In an infamous 1989 article in Harper's, author Tom Wolfe referred to the world as the "billion-footed beast." That metaphor is colorful, but these days it's far from accurate: With about 6.6 billion people on the planet, humanity is closer to a 13-billion-footed beast - and growing larger every day. Census estimates indicate that the human population will reach nine billion by 2050. All those people will need a place to live, a place to work, and transport between them. In other words, they'll be ravenous for metal - steel for cars and buildings, iron for boilers and frying pans, copper for wiring and pipes, aluminum for bicycles and cans, and on and on. But where will they get it, and at what cost? As the Earth's resources become more difficult and pricey to retrieve, the "beast" is increasingly looking to scrap metal collection - the progenitor of recycling - to satisfy its bottomless appetite.
This is no secret. Copper is trading at a record $4 per pound on the New York Mercantile Exchange's Comex Division. If you bring a ton of No. 1 Steel to a scrap yard today, you'll get a check for $210; last year you might have taken home only $130 for the same weight. The booming market has spun off its own cottage industry of thieves, who haven't the slightest compunction about shimmying under a car with a Sawzall to swipe the catalytic converter for its platinum, or cutting copper pipes from vacant hunting camps, or ripping lead roofs off churches in rural England.
These are the bizarre side-effects of Asia's economic growth. They're also evidence of the fluidity of global markets, where an Indian's desire for an automobile of her own spells frantic days at Mac Steel, a scrap yard in Vermont.
Mac Steel is a third-generation scrap yard located on 50 acres north of Rutland. Drive toward Pittsford too quickly, and you're liable to miss the simple square sign on a cyclone fence. David Mac, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island, bought the land in 1953 when it was just a farm. To support his family, he drove around Vermont in a pickup truck, buying and selling junk and scrap.
Now the father-and-son team of Irv and Josh Mac runs the operation. They have desks a few feet apart in the small, shack-like office at the "front of the house," the area closer to Route 7 where sagging trucks are weighed in and new steel gets hauled out. Irv is in his sixties, with a bushy gray beard and deep-set eyes; if you can imagine Tolstoy in a thermal Carhartt sweatshirt, that's Irv. Above his no-frills metal desk hangs a warning to newcomers: "Don't ask if we're busy. We're too busy to answer your question."
Josh, 34, has a more modern look, with short dark hair, a two-day growth on a tanned complexion, and sunglasses stowed above his brow. He has decorated his office with an antique advertisement declaring "Guinness for Strength" that shows a sprightly lad balancing a gargantuan steel I-beam on his head. When I meet Josh on a Monday morning, he looks a lot less chipper than the guy on the poster. We step outside, and I ask him what's wrong. The usual: He's been here since 5 a.m. loading scrap into 30-yard containers. The kicker: Josh spent the weekend replacing his roof, hauling 80-pound bags of shingles up a ladder with an injured back.
In the yard's division of labor, Irv's domain is the front of the house. This is because he's an engineer by training and can help contractors find what they need inside one of two corrugated-metal hangars. One of these stores new steel for sale: sheet stock, 4-by-8-foot pieces for autobody work, flashing, angles, channels, and so on. It comes, Josh says, from "anywhere there's open trading between the U.S. and other countries that produce steel. It could be Israel, South Africa; it could be Canada, the U.S., Brazil, Sweden or Finland." This is lighter-gauge, non-structural steel, which usually contains about 30 percent recycled material.
Steel is the most recycled substance in the U.S. and the world, but the reused content in a given piece depends on its destined use. Structural steel, as in beams for bridges and spans for buildings, is usually made with 95 percent recycled material. Manufacturing recycled steel is accomplished by melting down prepared scrap in an electric arc furnace, a process that requires one quarter of the energy needed to fashion steel from virgin iron ore and coke. That energy savings, combined with a drastically reduced environmental impact, makes scrap the apple of the steel maker's eye.
The price of new steel tends to follow the price of scrap. Right now, Mac is paying high prices for scrap from small-time peddlers, which means that big steel makers are paying a lot for the scrap Mac collects. But it all comes back around when Mac buys new steel, such as the "long stock" - beams and pipes for large jobs - that's lying off to the side of the new steel hangar. Mac's inventory of this expensive steel is low right now, and most of what's here, growing a little rusty under a hard blue sky, is spoken for.
"You feel it," Josh says of the high prices, "whether you're buying steel or groceries." He adds that metal workers aren't bidding jobs out more than five days in advance, because the markets are so unpredictable. "It's a scary, scary time," he explains. "No one who I deal with has seen such volatility in these markets."
The other hangar at the front of the house is called the non-ferrous barn. Inside, sea-green light filters through a row of plastic windows, and industrial-strength cardboard boxes hold the metals that don't stick to a magnet. These include copper wire, stainless steel, cast aluminum, and car batteries, all of which have been separated by the seller to assure maximum return on the material's value. Under this roof resides a tidy portion of the other side of Mac Steel's business: buying scrap from individual and commercial peddlers and selling it to the Sims Group, an Australian company with a dock and barge at the Port of Albany.
In March, Sims merged with scrap-giant Metal Management, and now it's the largest metal recycling company in the world. Mac Steel has two full-time drivers making runs to Albany every day, with no end in sight. There, Sims' massive shear cuts the material into "prepared" pieces and loads it into containers to be floated down the Hudson River toward Newark and New York, and thence to China, Turkey, Japan and Taiwan, among other destinations. Scrap metal is the United States' second-largest export to China, after electronic components.
The messier side of Mac's business takes up most of the back of the yard. Not surprisingly, they call it the "back of the house." We walk down a muddy road worn into the ground by scrap haulers. On both sides of us, beneath the soft ridgelines of the nearby Green Mountain National Forest, tower heaps of tangled scrap. Much of this stuff is David Mac's legacy. For a long time, he took in more scrap than he could process and get rid of, so it sprawled out across the low hillside. Josh's goal is to clean it all up and shrink the scrap area down to a few acres.
What's here? Machines and rooftop HVAC units from General Electric, a lathe from "God knows where," an old ski tuner, massive underground storage tanks (dried and cleaned); piles of rusted brake rotors, mountains of rebar, an ancient Link-Belt crane; a crop of antique wagon wheels on axles, looking like decrepit metal sunflowers; a nest of oxidized steel trim hiding road signs. To the untrained eye, it's a chaotic heap of worthless junk, but to Josh and his crew of six full-time yard workers, it's inventory. "This is a pile of No. 1 Steel," he says, gesturing at a large swale of condenser casings mixed in with unrecognizable metal. "This over here is a pile of over-size. This back here is a load of cast iron. That pile right there is unprepared light iron."
These mountains of scrap need to get cut up before they're loaded into the containers for Albany. While we're walking, a worker is cutting a 15-foot-long underground storage tank with a blowtorch that runs on propane and liquid oxygen. Sparks dance around him as he concentrates on the slicing. When we come back after 15 minutes, the tank is splayed open and 3-by-5-foot sheets lie piled on the ground. Another machine, which is basically an excavator with a shear attachment, dissects bigger pieces like an angry vulture tearing into a carcass.
The lead role, however, is played by the Fuchs material handler, a $500,000 crane with a menacing grapple hook. The cab can rise 18 feet into the air, so the driver can look down on the piles, pick up tons of scrap, and drop it into roll-off containers. With its big body and cab beneath a long boom, it resembles a sleeping brontosaurus. "That's my baby," Josh says.
Things are getting busier at the front of the house when we return. Pickup trucks are pulling in and parking, or idling on line and waiting to get weighed. Josh waves in a plumber from Woodstock hauling cast-iron boilers. The plumber drives onto the wooden-decked scale sunk in the ground, and Josh goes inside the office to check the weight: 7320 pounds with one driver. He notes it and walks back out to tell the driver to take the load up the hill by the material handler. When the driver returns, his burden lightened, the truck is weighed again and Mac pays him for the difference.
Meanwhile, Irv sits inside, hunched over his desk and talking on the phone. When he hangs up, I cajole him to come outside for a moment, and he reluctantly agrees.
I ask Irv how this business has changed since he got into it 25 years ago, after working as director of traffic for the City of Atlanta. He says the new machinery makes it easier on the body, and calls the theft of metal for scrap a "sad commentary." (With the same effort it takes to pilfer metal, he explains, the thief could get a job and make an honest buck.) Most of all, Irv says he's observed that over the last 15 years, people have become more keen on keeping stuff out of the landfill. He thinks the rising price of scrap will only give them more incentive to continue.
"But the fact of the matter is that the scrap business is the granddaddy of all recycling," he says. "All that people have done right now is reinvent the wheel."