Voluntary Recycling Programs a Success Without Mandates

Published October 1, 2006

Rusting and abandoned barges sitting on the Ohio River outside of Pittsburgh were recently removed, and the metal was recycled, by a company acting for no reason other than economic self-interest.

“We have been trying for years to get those barges removed,” said Jodi Noble, assistant township manager for Moon Township in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. “This [removal] has cleaned up the river significantly.”

The recovery and recycling of the barges, Noble noted, was a reflection of rising prices being paid for scrap metals. Another effect, and one garnering much attention in the media, has been the theft of items such as construction materials, metal light poles, and brass vases at cemeteries that could be sold as scrap.

Of much greater importance, however, is the legal business being done in scrap metal.

Recyclers Working for Profit

Much more metal is being recycled today than even just a few years ago, according to the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a Washington, DC-based association representing more than 1,260 for-profit recycling companies in the United States. The metal recovered by these companies might otherwise have ended up in landfills or simply been discarded wherever was most convenient.

The cause of the increased recycling is not a government program. “Scrap supply responds positively to price,” said Bob Garino, director of commodities at the ISRI. “As price goes up, more scrap will enter the marketplace.”

According to the ISRI, scrap metal prices have increased dramatically. The organization cites data from the London Metals Exchange showing the monthly average price for copper in 2003 at $0.81 per pound. The monthly average price for copper in 2005 was nearly twice that amount–$1.59 per pound. According to the ISRI, the per-pound price for lead has nearly doubled as well.

During the same period, the price of aluminum has increased about 32 percent, zinc by 60 percent, and nickel by nearly 30 percent. The price for heavy-melt steel has been more than $200 per ton each month in 2006, whereas the average monthly price in 2003 was $120.

Garino said there is a “sophisticated network to recycle metal.” He said scrap companies across the country purchase scrap materials, much of it coming from individuals who regularly bring in materials. The companies also tear down metal buildings to recycle them.

60 Tons Removed for Free

Most of the scrap metal that is collected and sold to dealers is not seen by the general public. This includes waste materials at construction sites, vehicles no longer operable, and discarded materials from car repair businesses. This material is quietly picked up and taken to scrap dealers.

In Chermung, New York, the public was quite aware of a junkyard that crowded the side of a county road. According to Jeff Murray of the Star-Gazette of Elmira, large piles of old engines, junk cars, and other metal objects sat on property owned by Joseph Carnrike, even though Carnrike did not have a permit to operate a junkyard.

Local authorities tried for several years to get Carnrike to clean up the area or obtain the proper permits, but he refused. Finally, town supervisor George Richter and other public officials realized the metal in the highway right-of-way could be removed without the owner’s consent.

Richter found a recycling company that would remove the metal at no charge. The company recovered the metal and then sold it to scrap dealers. Along the right-of-way the company removed nearly 60 tons of scrap materials at no charge to the public.

Dealers Collect Metal

Media accounts have cited instances of items such as light poles, electrical wire, and even manhole covers being stolen and sold for scrap.

But the bigger story is how higher scrap metal prices are bringing in legal items. Ken Luckock, owner of Slippery Rock Salvage in western Pennsylvania, said the high prices “are undoubtedly leading to more items being recycled.” He said he hears stories every day of items that have been “sitting around for some time” that are being turned in for cash.

Randy Castriota, the owner of Castriota Metals and Recycling in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is similarly convinced the high prices are leading to more items being recycled. According to Castriota, some people do it full-time while others do it in addition to their other jobs. Castriota says people “are working harder than ever” to find items to recycle.

“We’ve certainly seen an increase in the volume that we are recycling [in the past few years],” said Castriota.

Castriota said more nontraditional customers have been coming to his recycling business with items to sell for cash in the past few years. He mentioned a nun who has been recycling aluminum cans, and an older lady who fills her car with cans to earn extra cash.

“This is the market at work and not a deliberate act of the government,” noted Jane S. Shaw, senior fellow at the Property and Environment Resource Center in Bozeman, Montana.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

For more information …

Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc., http://www.isri.org