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There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to residential recycling programs. What can go in? What can‘t? Who’s taking our recycling? What are we accomplishing: Are we saving money, the planet?

Reduce Reuse Refocus: Industrial Scrap Metal Recycling Remains Robust

If you live in the Rust Belt, you’ve likely seen your share of scrap metal yards. Scrap might look like rusted junk, but industrial recycling remains a robust industry. Industrial recycling, combined with commercial material from retail operations, makes up the majority of the U.S. recycling industry today.

Recycling steel and 'fluff'
Locally, Metalico is a sizable scrap metal company. It has scrap yards across five states with two smaller yards in Akron and one in Youngstown.

On any given day in Youngstown, Metalico’s giant auto shredder - one of 16 in Ohio  - is at work, grinding up autos and other large chunks of metal.

According to Director of Operations Don Fleming, advancements in separating the materials have made almost everything in cars that’s not steel recyclable. It's called "fluff."

"Ten years ago we were not taking out the very fine hair wires from the motor harness, we weren’t taking out the very small, minute pieces of aluminum," Fleming said. "The industry as a whole is investing in a number of technical processes to further pull the trace materials from a byproduct called 'fluff'."

The cars are lifted with a huge magnet or a claw, and placed on a conveyer that feeds the shredder.

photo of Don Fleming
Metalico Operations Director Don Fleming says about 15 percent of the company's intake is from peddlers, which includes families bringing items from garages and basements.

It’s mesmerizing to watch. But cars aren’t the only things that go in.

Looking around the yard there are piles with chunks of steel in every shape. Near the shredder there’s a heap of old washers and refrigerators, called “white goods.” In another pile are all those little motors that power the components in our cars. They’re called “meatballs.”

Everything that goes into the shredder comes out finer and higher grade. Each time it’s separated it increases the value. 

Where material comes from
Fleming says Metalico Youngstown’s scrap metal comes from across the region.

“Our material is coming from residential, it’s coming from dealers or aggregators that are collecting the material, so if a bridge is demolitioned [sic] that stuff is aggregated and brought in by a dealer, and it’s coming from other scrap yards,” he said.

In the world of scrap, there are two kinds of material -- ferrousand nonferrous.

Cars going through the shredder are about 65 percent ferrous, the most processed type of scrap in the U.S. averaging about 70 million tons per year.

Ferrous contains iron so it sticks to a magnet. According to the Steel Recycling Institute, steel is infinitely recyclable.

Metalico processes ferrous metal until it’s furnace ready -- that means pure enough to be melted for reuse by Vallourec Star, the steel mill next door. Vallourec makes tubular steel products, mostly for the oil and gas industries.

Cleaning out the garage
About 15 percent of Metalico’s intake is household scrap from "peddlers,"  often families, who bring in things like old bikes, siding and yard tools. 

“The people that are cleaning their garages are going to still show up here with their kids and they’re going to recycle the material because it’s the right thing to do,"  Fleming said.

A lot of residential scrap is nonferrous metal - copper, brass, nickel, aluminum and lead. Nonferrous metals also go through stages of processing to increase value.

photo of Joe Novak
Metalico's nonferrous metals buyer Joe Novak says the demographic selling scrap has changed over his 20 years to include more women and younger people.

Joe Novak has been the nonferrous buyer at Metalico for nearly 20 years. He works in an outbuilding surrounded by bins filled with pieces of copper, brass and aluminum. Over time, he says he’s noticed a change in the people peddling scrap.

“I think a lot of people think bums are the only ones that scrap in life. And I felt like that for years out here till I run into one maybe at Walmart or at the restaurant and say ‘boy she looks familiar, can’t be her’ and then you realize it is," he said. "You know you look different in your work clothes."

Fleming says peddlers can make pretty good money recycling metal.

“If you can go out and go down a street and pick out a lawn mower, a filing cabinet, screen doors and a refrigerator, you can make a living," he said. 

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries is a trade group representing businesses that recycle commodities - metals, plastics, paper, textiles, even tires.

The institute defines recycling in three categories:

  • Industrialis material from industrial processes like mills.
  • Commercialis material from chain restaurants, hotels and big box stores.
  • Residentialis from households, which is estimated to account for only 20-30 percent of the U.S. recycling industry.

Institute President Robin Wiener says despite restrictions China recently placed on scrap exports, the U.S. recycling industry is not failing.

Credit Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries
Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries
Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Executive Director Robin Wiener says industrial and commercial recycling is going strong in the United States.

Some recyling is thriving
“Recycling is working. Does it have challenges? Absolutely," she said. "We are working on them, there’s been significant investment made in recycling technology and processes, and labor across the recycling infrastructure.” 

She said several recyclers might handle materials as they move through the different stages of processing, each boosting quality a little more.

"The lower grade may go to one recycler who then processes it to a higher grade so then to another recycler who processes it further," she said. "Or it can be one processor who has the capability to do it all." 

Although China's restricitons have temporarily dampened residential recycling, Wiener said recycling is not failing.  

“Commercial and industrial recycling is thriving in the U.S. and it’s working very well and that’s why the message about recycling is in crisis is really so problematic.”

Because recycled materials are commodities,  Weiner says consumers can take action to strengthen residential recycling.   

“Buy products with recycled content. That's incredibly important because recycling is a demand-driven industry," she said. "Doesn’t matter how much material we collect from recycling if there isn’t demand on the other side it will not be recycled.”

Lately the markets for all recycled materials have been in a lull.

But the lulls in metal recycling never last long, Fleming said. 

“We’re still buying cars, the demand for new products, windows, solar, the industries that are ongoing, that are consuming all the aluminum and steel in the United States, they continue to roll on with the economy.”

Consider this - the next time you pass a guardrail, you could be looking at part of a car that went through a shredder.

Turning Automobiles Into Scrap at Metalico

Jennifer Conn joined WKSU in February 2019 as Akron reporter.