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Your junk, their livelihood

The world's hunger for steel is feeding the market for scrap metal. Locally, peddlers are trucking discarded metal to recyclers.

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published January 14, 2005


[Times photo: Stafanie Boyar]
Scrap is loaded onto a conveyor to be processed at Trademark Metals Recycling in the Port of Tampa. Trademark buys, sells and processes automobiles, copper, steel, appliances, aluminum and all grades of ferrous and nonferrous metals.
[Times photo: Stafanie Boyar]
Herb Wax, owner of Scrap All Inc. in Ybor City, has seen an increase in business because of record steel demand worldwide.

TAMPA - Amid the crash and clatter of cranes stacking mountains of metal, Jesus Rocha emptied the fruits of his weekend labors from a battered Dodge pickup truck.

He tossed a commercial hot dog warmer, folding chairs and an ironing board, all collected from Tampa curbsides. He shoved out a refrigerator and dryer. At Scrap All Inc. near Ybor City, the 880 pounds of metal fetched $30.80 in cash.

Rocha grumbled at the price, a penny per pound less than a few weeks earlier. But he and other collectors still benefit from a run-up of scrap prices, says Scrap All president Herb Wax. Industry experts - and a steady stream of junk-laden trucks at his yard - back him up.

"It's like everything is gold today," Wax says.

The world's hunger for new cars, appliances and buildings was a boom for steel makers in 2004, said Robert Garino, commodities director for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group in Washington, D.C.

Global steel production exceeded 1-billion tons last year, a record. That drove up how much steel mills and foundries paid for scrap and iron ore, especially in booming China. The price of heavy melting scrap steel took off as the economies around the world gained strength, Garino said.

After hitting bottom at $65 per gross ton (2,240 pounds) in late 2001, prices rose steadily for two years and shot up in 2004. Last November brought a record $252 per ton. Prices have slipped below $200 recently but remain at the high end of the range, Garino said.

The United States, he said, is "the Saudi Arabia of scrap," with more broken appliances, junk cars and other discarded stuff made of recyclable metal than anywhere on earth.

"It's a good example of Economics 101," Garino said. "As the price goes up, stuff comes out of the woodwork."

In Chicago, officials suspect that high scrap prices are behind an alarming jump in manhole cover thefts. Workers replaced more than 150 in the first two weeks of November. A new 125-pound cast-iron cover costs the city $45 plus labor to replace.

"These things are pretty heavy," police spokesman Pat Camden told the Chicago Tribune. "They would have to be worth the effort at some point." Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, also have seen more steel storm water and sewer covers disappearing.

Legitimate dealers won't touch manhole covers or other items clearly marked as government property, said Chuck Carr, spokesman for the scrap industry trade group.

Prices for all types of scrap metal - aluminum, copper, nickel and stainless steel - has been on the upswing. Florida's busy storm season created a new class of recyclable product: "hurricane scrap," a mixture of dirty aluminum, wood and other debris.

"The hurricanes created so much - metal awnings, pool enclosures, stop signs," said Ron Laker, president of Trademark Metals Recycling, Florida's largest metal recycler.

Trademark operates a dozen scrap yards across the state, including locations in Tampa and Pinellas Park. The company also operates a 7,000-horsepower "mega shredder" at the Tampa port, which cuts cars and other ferrous (iron-based) scrap for shipment to Mexico.

Scrap exports from the port, from Trademark and other dealers, jumped 150 percent to nearly 420,000 tons for the year ending Sept. 30, 2003. Shipments rose nearly 5 percent the next year.

Dealers such as Trademark and Scrap All buy from thousands of sources. Junk cars come from wrecker companies and auto dismantlers, which take out reusable parts and recyclable material such as plastic dash boards and tire rims.

Industrial manufacturers save metal waste. Scrap dealers clean out old auto parts at repair shops. Some waste collection companies sort out valuable materials before carrying loads to the dump.

But a significant amount comes from "peddlers," people who clean up a neighbor's yard or cruise neighborhoods in search of scrap goods.

One recent morning at Scrap All, Jack Palmer waits in line to dump out a load. His orange pickup truck and trailer are piled high with junk residents left at the curb in Tampa that day: a silver car hood, bed springs, a truck fender, a kid's bicycle without tires.

"I get out at 8 o'clock, and it takes a couple hours," said Palmer, 25. "On a good day, I'll make $100. You do good if you have a lot of weight."

Scrap All is paying 3 cents a pound for most ferrous metal, down from a high of 41/2 cents in November. But the price is about twice as high as it was a couple years ago, said Mark Goodman, vice president and Wax's partner.

Peddlers now are likely to cast a wider net for scrap, cruising neighborhoods farther from home or asking more people to clean up their yards, he said.

"If the markets hold up for another six months, almost every bit of junk will disappear . . . stuff that's discarded and set aside, behind people's houses or in the barn," Goodman said.

[Last modified January 14, 2005, 00:30:19]


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