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Scrap Metal Recycle: The Metals And The People Collecting Them

Van Crushing

Van Crushing by Proggie on flickr under non-commercial creative commons.

A few days ago, a friend and neighbor of ours asked for directions to the metal recycle center. He needed some extra money and he had some aluminum that he wanted to exchange for cash. Our friend has an excellent job as a cook at a national chain steakhouse that consistently receives excellent Zagat ratings. He is married, with one young daughter.

Our friend is uninsured, and his family receives food stamps because, even though he has a good full-time job, the pay is insufficient for the family to live on.

When our friend returned from the recycle center, he was ecstatic, as a first-time visitor to recycle always is, because it is fascinating, and also because he had received just over four dollars for his clean piece of aluminum. By “clean” I mean that the aluminum was not mixed with other metals, and there was no plastic attached to it.

The working poor are now collecting scrap metal to get by and this is a recent trend. This man’s example is just one of many that we have seen in the past three to four months.

‘Our’ dumpsters that were once bounties of riches that we had mostly to ourselves are now harvested so often that we can no longer expect to find anything; the practice of collecting recycle scraps no longer is limited to the unemployed. At recycle we have witnessed everything from people on foot or in wheelchairs or pushing grocery carts to well dressed people in high-end vehicles.

What is scrap metal?

For the purposes of this discussion, scrap metal is salvaged metal that can be recycled. The most popular scrap metals are copper, aluminum, brass, stainless steel, iron, chrome, steel, bronze and shreddable sheet metal.

Copper, aluminum and iron are elements, listed in the Periodic Table with symbols Cu, Al and Fe. Copper and aluminum do not stick to magnets. Sometimes it is easy to be fooled. I have taken coils of shiny, beautiful copper wire to recycle, only to find out that the wire is copper coated or copper color, over a basic layer of sheet metal.

Magnets are essential to distinguish between types of scrap metals. In a pinch, a small old car stereo speaker makes a pretty good magnet.

Copper and aluminum are money metals, with copper being the most valuable of all scrap metals. Copper is perhaps most often associated with wiring. Anything that plugs into the wall will have copper, and so, appliance cords are popular among scrappers. Some wires are easy to strip and some are not. If I cannot strip a wire easily with box cutters, I turn it in at recycle as insulated copper, at a reduced rate. We do not burn wiring, nor do we condone it, although some people do.

The electricity grid, because of its high copper content, is sometimes the target of thieves. High-end plumbing pipes are made of copper. Metal theft often involves plumbing.

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Brass is a high-quality money metal that does not stick to a magnet and, due to its unique composition and sound conduction, it is a metal of choice for musical instruments. Most of our brass comes from door knobs, drawer pulls, lamps, and discarded items from the electrical grid. Some lamps can fool. Die cast can look almost exactly like yellow brass. Match Box toy cars, for example, are die cast. Die cast brings a fraction of the price of real brass.

Stainless steel, or corrosion resistant steel is a steel alloy with at least 10.5% chromium. Steel is an alloy of mostly iron, combined with a small percentage of carbon or other elements.

The term “money metal” is a common slang term for those metals that bring the most money for the least amount of weight. Stainless steel is a money metal that is often overlooked by the scrapper and tossed onto the sheet metal pile at the back of the yard.

Things marked “Stainless steel” can either be magnetic or not. This depends on the atomic arrangement. Perhaps a reader can explain the metal chemistry and physics better here. For the scrapper’s purpose, if it sticks to a magnet, the scrap yard will most likely consider it sheet metal, and the scrapper will receive a reduced price, or scrap price. However, the difference between high-grade stainless and reduced-rate scrap is significant.

By the way, just so you know, what happens to be stamped on a metal does not necessarily mean it is what it says. I have had items marked “14K” that were not gold. The exception to this is silver. Silver items are stamped, somewhere on the item, on a rim, a ridge, somewhere not very visible, with the symbol “925,” meaning 92.5% elemental silver by weight. If you are not looking at such a symbol, you are not looking at silver. You are most likely looking at silver plate or stainless. So, if you are thinking of cleaning all of the silver out of the thrift stores and flea markets, take a magnet (silver does not stick) and a really good magnifying glass, because for now, anyway, silver plate is essentially a scrap metal.

Another note on silver: Consider hanging onto it if you can. Silver is generally increasing in value. Here is a precious metal prices ticker.

Bronze is an alloy of mainly copper. It is not a common metal for a scapper to encounter; bronze is used, for example, in the manufacture of truck gears. Bronze chemistry is interesting. (My sister is a bronze foundry foreman.)

Metals that do stick to magnets bring “shreddable sheet metal” prices, which in this area is currently between ten and twelve cents a pound. Sheet metal is valuable to the scrapper due to its collective weight. For this reason, it is nice to have a long-bed pickup truck. Our truck is a reconstructed 1995 Dodge Ram 1500 that we got from a salvage yard, and it is perfect for hauling metal scraps.

In a future post, I will talk about the steps in metal recycle, from the initial scale to the mill.

I encourage everyone to visit their local metal recycle center, because it is fascinating. For example, in addition to the brass urn with someone’s ashes inside (the owner of the ashes eventually retrieved the urn), we saw a coffin, among other things, including a train engine car without the engine and a perimeter wall made of school buses.

Hat tip to Masoninblue, my scrapping partner, for editing this post.

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