Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Giant Load of Sawdust


I've actually written about sawdust before.

I'm surprised how many people don't even know what sawdust is when I mention it. These are folk, I suppose, who've never used a saw or seen a lumber mill. I've always been around it--whether building shelves in my dad's bookstore or sawing wood for a building project, or using the stuff as filler in a garden, or when visiting an actual sawmill. I love the smell of it, especially from yellow pine lumber.

I know a little about sawdust. At least I know what it is.

In addition to using it as filler and fertilizer in a garden, sawdust has a ton of other uses. Some companies take it and mix it with resins and turn it into particle board. There are outfits that transform it into pellets and sell it as fuel for steam turbines. Some places burn it in furnaces. You can ferment it and make wood alcohol. I've even been told that it can be made into various types of adhesives.

One thing that I don't know much about is the subject of economics. About the only thing I do know is how one makes a profit. You buy low and sell high. Or higher than you bought, at any rate. If you buy something for ten cents and sell it for twenty-five cents then you did well. That's about all I know about economics.

I've long suspected that our entire economy is based on a shell game. Or that it's all some kind of super-sized Ponzi scheme. (Well, I have to admit that I am knowledgeable enough about economics that I know what Ponzi scheme is.) Sometimes the process of business in the USA just seems like a con to me. It doesn't make sense and it doesn't add up. The numbers are just too large and watching the prices of what is sold compared to the information that I have for how much that object cost seems completely impossible.

What got me really dwelling on this subject occurred some years back. In those days I was making a living hauling molding paper (old comic books) up and down the eastern seaboard and selling that stuff as collectibles. I did pretty good at that for a long time. On one of these trips I was driving my van filled up with thousands of pounds of moldy paper ("valuable comic books") and decided that I needed to pass the large truck in front of me. As I got closer to that large truck and its high and canvas covered load, I began to notice flakes and bits of sawdust flying toward me. It was coming from the load the huge truck was carrying. I figured that they were carrying lumber.

I was wrong.

As I passed them I noticed that the truck was hauling not lumber but just plain old sawdust. And not just sawdust but ragged sawdust. This stuff was more like flakes than dust--the mill must have used a ragged blade or else these were wood chippings that had been run through a grinder to be sold as just that--snowflake-like chips. The truck had a driver and another worker riding along. He must have been a paid assistant, I figured.

Okay. Huge truck hauling big load of sawdust with two employees. Big deal. I drove on.

Later, either that truck sped up or I slowed down. Neither matters, but what they did was pass me. So I rode along again behind them while being showered intermittently with flakes of sawdust that were crawling out from around the canvas and mesh holding it all in. In a while either I sped up or they slowed down and I passed them again. No biggie.

This went on for quite some time. The two of us played leapfrog every twenty or fifty miles. No harm. If not for the flying sawdust I'd hardly have noticed, and they probably never noticed me at all.

For about two hundred miles this went on. Finally, I had to veer off of the Interstate I'd been sharing with this giant load of sawdust and they kept on going. I watched them vanish as I went right and they went on north. That's when it hit me:

The whole project with the sawdust didn't make any sense to me. Yeah, it was a fairly big load of dust. But they were probably hauling almost as much air as they were wood. The sawdust was, as I said, of relatively bulky dimensions and not the smaller, easily packed stuff. And then I started to think of the cost of the diesel fuel they were burning to move that damned sawdust for hundreds of miles along a Georgia highway (we were in Georgia--I don't think I mentioned that). And the driver was being paid. And probably the guy riding along with him.

It occurred to me that it was just about impossible for there to have been a real and actual profit in the moving of a buttload of plain old sawdust across the state of Georgia. It just did NOT make any economic sense to me. How many sheets of particle board could it make? Not that many, really. How many pounds of fuel pellets could be produced by the stuff? Not enough to justify the expending of all of that diesel fuel--surely not! Suddenly it made no sense to me, at all. Someone was paying good money to transport a lot of sawdust a really silly distance for reasons that were a mystery to me.

Like the USA economy in general, it just did not freaking compute. It was like part of a huge scam. A silly rip-off being perpetrated by one shyster on a crowd of yokels.

So this bothered me for quite some time. As I drove along, hauling my load of moldy paper across the eastern seaboard, stopping now and again at comic book shows to sell it.


Someone explain it to me.

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