Where cars go to die (plus a Kirby vacuum, a motor boat, 12 taxidermy monkeys …)

By SARAH BEAUDRY

Arizona Sonora News

 Your water heater blows, or the washer goes kaput. Maybe you are dreaming of a new stainless steel refrigerator, but don’t know what to do with the old one. It’s time to get rid of unwanted kitchen ware. The garage is crowded with bikes the kids never ride. That car out front is a junker.

Who you gonna call, as The Ghostbusters movie theme asked. Well, you call someone who knows how to pick up your stuff and what to do with it.

Wake up in the morning, look outside and smile over a cup of coffee, happy the trash is gone from the curb. A scrapper came by in the early morning hours, hitched the junk to his truck and headed to a scrap yard, pocketing $10-$50 for the haul.

But how does this overnight magic work as a business?

Piles of junk tell a story about what we throw away and what later turns into other usable products or parts at Scrap Metals Recycling in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (Photo by Sarah Beaudry / Arizona Sonora News)
Piles of junk tell a story about what we throw away and what later turns into other usable products or parts at Scrap Metals Recycling in Tucson on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (Photo by Sarah Beaudry / Arizona Sonora News)

Roger McCrone, owner of Scrap Metals Recycling near Davis-Monthan Air Force base in Tucson’s industrial district, has been welcoming scrappers to his family-owned business for nearly 20 years. When business was flourishing, semi-trucks full of cars lined up to be weighed, leaving mounds of vehicles behind to be processed.

Mornings are different in this end of the process.

“I woke up with my head against my folded arms to the sound of my wife crushing cars,” McCrone says.

A white sign with blue lettering marks the entrance to the yard. Vestiges of American life become like an outdoor museum of relics that tell a story. A Blue Bird bus that once carried school children now stores old cabinets. Weeds spill from the frame of a Chevy truck. Coke machines line the pathways leading to piles of cars. Hundreds of expired fire extinguishers, mounds of batteries, circuit board, Christmas lights. The yard processes 500 tons of metal a month, as much as 1700 tons before the recession hit in 2005.

Today, scrapper Travis Otting meets Cindy Valentine, an assistant at the yard. Valentine sips on the straw of her water cooler. “This isn’t work for pretty-girl women,” she says.

"Cindy Valentine, assistant at Scrap Metals Recycling, works with scrappers to weigh their loads and sort metal scraps in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (Photo by Sarah Beaudry / Arizona Sonora News)"
“Cindy Valentine, assistant at Scrap Metals Recycling, works with scrappers to weigh
their loads and sort metal scraps in Tucson on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (Photo by Sarah Beaudry / Arizona Sonora News)”

Shade is scarce at the yard and dust mixes with sweat for prickly skin as a bulldozer rummages at the Earth, picking up and crushing cars. A rain cloud forms to the west, the only square mile where water wets the desert.

“The best stuff comes from the U of A at the end of the school year,” Otting says. “The UA throws away working laptops, bikes, TV sets. I’d rather see it go to use than go to a dump.” Other interesting finds include a $1,500 Kirby vacuum that needed a small repair, but the scrapper took about $5 in exchange.

Otting dumps a pile of scraps onto a scale that can weigh up to 25,000 pounds of material. The yard’s larger scale weighs up to 120,000 pounds. He shows off a bundle of copper wire and a brass urn. Copper tubing gets around $1.45 a pound and brass gets $1.18 a pound if it’s clean, just 40 cents if it’s dirty (not pure). He adds rubber car tires, metal bike frames, and piles of dirty scraps that amount to about a $1 in profit. His driver, Todd, passes the time by manicuring his cuticles with a jack knife.

“You could get $300 for a car in the 1990s, now its $50 a car handily,” Valentine says. “Now you get $60 a ton for steel — that was about $185 four years ago.” According to Valentine, it all depends on the market.

If there’s a Tsunami, for example, metal prices go up. Weather-torn places need materials to rebuild. And when copper prices skyrocket so does larceny. A rash of copper robberies in Tucson years back put checks and balances in place with local police. Otting, who is a regular customer, has been photographed and finger printed to ensure none of his materials are stolen.

Aluminum cans, one of the easiest and most lucrative metals parts to recycle, sorted into bushels at Scrap Metals Recycling in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (Photo by Sarah Beaudry / Arizona Sonora News)
Aluminum cans, one of the easiest and most lucrative metals parts to recycle, sorted into bushels at Scrap Metals Recycling in Tucson on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (Photo by Sarah Beaudry / Arizona Sonora News)

McCrone buys metal from scrappers like Otting, who make a living selling small scraps, or from the general public, body shops and organizations recycling aluminum cans. Anyone can drop off large household items, including the 20-year-old motor boat that sits at the edge of the shop. Tilted on its side, like it was washed to shore after a storm, the boat’s parts including seats and steering wheel are strewn about ravaged for metals.

“The owner wanted to make sure it didn’t just go into the dump,” McCrone says. “So we were happy to take it.”

The yard processes copper, aluminum, brass, steel and other metals along with cardboard and plastics. His relics represent the very start of the recycling food chain. McCrone’s workers remove and separate metals from everyday objects including cars, hot water heaters, refrigerators or televisions. They use an excavator named Buster, a 20-foot bulldozer that can destroy up to 3,000 pounds of car with jaws that resemble a dinosaur tearing into a rival predator. Buster zeros in on metal car parts, clamps down, and tears and separate roofs, doors, hinges — picking up and plopping down whole engines to resell while the rest of the metal is place into categorical piles. The metals then head to Phoenix where companies with expensive shredders demolish large volumes of metal waste into manageable pieces. According to McCrone, some shredders can level cars in 15 seconds leaving steel scrap the size of a round 12-inch can. Most recycled steel in Arizona is made into rebar for cement reinforcement.

***

The bulldozer rumbles speedily through the yard. From behind the sun’s glare and a billow of dust, McCrone appears. He grew up in Tucson recycling cans with his dad in the 1970s.

Buster, the excavator, organizes metal parts into piles to get them ready for the next stage of recycling ― more shredding at Scrap Metals Recycling in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (Photo by Sarah Beaudry / Arizona Sonora News)
Buster, the excavator, organizes metal parts into piles to get them ready for the next stage of recycling ― more shredding at Scrap Metals Recycling in Tucson on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (Photo by Sarah Beaudry / Arizona Sonora News)

“It’s not a new concept,” he says.

He uses the scraps around him with a measure of ingenuity and resourcefulness to outfit a yard that not only recycles metals, but also uses solar energy to wire it and hand-crafted waste removal techniques.

McCrone was a car mechanic for a local Tucson Buick dealer in the 1980s when he started to scrap some of the left over metal. It was good business when money was tight and he needed extra cash for dog food or to help his niece raise money for a band trip. His business grew from there.

“Sometimes I look around here and know I was placed here by God,” he says.

As we tour the yard, stepping carefully past burning metal and ducking under a hoisted car, McCrone shows me the drainage system he created to keep dangerous metals from leaking into the ground water, especially during monsoon season.

“Over there is where my son Jacob fixes all the things I break,” he says, pointing to machines and bulldozers. And just behind bushels of aluminum cans, he takes me to a used Border Patrol ambulance that he has equipped with solar panels and a wind generator.

“We’ve been running solar since the 1990s,” he says. “We create our own electricity.”

Solar and wind-generated electricity operates the yard’s machinery including the aluminum can crusher. It takes 600 cans to create a biscuit, which looks like a bale of hay.

He’s experimenting with cardboard recycling and looking for the best way to recycle plastics from cars which have replaced what were once dense metals.

***

Back at the University of Arizona, the Office of Residence Life has set up a recycling program to take care of the end-of-year dump. UA Surplus introduced its first store in spring 2016 for students to take unwanted furniture, lamps and other miscellaneous items. They staged the items at a warehouse for a back-to-school sale at the beginning of the fall semester.

“The whole place sold out in a day,” says David Munro, UA Facilities Management program coordinator.

The UA recycles about 140 tons of scrap metal a year coming from machine parts, tables and chairs, copper wire and copper pipe. “But recycling isn’t as easy as people think,” Munro says. “A lot that happens after a person puts a plastic bottle in a bin.” Contamination happens from things like bubble wrap and Styrofoam.

Piles of junk tell a story about what we throw away and what later turns into other usable products or parts at Scrap Metals Recycling in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (Photo by Sarah Beaudry / Arizona Sonora News)
Piles of junk tell a story about what we throw away and what later turns into other usable products or parts at Scrap Metals Recycling in Tucson on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (Photo by Sarah Beaudry / Arizona Sonora News)

According to Munro, aluminum cans are the best and should always be recycled. “It saves a tremendous amount of energy, prevents damage to the environment and doesn’t degrade the environment in the recycling process.” White office paper is next on the list of easily recycled items, followed by cardboard and plastic bottles.

In terms of the strange waste found on campus, Munro says they find all sorts of things. The oddest finds: 12 monkeys and 10,000 highlighters.

Yes, a dozen monkeys.

“We found taxidermy monkeys in bags near anthropology,” he says. “We called animal control and they took them.”

They also found four trash bags of multi-colored highlighters. “Some promotional thing,” Munro says, “10,000 of them.”

All of the highlighters ended up in the garbage dump, promoting their way to the landfill.

 

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