My friend Barry Sweet is a junk man. He’s a third-generation junk man, and he’s proud of it. He should be because Barry is in the sustainability business in a time when society is in a sustainability crisis. Our oceans are loaded with plastic, garbage dumps are becoming scarce, and we haven’t figured out how to get people to pay for the hidden costs of the obsoleted cell phones, computers and routers that we’re discarding. For three generations, Barry’s family has bought people’s discards, processed and repurposed them.
In a memory of my childhood in the 1940s, the rag man calls out “Rags! Buy your rags!” (or something close to that). The pennies he paid for those discards made a difference to the poor people in my neighborhood. That ragman, who may have been Barry’s grandfather, David Sweet, laundered the rags, repackaged them, and sold them to for use as cleaning rags and other purposes. The value of the rags was enhanced by the occasional zipper and more frequent buttons that were salvaged and resold to tailors and seamstresses.
The bag that David carried evolved to a cart, and then a truck. He expanded to scrap metal. By the time his sons, Bill, Albert and Berton (Barry’s father) took over, David Sweet & Company was substantial enough to provide for all the families and to send the grandchildren to college; Barry has an MBA. Barry’s father elected to sell the business rather than face the thankless costs of distributing ownership of the business. But the expertise, the culture of extracting value of still-useful discards, remained within the family members who had participated in, and grown the company.
Barry has served as a consultant in what has become an industry with hundreds of processing plant throughout the world. He now works for a Finnish company in a midwestern town. The company disassembles electric equipment of all types using processes that range from hand labor to huge machines using knives and hammers to crush the equipment, magnets to separate the steel and chemicals to dissolve and re constitute the copper. In an amazing reprisal of grandfather’s process, residual amounts of gold and silver that came along with the copper can make the difference between profit and loss.
Other processes recover cobalt, nickel, and molybdenum as used in creating specialized forms of stainless steel.
There is so much lip service given to sustainability of our planet’s resources. Barry Sweet is a person in an industry that is seriously engaged. He and his family are examples we should emulate.
Wisdom and deep expertise derive, mostly, from long experience, often generational, with successes and failures, but always with immersion.