Scrap recyclers have, over the decades, been able to use the considerable lack of wider knowledge about their endeavors as a strategic advantage. If a company or sole proprietor out there wanted to come and pick up “waste paper” or “junk metal” for some unclear reason, then why not? It was merely something to be thrown away anyhow.
That level of misunderstanding lies in the distant past among large-scale scrap generators, and events in the past decade have unfolded in such a way that perhaps only the truly uninformed remain unaware of the value of recyclable materials.
One of the factors that has raised awareness of scrap values, unfortunately, has been the crime wave involving the theft of virtually anything made of metal that might be sold to a scrap dealer.
Crime victims and readers of news reports covering such thefts have learned not only to keep closer watch over their property but also about the lucrative trade in scrap metal. (Ideally, they come away understanding that 99.9 percent of this trade is perfectly legal, but that has been the topic for other columns.)
Another major factor toward the “coming out party” for scrap materials has been far more positive: the widespread adoption of sustainability practices—with recycling being an important component—by virtually every major corporation, institution and government entity.
Corporate executives and sustainability officers cite a variety of bottom-line and public relations reasons why sustainability has emerged as a point of emphasis, with the cost of basic materials being one of them.
Scrap recyclers know as well as anyone that the past decade’s surge in raw materials costs is part of a cycle, albeit a long-lasting one related to urbanization and emerging middle classes numbering in the hundreds of millions of people.
Some recyclers, however, have the sense the genie is out of the bottle, as what large companies and a generation of corporate managers have learned about recycling and secondary raw materials is likely to become institutional knowledge. Many of these same recyclers have found that dealing with customers who understand the value of recycling and the materials involved has made it far easier to schedule appointments, spot containers and otherwise gain acceptance.
Recyclers today may not be able to rely on the secret value of “waste” and “junk” any longer. However, they can take pride in harvesting scrap resources and helping turn them into the products people want in their homes and garages.
The 2013 edition of the 20 Largest Nonferrous Scrap Processors List is a reflection of the changing dynamics in the scrap metal business. In years past, scrap metal companies grew through acquisitions, which rapidly boosted the volume of nonferrous scrap they handled.
However, the trend toward large-scale consolidation has slowed. Whether an after-effect of the recession that hit in late 2008 or the fairly slow recovery, many of the dominant scrap metal recyclers have been less willing to take on significant debt to acquire additional capacity.
One of the few large acquisitions in North America in the past year was the purchase of Milwaukee-based Miller Compressing by Alter Trading, headquartered in St. Louis. The combination of the two, both of which appeared in our 2010 20 Largest Nonferrous Scrap Processors List, has boosted Alter’s position on this year’s list. Along with increasing the volume of nonferrous metals the company handles, the merger boosted the number of scrap yards Alter operates to more than 40.
Although acquisitions haven’t been as significant throughout the past three years, that doesn’t mean that larger scrap metal recyclers haven’t grown the number of operations they manage. According to our 2010 list of the largest nonferrous scrap metal processors, OmniSource operated 42 yards. The company now has more than 80 scrap yards under its control. While OmniSource continues to strengthen its coverage in the Midwest, it also has recognized opportunities in the South. The company presently has roughly two dozen scrap metal processing facilities in the Southeast.
CMC Recycling also has grown its operations. The company, which reported 48 scrap metal facilities in 2010, now says it operates more than 60 recycling facilities, primarily in the South and Southwest United States. CMC also has added to its shredder capacity, which provides the company with more zorba.
Other companies also have expanded their number of operations, which ultimately helps to boost the volume of nonferrous scrap they handle.
Benefits of Scale
The largest nonferrous scrap processors continue to be publicly traded companies, such as OmniSource, a part of Steel Dynamics Inc.; Sims Metal Management, a stand-alone scrap recycling company; David J. Joseph, a part of Nucor; Commercial Metals; and Schnitzer Steel.
Of these publicly traded companies, four of them also operate steel mills. And, perhaps more uniquely, SDI, through a joint venture with Spain’s’ LaFarga Group, recently opened a secondary copper smelter in Indiana.
Companies such as DJJ, OmniSource and Schnitzer have larger footprints than their private competitors, so they are able to process greater amounts of material.
Ostensibly, companies installed auto shredders to boost the amount of ferrous scrap they had access to. These shredder operators also are installing far more sophisticated downstream separation and sorting systems, which allow companies to recover more nonferrous metals (zorba) from their auto shredder residue (ASR). The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI), Washington, D.C., defines zorba as a fragmentized nonferrous mixed metal scrap from auto shredders. Zorba consists of a combination of nonferrous metals, such as aluminum, copper, lead, magnesium, stainless steel, nickel, tin and zinc, in elemental or alloyed form.
The growth in zorba as a nonferrous metal, however, has skewed the profile of the large nonferrous operations. In the past, companies that focused on nonferrous were content to handle less material by volume, though price spreads were more lucrative. However, that situation has since changed. Along with copper, brass, aluminum and other nonferrous metals, zorba is entering the market in much larger amounts.
Despite the ups and downs in the metals recycling industry throughout the past five years, the number of auto shredders operating in North America has soared to roughly 350. As a result of the increase in the number of auto shredders in operation in North America, scrap processors have experienced significant margin compression because of the intensified competition for material to feed their auto shredders.
However, Sims Metal Management, still one of the largest processors of nonferrous scrap in the world, has been closing down its inefficient operations and selling off some of its assets as it seeks more control over its operations.
Many of the largest scrap metal companies operate a greater number of auto shredders, which means they handle more zorba. However, while updating and amassing information for this list, several sources have nitpicked the inclusion of zorba, which is recovered from auto shredder fluff. Several companies say they classify the material with ferrous, while still others say they do not consider the material a nonferrous metal and do not track its volume levels.
While privately owned companies may lack much of the capital required to open dozens of locations throughout the country, they do have their advantages. Alter Trading, for example, has grown its locations in the upper Midwest through a combination of steady expansion and strategic acquisitions (the company’s purchase of Milwaukee-based Miller Compressing in the third quarter of 2012) has strengthened its position on this year’s list of the largest nonferrous processors.
Additionally, the retrenching of some larger players has opened the field to smaller, aggressive regional players, who have been building up their assets and widening their coverage areas.
The sale of some assets wasn’t necessarily enough to drop some of the largest scrap metal companies (especially the publicly traded firms) from the list of the largest nonferrous processors in 2013, but it could provide an avenue for regional players to add to their portfolios of locations with strategic purchases.
Other companies have been able to hold onto sizable operations by sticking to their core businesses. For instance, Cohen Brothers, a Middletown, Ohio-based scrap metal recycler, has steadily grown its operations, which were at one time focused in southwestern Ohio. The company now has 20 facilities throughout Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Going forward, the spread between the largest nonferrous processors and those further down the list may narrow as the scrap metal sector undergoes refragmentation.
Danny Rifkin, president and CEO of Waterloo, Ind.-based Metal-X (profiled on page 56 of this issue of “Recycling Today”) notes that after bulking up through consolidation, many large scrap companies have been selling off assets or closing down operations. This has, in turn, created opportunities for small, nimble scrap metal recycling companies to grow and build their operations.
The author is senior editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted a firstname.lastname@example.org. Editorial Director Brian Taylor also researched figures for this list.
For many companies, sustainability extends beyond using recycled content and encouraging the recycling of their products at the end of their lives. Boston-based Sappi Fine Paper North America is one such company. According to the company’s website, its sustainability goals are divided into three areas—people, planet and prosperity. Examples of a goal from each of these categories include:
- Enhancing employees’ job performance and managerial skills by offering training and education at an average rate of 75 hours per employee annually;
- Reducing fiber and papermaking raw material waste by 10 percent; and
- Achieving or exceeding an annual 12 percent return on net assets for Sappi Fine Paper North America.
A Balanced Approach
In working toward its sustainability goals, Sappi, a manufacturer of coated fine and release papers and market pulp, has found it necessary to balance the factors associated with using recycled fiber in its coated premium printing papers, says Laura M. Thompson, director of technical marketing and sustainable development. “Sustainability is a core part of our overall strategy,” she says. “It’s not a program of the month. It is integral to our business and involves making good business decisions that are good for the environment and good for our stakeholders.”
While Sappi advocates for paper recovery and recycling, Thompson says, “We share a unique perspective in trying to educate paper buyers about some of the trade-offs for using recycled fiber in coated premium printing papers. Once paper has been recovered, it is important to put the fiber to its best use, giving consideration for both economic and environmental impacts. Ultimately, recycled fiber should be used in products where it displaces a higher manufacturing footprint.” This best use is often in packaging grades, she says, because less processing is required and higher yield is achieved.
Sappi purchases deinked pulp (DIP), which is primarily made from postconsumer sources, such as sorted office paper (SOP) and white ledger. “For fiscal year 2012, Sappi Fine Paper North America sold approximately 1.4 million tons of paper and pulp products,” Thompson says. “In terms of yearly fiber consumption in tons, during fiscal year 2012, we used 40,050 air-dried short tons of deinked pulp, which is the combined total for our Somerset and Cloquet facilities.” Therefore, DIP accounted for nearly 4 percent of the company’s raw material in 2012.
Put Your eQ to the Test
Volume 5 of “eQ Journal,” a Sappi Fine Paper North America publication designed to help the company’s customers increase their environmental knowledge, will be released this spring. This issue will cover recycling and the best use of recycled content in paper manufacturing, providing insight into the paper making process, according to Laura M. Thompson, director of technical marketing and sustainable development at Sappi. The issue, as well as Sappi’s “2012 Sustainability Report,” can be accessed at www.na.sappi.com/eQ/journals.html.
Thompson’s blog, the “Environmental Quotient,” tackles sustainability issues as well and can be accessed at http://eq.tumblr.com.
She says Sappi has found that using DIP or recycled fiber in its paper production actually increases the carbon footprint of its products. “We have been very transparent about this issue,” Thompson says, “and are using life-cycle analysis to help bring facts and science to the fore of this debate in an effort to educate stakeholders about the ‘best use’ of recycled fiber.”
Thompson adds that the company was happy to see the recently revised Federal Trade Commission Green Guides, which states, “Claiming ‘green, made with recycled content’ may be deceptive if the environmental costs of using recycled content outweigh the environmental benefits of using it.”
Incorporating recycled content in its products also can come at a financial cost for Sappi, according to Thompson. “Many of our customers think products with recycled fiber ought to be less expensive than products made with 100-percent-virgin fiber. However, the cost of recycled fiber continues to exceed the cost of manufacturing virgin fiber at our integrated mills and is among the most expensive market pulps we purchase.”
Sappi’s consumption of DIP is driven by customer preference. But Thompson says the company’s customers are shifting away from demanding recycled content in printing and writing paper and instead specifying certified forest fiber. She adds that Sappi’s clients are taking a more holistic view toward the manufacturing footprint of their suppliers. “This is a good thing and demonstrates that customers are paying attention to both the economic and environmental benefits when choosing their paper,” Thompson says.
“Recycling typically uses less energy than raw material pulping. However, the production of recycled fiber still consumes energy, much of which is based on fossil fuels,” she continues. “When looking at emissions data for virgin pulp made at integrated kraft (free sheet) mills, the carbon footprint of virgin fiber can be significantly lower because kraft mills have high levels of renewable energy (in the form of black liquor, a wood byproduct from pulp making that paper mills burn to generate electricity).” Thompson adds, “Generally speaking, improving profitability and creating a more sustainable future are directly entwined.”
A closer look at Sappi Fine Paper North America’s operations offers additional insight into the company’s position on the use of recycled fiber.
Areas of Expertise
Sappi Fine Paper North America traces its roots back to 1854 and the S.D. Warren Co., owner and operator of a Westbrook, Maine, paper mill that was acquired by the company in 1995. Sappi Fine Paper North America is a subsidiary of Sappi Ltd., headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa. Sappi Ltd. employs more than 14,000 people and has manufacturing operations on three continents in seven countries.
“Our company is founded on a legacy of innovation and quality,” Thompson says, pointing to a number of “firsts” Sappi has achieved in coating and specialty mill technology. “We have a solid track record of pioneering industry-first innovations, such as the first paper coated and calendered on two sides and the first dull coated paper, among many others.”
Sappi is the third-largest seller of hardwood pulp in North America, Thompson says, with three mills in the Northeast and North-Central United States.
Sappi’s Somerset mill in Skowhegan, Maine, produces papers such as Somerset, Opus and Flo used primarily for high-end magazines, books and catalogs, Thompson says. It also manufactures coated free-sheet graphic paper, grease-proof packaging paper and bleached chemical pulp.
The Westbrook mill produces specialty release papers and films used in synthetic fabrics in the automotive, fashion and engineering films industries, including the Ultracast brand. “Sappi’s release papers provide the surface aesthetics for synthetic fabrics used in footwear, clothing, upholstery and accessories, as well as the textures for decorative laminates found in kitchens, baths, flooring and other decorative surfaces,” Thompson says.
Sappi’s Cloquet mill in Cloquet, Minn., specializes in coated free sheet graphic paper and bleached chemical pulp. “[The] Cloquet mill produces some of our most requested coated fine papers, including McCoy, Opus and Flo,” she adds.
The company operates 17 sales sites in the U.S., a research facility in Westbrook, a service center in South Portland, Maine, and a sheeting facility in Allentown, Pa., employing 2,280 people total.
Thompson says Sappi has three business units: coated fine papers, release papers and pulp. However, Sappi will be transitioning from kraft pulp at its Cloquet mill to specialized cellulose, also known as dissolving pulp, in May 2013, she adds.
Thompson says Sappi is excited about this transition, which will allow the company to supply the textile industry with specialized cellulose that will be converted into viscose fibers, which offers considerable growth potential. “We are excited about the growth in those markets and that is why we are doing this major conversion,” she says. Thompson adds that by transitioning to specialized cellulose, Sappi will be able to produce a product with more added value than kraft pulp, which also offers higher margins.
Sappi is investing $170 million in its Cloquet mill to make the transition to produce cellulose. “The plans include modification to the mill’s woodyard, digesters, bleaching, washing, screening and chemical recovery system,” Thompson says. “As part of Sappi’s ongoing commitment to the coated paper business, the mill’s paper machines and stock preparation areas are also being modified to better handle more purchased (dry) fiber.”
Toward a Sustainable Future
“Now more than ever, we are making strategic decisions to move into areas of greater opportunity and to focus on long-term, sustainable growth,” Thompson says. “Sappi Ltd. is currently the largest global producer of specialized cellulose, and with the major $170 million investment in our Cloquet mill conversion to be completed in 2013, we expect to produce an additional 330,000 metric tons total per year.”
She adds that the company recently invested $13 million to rebuild one of the machines at its Somerset plant and approved a $2.5 million project to upgrade the No. 20 coater for the Classics release line at its Westbrook plant.
“These capital projects will allow for increased overall returns of our North American region by providing opportunities for further reinvestment in our coated, release and specialized cellulose business,” Thompson says.
Wider industry initiatives also have Thompson excited about the future of the paper industry.
“I am excited about the pending Paper Check-Off program, which is an industry-wide promotion for the forest products industry proposed by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture),” she says. “The collaborative marketing campaign will help to remind people about many of the beneficial uses of paper as well as the strong sustainability positions within our industry.”
In terms of ongoing challenges to the paper industry, she mentions increasing recovery in segments such as cartons or polycoated papers. “While they are approaching the industry goal of 70 percent recovery,” Thompson says, “paper is still the major contributor to the overall volume of landfill waste. It will take a portfolio of solutions to minimize materials sent to landfill, ranging from composting of towel and food-service grades to incineration with energy recovery for other difficult-to-recycle grades.”
Thompson also says she sees potential for extended producer responsibility goals, which she describes as “arguably unjustified,” to burden paper recovery systems. She adds, “Paper has the highest recovery rates of any basic material, and it would be beneficial to see voluntary market-based solutions emerge rather than resort to EPR.”
In terms of sustainably incorporated recycled content into paper production, Thompson says this hinges on using the material in the right locations and in the right grades. “As an industry, most recovered paper is rightfully used as a raw material in packaging grades, such as carton board and paper board, because the manufacturing of these grades does not typically involve deinking and/or achieves a more cost-effective use of recycled fiber at a higher yield and does not typically involve deinking and/or bleaching.”
The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at email@example.com.
As the Hartsville, S.C.-based manufacturer and closed-loop recycler of plastic bags, Hilex Poly, likes to say, “Gray is the new green.”
The gray at hand, and often in hand, refers to plastic shopping bags made from recycled resin recovered from used bags and other polyethylene (PE) films. These recycled-content bags are typically gray, buff or blue, with Hilex noting that the darker the bag, the more recycled content it contains. For example, the company’s gray bags contain nearly 35 percent recycled content, while its blue bags contain more than 30 percent postconsumer material.
Hilex sells its finished plastic bags largely to grocery, retail, pharmacy and convenience stores as well as to restaurants. The company also supplies extruded films for consumer and industrial applications.
Hilex Poly describes itself as the largest U.S. manufacturer and closed-loop recycler of plastic bags, employing more than 1,200 people across eight plastic retail carry-out bag facilities, one packaging films facility and one recycling facility, which is in North Vernon, Ind. In addition to its Hartsville and North Vernon locations, the company has facilities in Milesburg, Pa.; Richmond, Va.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Garland, Farmers Branch and Carrollton, Texas; Jerome, Idaho; and St. Louis.
“In 2005 Hilex opened the nation’s first and largest cradle-to-cradle recycling facility specifically dedicated to reprocessing used plastic bags and wraps,” says Mark Daniels, senior vice president of sustainability and environmental policy for Hilex Poly. “Hilex developed the technology to make plastic bag recycling a reality in the United States and has placed more than 30,000 recycling bins around the country to date.”
Daniels says Hilex used more than 35 million pounds of postconsumer plastic in its manufacturing process in 2012. This recycled resin was obtained through the company’s own recycling facility as well as through partnerships with several other recyclers, who densify and reprocess material for Hilex. In 2005 Hilex recycled 3 million pounds of postconsumer plastic. By the end of 2013, Daniels says he expects that number to be nearly 45 million pounds. The company has a goal to increase the recycled content in its bags to 40 percent by 2015, and Daniels says Hilex definitely will meet that goal.
Hilex Poly Brings Recycling to College Campus
Hartsville, S.C.-based Hilex Poly has announced a partnership with the College of Southern Idaho (CSI), Twin Falls, Idaho, to recycle plastic bags. Through the partnership, Hilex Poly has provided the college with bins for collecting plastic bags for recycling.
“We will have collection receptacles in all of our buildings on campus,” CSI Athletic Director Joel Bate says. “This will be part of our overall mission within the college to help the community in eliminating waste and ‘closing the loop.’”
Hilex Poly’s partnership with CSI was kicked off at the school’s men’s basketball tournament in the fall of 2012. During the tournament, CSI fans could gain admission to the game by bringing in a plastic bag containing at least 10 other recyclable plastic bags.
According to the company, its partnership with CSI has been well-received, given that Hilex’ Jerome, Idaho, plant employs many people in the Magic Valley, the region in south-central Idaho consisting of Blaine, Camas, Cassia, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka and Twin Falls counties.
“The recycling effort of this company is tremendous,” Bate says of Hilex. “This will allow us to help them get out the message on how to recycle bags, where to take the product and what is done with the product in the recycling effort.”
Hilex Poly also serves as the sponsor of the school’s men’s basketball tournament, the Hilex Poly Invitational.
Through its Bag-2-Bag program, Hilex Poly has more than 30,000 recycling containers in place at retail partners throughout the country. The collected plastics, which include shopping bags, dry cleaning bags, sandwich bags and plastic pallet film, are transported via truck to various distribution centers, where they are baled before being transported to the company’s North Vernon recycling plant. Daniels says Hilex collects 80,000 pounds of material daily.
When this material arrives at Hilex’ North Vernon recycling facility, Daniels says workers sort out contaminants, such as strapping, paper, bottles and cans and, at times, even car keys. Material that is collected through municipal recycling programs is washed and dried before being shredded and extruded into pellets, while the material collected through the company’s Bag-2-Bag program does not need to undergo the washing step.
Daniels says the Bag-2-Bag material has a yield of 90 percent or better, while the yield from material collected through single-stream curbside programs can be less than 50 percent. “That is why we have been so aggressive in building the infrastructure with retailers,” he adds.
Hilex does not need to sort HDPE (high-density polyethylene) from LDPE (low-density polyethylene) or LLDPE (liner low-density polyethylene) prior to reprocessing. “We can put it all together as long as its polyethylene,” Daniels says.
Hilex welcomes plastic films beyond retail bags because of the high reuse rate for plastic bags. Many of these secondary uses—for disposing of pet waste or as trash-can liners, for example—means nearly 65 percent of bags are unavailable for recycling, Daniels says.
Despite this loss of material, Hilex Poly has been able to boost its recycled content year over year. “Each year we are able to see an increase in the recycled content in plastic bags due to greater recycling,” he says. “That field is growing for Hilex, and market conditions look good for us.”
To keep up with the volume of incoming material, Hilex’ recycling plant runs two 12-hour shifts seven days per week, Daniels says.
“We are able to recycle used bags and films though the entire supply chain at a cost competitive to virgin resin,” he adds.
According to the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents American plastic bag manufacturers and recyclers, plastic bags offer a number of advantages over the alternative paper bag, including:
- Generating 80 percent less waste;
- Generating 50 percent of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of composted paper bags; and
- Consuming less than 4 percent of the water needed to make paper bags.
While Hilex Poly and Daniels, who serves as chairman of the APBA and sits on the board of directors for the California Extrusion Film and Convertors Association, the Florida Retail Federation and the Texas Retail Association, agree with these merits, some legislators and environmental groups have singled out plastic bags, banning their use in certain communities.
“As with , we expect that some select elected officials in a few states may propose regulations on plastic bags,” Daniels says. However, he points out that while nearly 42 percent of municipalities have recycling legislation in place for plastic bags, less than 2 percent have placed restrictions on their use.
“In the past, we have been successful in educating those in office that plastic bag recycling is working for the environment and that, because plastic bags make up only a fraction of a percent of the litter stream, banning them will not have an impact,” Daniels says. “Most officials have been receptive at the state level and understand that plastic bags have a lower carbon footprint than any alternative and that plastic bags make grocery shopping a sanitary way to transport items from meats to vegetables.”
Daniels adds that public education is a key component in increasing recycling and he says he has seen it work across the U.S. It’s also necessary if Hilex Poly is going to meet its goal of increasing the recycled content in the bags it manufactures.
“Hilex is driven to expand our postconsumer recycling capacity of bags and wraps and continue our year-over-year advancements of elevating recycling resins in our manufacturing process,” Daniels says. “Our R&D department continually investigates new product development that supports our technological capabilities and innovative philosophy.”
The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Within the scrap recycling industry, one can encounter people with many different viewpoints and widely varying philosophies as to how to approach the industry. On at least one point, however, there seems to be wide agreement: Nothing is easy about consistently meeting the quality and chemistry needs of scrap metal consumers.
The tension between steel mills and ferrous shippers relative to the presence of copper and other unwelcome nonferrous metals has existed for decades. Likewise, melters of aluminum, stainless steel and copper scrap have strict chemistry requirements of their own.
Making the entire endeavor more difficult in recent decades has been the trend toward a higher percentage of scrap being obsolete rather than the relatively pure (or at least easily identifiable) flows of scrap coming from stamping plants and other industrial processes.
The most obvious scrap quality issue involves the presence of outright “wrong things in the wrong place.” Whether through carelessness, hurry or lack of proper training, quality claims still arise because stainless steel is in a shipment of aluminum or an unwelcome form of brass is in a copper shipment.
Human error cannot be eliminated, but quality programs are in place to deal with these very issues. Through a combination of metals identification training and the use of laboratory or handheld analyzing equipment, the means to prevent such situations exist.
A bigger challenge lies in the form of handling obsolete scrap and preparing it in a way to completely separate metals from each other and metals from plastic and other nonmetallic materials.
Processors without shredders must make a determination as to which inbound obsolete items are worthwhile targets for disassembly and which will be shipped to a shredder.
As nonferrous metals prices have risen during the past decade, an increasing number of auto salvage yards and portable baler crew operators have harvested aluminum wheels and copper wiring from end-of-life vehicles.
Shredder operators who invested to thoroughly harvest nonferrous metals using downstream shredder systems have been increasingly dismayed by the “stripped” auto hulks that come into their possession.
With less copper being introduced into the shredder initially, theoretically less copper contamination should be drawn in by drum magnets picking up the ferrous shred.
The other good news for steel mill buyers seeking lower copper content has been the emphasis by equipment makers to pluck out “meatballs,” or pieces of shredded motor scrap that contain iron or steel bonded with copper.
Scrap recyclers, consumers and equipment makers all can agree that no one wins when high-priced copper is sent to a steel mill, which is not paying for it and doesn’t want it as part of its melts.
Isolated from the rest of the ferrous stream, the meatballs have a secondary commodity value on their own and were designated as “shelmo” in the ISRI (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc.) “Scrap Specifications Circular” in 2006. Most often, the shelmo pieces are shipped to China where they are disassembled by hand.
The copper content in ferrous shred is just one of many quality issues that must be monitored when processing obsolete scrap.
Another frequent source of claims and negotiation involves the processing of mixed wire and cable. Guesswork is involved even for experienced and well-intentioned recyclers when coated and insulated wire from numerous sources is put together in one bale.
Scrap recyclers don’t necessarily need statistics to demonstrate to them that obsolete scrap plays a much bigger role in their lives than it did three or four decades ago.
Should they wish to see such a portrayal, however, U.S. federal government statistics that track ferrous scrap grades help point to the difference in that sector.
In 1978, according to the U.S. Bureau of Mines “Minerals Yearbook,” these were the grades most commonly purchased by steel mills in the U.S. (in short tons):
Thirty-five years ago, bundles and turnings of relatively pure forms of scrap accounted for some 12 million out of the 23 million tons of ferrous scrap purchased—more than 50 percent.
In 2008, the breakdown looked like this, as reported by the U.S. Geological Survey:
Prime ferrous scrap in the form of busheling, bundles and turnings accounted for just 9.9 million tons out of the 36 million tons of ferrous scrap consumed in 2008, or less than 30 percent.
For those in the ferrous scrap sector, the quality control issues related to this industry transformation are numerous and now entail a healthy percentage of the labor hours expended in scrap yards, at scale houses and in the offices of managers and executives.
Companies that process wire and cable ultimately can assay and know how much copper has actually been included. Both before and after this assay report, however, recyclers trying to determine the proper grade to make fair payment may have reached very different conclusions about what is in a given bale or container.
Baled wire is one of several scrap grades—along with shredded mixed metals such as zorba or the metallic content of auto shredder residue (ASR) sent to a media plant—where quality merges with trust and open communication.
The sometimes tense dialog between the companies in this chain can be important to the quality control process, recyclers say, provided all parties are acting honestly.
In addition to the dollars and sense quality issues that recyclers must be aware of when handling obsolete scrap, hazardous materials can cause a shipment to be rejected or can lead to wider problems.
Shredding automobiles is an automated processing technique that has provided millions of tons of ferrous and nonferrous metals to the global commodities market.
However, just a handful of tiny lighting components—in places such as automobile glove compartments and trunks—prompted an important quality control measure.
The automotive electronic devices in question were, for several decades, made with a bead of mercury used within the sealed contact. Two tiny beads of mercury per automobile, in some shipments of ferrous scrap to steel mills, added up to detectable amounts of mercury leaving the emissions stacks of those same mills.
As a toxic substance, mercury is considered a hazardous waste, the handling of which is closely regulated. When detectable amounts of mercury began to show up in the emissions of steel mills, it became a scrap quality issue of concern to auto dismantlers, shredder operators, steel mills and, ultimately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
From 2006 to 2009, a program and fund were established that helped reinforce to all parties concerned that handling mercury switches should not proceed in a “business as usual” fashion.
The National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program (NVMSRP) remains in place, managed as of 2013 by Farmington Hills, Mich.-based ELV Solutions.
On its website, www.elvsolutions.org, ELV Solutions says more than 5 million tons of mercury have been removed from the metals production chain or from improper disposal thanks to the NVMSRP, showing that those small switches add up.
The fund “was depleted in 2009,” ELV Solutions says, but “all other aspects of the switch collection program remain operational.” While funding is not available to participants throughout the U.S. anymore, ELV Solutions says, “Incentive payments will continue in states where they are required by law (Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Utah) or have a state-funded program (Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington).”
The NVMSRP was developed after considerable debate and negotiation between the steel, automotive, scrap and auto dismantling industries.
The NVMSRP has accomplished several things: ensuring mercury goes through the proper disposal or recycling channels; calling attention to automakers and regulators that more acceptable “design-for-recycling” alternatives to mercury switches should be pursued; and creating a habit or mind-set among dismantlers and recyclers that isolating such hazards can be part of daily business.
Mercury switches have been just one on a long list of such hazards that demand the attention of scrap recyclers. Refrigerators, air conditioners and other obsolete appliances that use of coolants also have their own protocol for handling these coolants—a protocol that is enforced by the U.S. EPA.
Rapid Recovery, Peoria, Ariz., serves demolition contractors and other scrap generators who encounter obsolete appliances containing coolant.
Judging by Rapid Recovery’s growth in the past 10 years, it has hit upon a genuine market need. Since opening in 2002, the company has expanded to 35 locations. “In 2011, we recovered over 1.7 billion pounds of carbon equivalent CO2 (carbon dioxide),” says Rapid Recovery CEO Adam Dykstra. As of late 2012, the firm had recovered roughly 4.5 billion pounds, he adds.
One additional quality concern that may involve new levels of research and problem-solving has to do with the very nature of the continual recyclability of metals.
Metals producers proudly point to the seemingly eternal recyclability of iron, aluminum, copper and other metallic elements. As in other things in life, however, too much of a good thing could have its downside. Operators of scrap-dependent electric arc furnace (EAF) steel mills, as one example, have expressed concern that copper-content levels in ferrous shred have been creeping steadily upward.
Recyclers, in turn, note that much of the steel produced in these mills has a higher copper content than the steel produced using largely iron ore in a blast furnace. The result is a loop between EAF steelmakers and scrap suppliers that makes it difficult to squeeze copper out of the equation.
The potential dilemma is that no matter how much shredding plant owners and other scrap recyclers invest to separate iron and steel from other elements, the steel scrap they are harvesting increasingly has a higher average copper content.
To keep the scrap flowing and the furnaces melting, in the meantime, requires investing in sorting and establishing a chemistry tolerance range that is achievable for recyclers and suitable for mills.
The dilemma is one of several that cause scrap recyclers to appreciate the work they are doing is not easy nor easily understood by those unfamiliar with the industry.
The author is editorial director of Recycling Today and can be contacted via email at email@example.com.