Mining the Scrap Heap for Treasure

Across America, a network of scrap-metal firms is supplying much of the raw materials, iron to aluminum, that fuel the growing global economy

Writer Kevin Krajick went on the road in search of the story behind America's scrapyards. Along the way, he found folks like 70-year-old Morley Denbo and his 43-year-old son, Joel--second- and third-generation scrap-metal men, respectively, and the proprietors of Denbo Iron & Metal, located just outside Decatur, Alabama.

The Denbos, it turns out, are representative of the entire scrap-metal subculture. Most of the trade is run by families like theirs, families who started out as hungry immigrants, often possessing little more than a wheelbarrow and living by their wits as they collected rags or bottles. Their descendants now preside over a major industry, using equipment such as high-tech shredders and giant cranes to process some 60 million tons of scrap a year--iron, steel, copper, lead and aluminum, for instance, plus assorted titanium, zinc and molybdenum. This processed scrap goes into the production of America's toasters, cars and bridges--and to international consumers, such as Taiwan, Turkey and Japan, to the tune of $3 billion to $5 billion in exports.

And newcomers to this country are still finding their fortune in the scrap heap, as Krajick discovered when he went out on the job in the Bronx with three immigrants in search of scrap they could resell. Among the discarded brake shoes and leftover bolts, they too were searching for the dream of a better life.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.