Al Newman rarely needs his magnet to distinguish between different metals. Instead he relies on color, weight, and even texture to tell him what is steel and what is aluminum. Al is a metal artist, and he looks the part, tall and lanky with a silver-gray ponytail and one long feather earring. Some people might not appreciate a job sorting scrap at Highway 195 Metal Recycling, but to Al it is a wonderful opportunity to scavenge discarded treasures for his art.
My husband (Bill) and I have loaded up our pickup with buckets of used screws, rebar, an old aluminum screen door, a fan stand with the fan missing, and some short pieces of insulated copper wire and have taken a short drive out Highway 195. The Metal Recyclers are located far back in an active quarry, but a series of signs with arrows point us through a maze of gravel roads and heavy equipment. We finally arrive at a trailer perched beside a large truck scale. Perilously close to the trailer an enormous excavator with a grapple hook is plucking old water heaters from a mountain of steel scrap onto a container truck, carefully placing them onto the top and pounding them into place.
We drive across the scale, weighing in at 5580 pounds, and then down the ramp where Al is waiting for us. Bill backs the pickup toward the steel mountain – the opposite side from where the excavator is still working – and we throw out all of the steel, fitting as much of it as we can into an old dishwasher so the excavator will be able to pick it up. Al says there is never any shortage of old dishwashers, and they make great boxes for steel scraps.
After we get rid of the steel, Al weighs our aluminum and copper. The base of the fan is cast aluminum and weighs 24 pounds, so at 42 cents a pound it is worth $10. We only had two pounds of copper wire but it is worth $1.20 a pound. There are large signs posted around the yard stating that stolen goods will not be purchased under any circumstances, but because copper is such a theft-worthy item, new customers bringing in copper wire must provide a drivers’ license and be fingerprinted. Bill swipes his index finger across an electronic device. In a classic case of gender discrimination, I escape suspicion of copper thievery. We walk away from the trailer with $48.44 in cold, hard cash.
Over 83% of American steel is recycled, including 100% of junked automobiles. This success story of recycling is accomplished not because of environmental concerns, but because it is economically advantageous to do so. Every year we recycle more steel than paper, plastic, and glass combined. Not only is recycling steel cheaper than mining raw materials, but it requires 75% less energy. Recycling aluminum is even better, using only 5% as much energy as producing aluminum from bauxite ore. Aluminum cans, which are worth 65 cents a pound, can be discarded, shredded, reformed into new cans, and be back in your fridge filled with a refreshing beverage in about 60 days. Unfortunately, only about 58% of aluminum cans are recycled.
Having completed our business, Al invites us to come see his metal art. Al used to be a Seattle real estate broker, but has clearly left that career path for a less encumbered lifestyle. He lives at the back of the quarry in an old Greyhound bus which is elaborately decorated with his creations. On the patio an assortment of colorful metal animals watch over a cast iron bathtub and a metal fire pit. A salvaged candelabra completes the outdoor hot tub experience. On the grill of the Greyhound is a colorful mermaid. On the back of the bus is the perfect metaphor for metal recycling: a red and blue Phoenix bird rising from the ashes.