyota Prius converter, for example, has about 2 grams of harvestable palladium.
Since catalytic converters are so valuable, they’re prone to theft. Adam Sinel said that means “a tremendous amount of paperwork” and an ID is required of anyone who brings one in.
In fact, Berger Recycling frequently requires patrons to show an ID. That practice paid off in October 2017, at least for an East Providence bus yard where some three dozen batteries had been stolen.
Berger Recycling bought the batteries from the two thieves, but Sam Sinel contacted East Providence Police when heard about the theft. It cost Berger Recycling $600.
In a business that is cash centric, the Sinels and their employees have to be ever vigilant for people trying to peddle stolen items and worthless junk.
There’s also an entirely different ensemble of characters that make working at Berger Recycling a fun, educating, and interesting experience. There’s a Cumberland resident who mines his property for gold, bringing in nuggets as he unearths them. Adam Sinel said the man has told him that for every ton of dirt he mines he finds a troy ounce of gold.
There’s another gentleman who scuba dives for old bottles and visits whenever those expeditions uncover aluminum cans and/or pieces of copper, brass, or other valuable metals. There’s a knowledge Brown University graduate who Adam Sinel said “looks like a homeless guy” but who often visits to talk shop.
Award-winning artist Boris Bally, who works out of The Steel Yard in Providence, is a regular visitor. There’s no shortage of people pushing shopping carts into the yard filled aluminum cans.
About a decade ago, agents from the Department of Homeland Security stood and watched as Berger Recycling’s massive balers destroyed tainted lollipops from China. The company leverages its equipment to make money in non-junk-peddling ways, such as using its powerful balers for product destruction.
“We do everything, which makes this business work and also makes us crazy,” Adam Sinel said. “If we don’t do it, there’s a reason why: we can’t make a profit. You can recycle anything, but that doesn’t mean it generates revenue.”