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A boom in scrap metal

Dan Huntley
Dan Huntley
Dan Huntley writes on life in upstate South Carolina for The Charlotte Observer's Neighbors of York & Lancaster.

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  • Scrap recycling is big and getting bigger. It was a $71 billion industry in 2007 with 150 million metric tons of scrap materials being recycled annually. About 38 million metric tons of scrap worth $21.7 billion are exported annually.

    For example, most of the prices used in this story are based on the London Metals Exchange price. The LME is based on the cost of primary metals – those that have been pre-sorted and processed for delivery. The metals brought to a local scrap metal yard (a truck-load of lawn mowers) would be considered secondary metals and that price is discounted considerably from the primary metals price.

    For example, earlier this month, a Rock Hill scrap yard was paying $3 per pound for copper, but the LME listed copper as $3.67 per pound. The upward swing of the prices over the past five years is similar for both types of metals. We're using the LME prices because it's a standard published rate in the industry, and local scrap yards are reluctant to give their prices – for competitive reasons – for that five-year time period. Dan Huntley


ROCK HILL Bob Roy is on the hunt for scrap metal, and this morning he is hip-deep in weeds making his way to a decrepit warehouse off Dave Lyle Boulevard. The building is scheduled to be demolished, and the owner has given Roy permission to scavenge anything he finds.

Roy is happy with what he discovers: about 2,500 metal Civil Defense water barrels that he'll “process” by flattening them under the wheels of his truck to get more money per pound.

In today's burgeoning precious metals market – fueled by industrial demand from China and India – it was a good find for Roy: the price of scrap metal is up five-fold in the past five years.

“It's not like finding money on the street, but scrap metal ain't bad,” said Roy, 50, who recently used profits to buy a hydraulic Tommy Lift for his truck to lift bigger loads.

A guy like Roy used to be called a junk man or peddler. Now they're known as scrap metal recyclers.

Full-time search

The higher prices and the worsening economy has made it tougher to find quality scrap, Roy says.

“It used to be you could find it on the street, but now it's almost impossible. The higher prices have got more people pounding the pavement,” said Roy, who is now hauling scrap full time. “Most of my business is with people who call me to pick something up. … It's better money these days, but you have to work harder to find good scrap.”

The price of scrap metal, known in the business as Hot Melt Steel, has increased from $99.83 per ton in January 2003 to $498.50 in June. In a 45-day period this spring, the price jumped $150 per ton.

Roy contracts with several Charlotte companies to leave scrap for him behind their business. But the high prices are changing that work, too.

“The businesses will now pre-strip the scrap themselves – looking for copper – before they leave it for me,” Roy said. “And even then, sometimes people steal it before I can pick it up.”

Copper has had one of the sharpest price increase – $3.67 per pound in June compared with 75 cents a pound in January 2003.

Bruce Savage, a spokesman for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, calls it a “perfect storm” of variables that have led to the historically high prices.

That includes demand from China and India along with people trying to make money from scrap metal recycling because of the weak economy, Savage said.

Nationally, law enforcement officials have reported metal thieves taking aluminum bleachers from athletic fields, manhole covers, storm grates and even cutting out the catalytic converters from new cars and selling the palladium for up to $100.

Todd Snipes of T.H. Snipes & Sons Scrap Metal in Rock Hill says that he has to be vigilant about scrap metal thieves – anyone selling copper must show a picture ID, and records are kept of the transaction.

Constant vigilance

He also says the increased prices have brought about more property thefts from the scrap yard that has forced his family-owned company to install an expensive video security system to provide 24-hour coverage.

He says the spike in prices has brought other changes as well: Chinese metals brokers routinely directly call Snipes to check on supplies of specific precious metals. Snipes has also shipped scrap directly to South Korean, Chinese and Indian markets.

Snipes' great-grandfather started the business in 1932 by sending workers around the South to textile mills to gather the metal bands used to bind cotton bales. The workers would carry the bands back to Rock Hill to recycle the metal and resell the bands to the cotton gins.

Snipes' grandfather, Charles Snipes, 89, still works at the scrap yard.

The senior Snipes says scrap metal prices have always been somewhat cyclical but “it's never been like this before, prices are through the roof.”

Snipes, who drove a scrap metal truck for 55 years, has witnessed firsthand how America's manufacturing base has shifted over the past half-century.

“Hardly anybody is manufacturing anything in our country anymore,” Snipes said. “And now these other countries are building, and they don't have any scrap, so they're buying everything they can from us. … And the funny thing is they will probably end up selling it back to us.”

Scrap recyler Bob Roy has been hauling scrap for about a decade; he is proud of his “green work.” Recycled steel saves about 60 percent of the energy required to make new steel from ores, reduces landfills and leaves a much smaller carbon footprint.

“I was a welder and worked in machine shops and have been around metals most all of my life,” Roy said. “Besides the heavy lifting, it's a pretty good job. I make a few dollars and recycling metal is good for the environment. What's better than that?”

Bob Roy is on the hunt for scrap metal, and this morning he is hip-deep in weeds making his way to a decrepit warehouse off Dave Lyle Boulevard. The building is scheduled to be demolished, and the owner has given Roy permission to scavenge anything he finds.

Roy is happy with what he discovers: about 2,500 metal Civil Defense water barrels that he'll “process” by flattening them under the wheels of his truck to get more money per pound.

In today's burgeoning precious metals market – fueled by industrial demand from China and India – it was a good find for Roy: the price of scrap metal is up five-fold in the past five years.

“It's not like finding money on the street, but scrap metal ain't bad,” said Roy, 50, who recently used profits to buy a hydraulic Tommy Lift for his truck to lift bigger loads.

A guy like Roy used to be called a junk man or peddler. Now they're known as scrap metal recyclers.

Full-time search

The higher prices and the worsening economy has made it tougher to find quality scrap, Roy says.

“It used to be you could find it on the street, but now it's almost impossible. The higher prices have got more people pounding the pavement,” said Roy, who is now hauling scrap full time. “Most of my business is with people who call me to pick something up. … It's better money these days, but you have to work harder to find good scrap.”

The price of scrap metal, known in the business as Hot Melt Steel, has increased from $99.83 per ton in January 2003 to $498.50 in June. In a 45-day period this spring, the price jumped $150 per ton.

Roy contracts with several Charlotte companies to leave scrap for him behind their business. But the high prices are changing that work, too.

“The businesses will now pre-strip the scrap themselves – looking for copper – before they leave it for me,” Roy said. “And even then, sometimes people steal it before I can pick it up.”

Copper has had one of the sharpest price increase – $3.67 per pound in June compared with 75 cents a pound in January 2003.

Bruce Savage, a spokesman for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, calls it a “perfect storm” of variables that have led to the historically high prices.

That includes demand from China and India along with people trying to make money from scrap metal recycling because of the weak economy, Savage said.

Nationally, law enforcement officials have reported metal thieves taking aluminum bleachers from athletic fields, manhole covers, storm grates and even cutting out the catalytic converters from new cars and selling the palladium for up to $100.

Todd Snipes of T.H. Snipes & Sons Scrap Metal in Rock Hill says that he has to be vigilant about scrap metal thieves – anyone selling copper must show a picture ID, and records are kept of the transaction.

Constant vigilance

He also says the increased prices have brought about more property thefts from the scrap yard that has forced his family-owned company to install an expensive video security system to provide 24-hour coverage.

He says the spike in prices has brought other changes as well: Chinese metals brokers routinely directly call Snipes to check on supplies of specific precious metals. Snipes has also shipped scrap directly to South Korean, Chinese and Indian markets.

Snipes' great-grandfather started the business in 1932 by sending workers around the South to textile mills to gather the metal bands used to bind cotton bales. The workers would carry the bands back to Rock Hill to recycle the metal and resell the bands to the cotton gins.

Snipes' grandfather, Charles Snipes, 89, still works at the scrap yard.

The senior Snipes says scrap metal prices have always been somewhat cyclical but “it's never been like this before, prices are through the roof.”

Snipes, who drove a scrap metal truck for 55 years, has witnessed firsthand how America's manufacturing base has shifted over the past half-century.

“Hardly anybody is manufacturing anything in our country anymore,” Snipes said. “And now these other countries are building, and they don't have any scrap, so they're buying everything they can from us. … And the funny thing is they will probably end up selling it back to us.”

Scrap recyler Bob Roy has been hauling scrap for about a decade; he is proud of his “green work.” Recycled steel saves about 60 percent of the energy required to make new steel from ores, reduces landfills and leaves a much smaller carbon footprint.

“I was a welder and worked in machine shops and have been around metals most all of my life,” Roy said. “Besides the heavy lifting, it's a pretty good job. I make a few dollars and recycling metal is good for the environment. What's better than that?”

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