The quarter stuck to the blob of gum in the ashtray, the dime wedged between the driver’s seat cushions—these are the coins of Ronnie Shahar’s realm.
The U.S. ships hundreds of thousands of tons of scrap to China each year, much of it comprising the aluminum remains of broken-down vehicles that have been fed through industrial shredders. The scrap is so laden with coins, many of them battered beyond recognition, that a new industry has emerged to reclaim and repatriate them.
Mr. Shahar, a 46-year-old entrepreneur, was among the first to realize the potential in pocket change more than 25 years ago. Today, he buys U.S. coins in bulk from Chinese salvage yards and exports them to his Oregon-based partner, who exchanges the coins at the U.S. Mint for a lump sum.
The Mint redeems coins that are bent, burned, fused, chipped or otherwise uncountable by machine at nearly their face value, under a program established more than a century ago.
The program has paid out more than $100 million since 2009, the year customs officials in Los Angeles noted a sharp increase in large coin shipments from China. The uptick was so sharp that federal law-enforcement officials have come to believe some of the dimes, quarters and half dollars arriving from the Far East are fakes.