At the Arkansas Valley Scrap Metal yard, two men sit in an office. It’s a small office with three chairs, old and patched with duct tape. The desk is metal with a Formica top that looks like it might have been bought at a school district auction, and the shop-style shelves next to the window are filled with large fireworks. I walk in to the sound of laughter at whatever story was just being recounted and tell the two men that I would like to talk with them about recycling. The older of the two, Charles Smith, the owner, gestures toward the empty chair between them.
He turns to me and asks, “So what do you want to know about recycling?”
Outside two large cranes are moving piles of metal around. “What do you recycle here?” I ask.
“Well, we do steel, aluminum, copper — pretty much everything. We take appliances, and we’re about to get a machine to strip down cars.”
A man comes in the office. He’s wearing dirty jeans and a plaid shirt. “I’ve got some flashing that came off the side of a Wal-Mart,” he says.
“Okay, drive up on the scales,” Smith says.
A high-school-aged kid comes into the office. “Go weigh that truck,” Smith points out the window to the man who just came in.
“Who brings scraps in?” I ask. “Is it just people cleaning up their land or full-time collectors?”
“Oh, it’s all kinds,” Smith says, “we get a lot of metal with the county cleanup in the spring and fall. There are some people who do it full time. They can make more than they could with a regular job at a factory.”
“How much is that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Over thousand or so a month.”
“What about aluminum cans?” I ask.
“Oh, there are a lot of people who walk the roads collecting them. Most of them are older people who are out walking anyway and want to make some extra money. A few of them are out of work and do it to make some money. Then sometimes the bootleggers decide to clean up their back yard.”
“Bootleggers?” I asked, surprised that people were still smuggling alcohol from wet counties (those that allow alcohol sales) to sell in dry ones (those that don’t).
“Yeah, there are still a few of them around.”
“How much do you pay for cans?”
“Thirty six cents a pound. We lose a little once the cans are cleaned up, but we keep it to less than 5 percent of the total weight. There are some other yards around, so our price is pretty competitive.”
“Where do the cans go?”
“Oh they go on a trailer and we haul them to a smelter,” Smith says pointing to a row of tractor trailers parked in the corner of the yard.
“What’s the most profitable out of all of the metal you collect?”
“Aluminum is good. Copper is good. But we mostly deal in steel.”
The man who came with the flashing earlier comes in with the high school kid. The kid hands Smith a piece of paper with the weight of the metal on it. Smith unlocks his desk drawer and pulls out $23 and hands it to the man. The man takes it, thanks Smith, and drives off.
“Can I look around a little?” I ask.
“Sure,” Smith says.
We walk out of the office into a large shop. Everywhere there are piles of metal things. Along one wall there are several stacks of copper tubing. With copper above two dollars a pound there must be well over $10,000 worth right there. No wonder there is razor wire around the top of Smith’s fence.
“Most of that came from air conditioners,” Smith says, gesturing toward the copper. Copper prices have been so high that houses under construction are often being robbed of their copper wiring.
Behind the shop is a trailer filled with aluminum cans and around the trailer are piles of metal things of all kinds—axels, washing machines, farm equipment.
The place looks its name—a junk yard. I think about a cliff not far from where I live where people dump anything they can’t put at the end of the road for trash pick up. Around me is the alternative. On the surface the illegal dump and the junkyard don’t look all that different. But here everything is going back to something else—a car, a steel building, beer cans, maybe the aluminum would even end up in deodorant. And in the process people are making a little money picking up would-be trash.
We come around the side of the building and another truck is just pulling up with a trailer full of metal scraps—galvanized sheet metal, trailer axels, old farm equipment. “Pull up on the scales,” Smith says.
Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This originally appeared in Plenty in March 2007.