A day at a scrap metal yard
A long the banks of the Uncompahgre River in western Colorado sits an old red Volkswagen squareback. Its windows have been shot out, but the body isn't too beat up, and the old stereo's still in the dash. It looks like it could be a sweet ride with a little work.
Garry Fulks doesn't see it that way, though. To him, this classic automobile is nothing more than a hunk of steel, a bit of copper, some aluminum and a bunch of "fluff" -- the non-metallic pieces of the car. Like the hundreds of tons of old washing machines, pipes and other objects piled nearby, this car is going nowhere but the crusher. Then it will be trucked off to the shredder to be ground up like corn meal. It probably weighs about a ton and a half. Approximate value: $150. "I don't get sentimental about these things," says Fulks.
For 35 years, Garry and his wife, Diann, have owned and operated Recla Metals, one of the biggest purveyors of scrap metal in this part of the state. To them, the world is either metal or fluff, with the good stuff either ferrous ' it sticks to a magnet, like steel -- or non-ferrous, like copper or aluminum. And no matter how beat-up, rusted or old it is, the metal can all be chopped up, melted down and reused.
Business is booming for the Fulks. In fact, scrap has become a billion-dollar industry, driven in part by the same high metal prices that have nudged the West's dormant mines from their slumber. The mining boom is likely to leave the region even more messed up than before. The scrap boom, on the other hand, will help clean it up a bit, as backyard junk heaps are exchanged for cash.
"This is an extraordinarily green business," Diann says. "And it has been since before it was vogue to be green."
The scrap yard's 90-ton machinery dwarfs mere cardboard-gathering, can-collecting mortals. Recla and its 22 employees classify, "densify," bale and ship -- that is to say, recycle -- some 10,000 tons of metal each year. Nationally, over 1 million tons of copper is scrapped and recycled each year -- more than is scraped out of the earth by miners -- along with 200 million automobiles and 800,000 tons of aluminum cans.
On this chilly March day, a bundled-up employee dumps bag after bag of beer and soda cans into a big contraption that gobbles them up, then spits out colorful, shiny "biscuits" that are consolidated into 2,500-pound bales. "Those cans," says Garry, "are gonna go right back into the can business."
Each bale that goes back into the system allows more than four tons of bauxite (aluminum ore) to be left in the earth. Recycling aluminum also uses about 90 percent less energy than creating cans from virgin aluminum. (In spite of all of this, only about 52 percent of aluminum cans are recycled in the U.S. today, compared to 68 percent in 1992.)
Each shiny bale will net Recla about $2,500 on today's scrap market. That's about three times what the same cans would have been worth a few years ago, mostly because of high demand: China and India need more metal to support their whirlwind growth. Fulks points to a huge pile of rusted steel, one side of which seems to be bleeding dozens of horseshoes, and says the whole thing is bound for the Pacific Rim.
The boom comes at a price, though, namely theft: In recent years, construction sites, railroad crossings and air conditioners have been raided by burglars for the copper inside. Thieves even Sawzall cars' catalytic converters to get at the iota of platinum hidden inside. Recla hasn't been immune. This winter, high-dollar goods such as copper wire had a tendency to disappear at night, which is why there's now razor wire around the whole yard and an extra enclosure around the copper. Recla ships it off as quickly as it can, by sealed truck, not railroad car.
"When the price is as expensive as it is, it's not good to keep an inventory on hand," says Garry.
It's not just metal prices that cause the flow of metal to fluctuate. Western Colorado's rapid growth means more people disposing of more stuff. And as real estate values shoot up, so does the volume of scrap: When an old farm sells for big bucks, the new owners are prone to demolish the decrepit house (with its copper pipe and wire and aluminum siding) to make room for a fancy mountain mansion. And newcomers tend to prefer snazzy landscaping to all those broken-down cars and farm implements that have been melting into the earth for decades.
But it also increases the pressure on the business. As the town gentrifies, the riverfront land where industrial uses were once commonly located gains a different value. There's now a bike path running along the river, just across from the yard. And the people who frequent the path don't always appreciate the subtle aesthetics of a 180,000-pound shear clipping apart a transmission like a toenail.
"There's people who know we serve a purpose," says Fulks. "Then there's some who want us gone. They just don't give a rat's ass."
The author is HCN's editor. See a video of Recla Metals at hcn.org.