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Atlas Metal’s Jerry Simms, incoming ISRI chairman, has a bird’s eye view of what’s ahead for scrap recyclers.

March 12, 2012

Jerry Simms’ path through the recycling industry has always been grounded to its core, marked by a solid awareness of the industry’s missions. It’s not surprising. The executive of Atlas Metal & Iron Corp., Denver, got his start as a peddler behind the wheel of a small scrap truck. Now, after decades in the business, he’s poised to take the helm of the industry’s preeminent association, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI), as chairman.

Simms, who is executive vice president of Atlas Metal & Iron, learned about the industry as a teenager growing up in University Heights, Ohio.

“I had some family friends that were in the scrap businesses and I worked in some of those yards during high school and summer vacations,” recalls Simms.

Camping trips in Colorado left Simms with a penchant for the outdoors and the inclination to go west. So, after graduating from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Simms did just that, moving to Denver with his brother Bob and their cousin. “I think the Cuyahoga River was still sort of smoldering,” he quips, in reference to Cleveland’s infamous burning river incidents. “The Rocky Mountains seemed a better place for me to be at that time,” Simms says.

Though Simms left his hometown, he didn’t leave the scrap business. In 1976, Simms, with his brother and cousin, started a scrap company in Denver, aptly naming it Mile High Metals. “We’d go around picking up scrap from electricians and plumbers and machine shops and the like,” Simms recalls. Each evening, the partners would unload and sort the metals in their garage. The next morning, calls were made to larger Denver scrap yards for pricing.

“Invariably we seemed like we’d always be selling to Atlas Metal and Iron,” he says.

The owner of Atlas, Don Rosen, now chairman of the company, took a liking to the three. “One day he said, ‘You don’t have to call me every day for prices anymore. Just bring in your scrap; I’ll make sure I treat you right.’ And he did,” Simms observes. “He was always so fair, and that’s what started a great relationship.”

A year later, Simms went to work for Atlas, thus beginning a long career where he quickly rose through the ranks. He worked in numerous areas of the business, including buying, brokering, transportation, international dealings and environmental and legislative affairs, before being named executive vice president.

Simms also got involved with the Institute of Scrap and Steel, and its successor, ISRI. “Back then I was sort of a sit-in-the-back-of-the-room kind of guy,” he recalls. “I didn’t talk much.”

Again, things changed quickly for Simms. In 1990 Atlas Metal & Iron was named a defendant in three Superfund lawsuits, accused of being a potentially responsible party (PRP). Simms took a stand, writing a lengthy letter to then-ISRI Executive Director Dr. Hershel Cutler, looking to drum up grassroots support via ISRI’s chapter system throughout the country, to get scrap recyclers exempted from Superfund law.

Largely because of Simm’s efforts, ISRI formed GRIT, the Grass Roots Implementation Team. After nine years of work on Capitol Hill, Simms says, the industry was successful in securing an exemption from Superfund, in the form of SREA, the Superfund Recycling Equity Act of 1999.

Simms says being named in the lawsuits was a wake-up call for Atlas, which until then had been “sitting on the sidelines.” He adds, “From that day, just about 22 years ago, until right now, I think that Atlas Metal & Iron has maintained a stellar commitment to be an active participant in the association and the industry.”

Thanks in no small part to his achievements, Simms was asked to participate more fully in ISRI governance, setting in motion numerous director, committee and board positions, including chairing ISRI’s Political Action Committee (PAC), overseeing two successful PAC fundraising campaigns and his 2006 election as a national officer.

Simms, chair-elect for ISRI, assumes the chair role in April at the 2012 ISRI Convention and Exposition. We recently talked with him to find out more about his goals for ISRI.

Recycling Today (RT): The theme for the convention is “Be More.” What message do you hope attendees will take away from the show?

Jerry Simms (JS): I hope attendees do become more connected, more informed, more safe, more profitable and more active. Convention attendees, and even those who don’t attend, could still be more connected by participating in the webinars that ISRI hosts and educational opportunities offered throughout the year.

They can be more informed by availing themselves of a myriad of resources posted on the ISRI website. At the convention there are going to be well-attended spotlights on all the divisions that ISRI represents, and also a spotlight on the economy in general. They also can get more involved in the governance of ISRI’s association by attending the committee and division meetings that occur immediately prior to the opening night of the convention.

RT: What are some ISRI initiatives you are looking forward to working on in the years ahead?

JS: I think many of the challenges we’ve faced in the recent past are going to remain, and I think part of the challenge is simply the number and the range of the challenges that we face. The most recent challenge has to do with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposal to change the rule of how the EPA defines solid waste. If so, it’s going to be in a manner that’s going to make scrap a solid, or even a hazardous, waste.

ISRI and its members have submitted comments to the EPA on this proposed new rule, and we’ve made comments to policymakers at all levels of the government about the negative impact this is going to have on our industry. If it’s defined as waste, there will be all kinds of costs involved with doing that, and that’s going to affect suppliers, the scrap processors and consumers of scrap. It needs to be addressed, and we’ll have to wait and see how the EPA responds to our concerns.

Another concern: ISRI and also non-ISRI scrap companies are going to be involved as PRPs once again in Superfund lawsuits. Superfund is raising its head again, and we’re going to be tested as to our compliance with the due-diligence obligations [SREA] afforded us. We’re going to continue to have great expense in dealing with stormwater discharge permits that are overly restrictive and that have benchmarks that are not realistically attainable, and that’s going to lead to more expense for scrap processors, as well as to continuation of third-party lawsuits. Even though we won the exemption, the suits aren’t going to go away.

RT: Are there any other initiatives on the horizon?

JS: A huge obstacle that still confronts us is the scourge of metal theft, and, because of that, unduly restrictive legislation that’s being imposed on law-abiding scrap processors. Affected stakeholders include ISRI members, law enforcement, communication companies, railroads, cemeteries and others. It’s not only the tremendous loss of dollars, it’s also a huge safety issue and a huge problem for our country’s critical infrastructure. Therefore, the only way this problem is going to get solved is if all of the stakeholders get together and cooperate. The problem is that all this onerous legislation has been put on scrap yards. We’ve yet to see any empirical evidence that any of this overly stringent legislation actually makes a difference in material theft.

We’re part of the solution in this, not part of the problem.

RT: How do you respond to recyclers who may not see the benefit of belonging to ISRI?

JS: Those who don’t see a benefit unfortunately may be looking at membership dues simply as a cost rather than as an investment. They might not be fully cognizant of all the benefits that ISRI membership affords them.

I think ISRI is an unbelievably fantastic trade association; it’s got a talented, committed staff that works really hard for the members. It’s a resource that’s proven to be unimaginably helpful to members in the areas of education and training, through programs like operations forums, commodities roundtables and various webinars. Maybe the best thing that ISRI provides that is so well worth the dues is unparalleled advocacy on Capitol Hill for legislation and statehouses around the country.

ISRI also offers a free safety blueprint through which the ISRI safety team will come out and assess your yard’s safety program. That in and of itself is worth the cost of membership.

RT: How has your involvement with ISRI affected how you run Atlas?

JS: First of all, safety is job one, and ISRI has a Safety and Environmental Council (ISEC), for safety and environmental issues. There’s constant reinforcement coming out of the council. It has affected how we at Atlas address safety. There’s nothing more important. You’ve got to make sure your employees go home just as safe and healthy and in the same condition as they came to work in earlier that day. We take advantage of a multitude of the safety devices that ISRI offers. We’ve also taken great advantage of things like the regulatory and legislative updates and guidance that helped us formulate our own plans and responses to SREA reasonable care and we follow ISRI’s material theft best management practices.

RT: Do you think ISRI’s message about scrap not being waste is going to resonate with legislators and regulators?

JS: With regard to regulators, regrettably, I don’t believe we’re winning the battle on this important issue. We talked about how the EPA has proposed a new rule that would change the definition of solid waste and which would absolutely remove certain exclusions previously granted that acknowledged that scrap was in fact not waste. With regard to this new proposed rule, I think things are going unfortunately in the wrong direction. It seems to me that EPA just doesn’t believe, as we do, that scrap is not waste and recycling is not disposal. So it’s disconcerting to all of us in the industry that EPA will not acknowledge the very positive attributes that our industry provides.

With regard to legislators, I think there’s reason for more optimism. We were successful in establishing the congressional recycling caucuses, and many members recognize the contributions that recycling makes. Recently there was unanimous approval in the U.S. Senate on a resolution supporting the U.S. recycling industry.

But the bottom line is we absolutely cannot stop driving home the point that scrap is not waste and recycling is not disposal. There are really very few issues more important than that.

RT: How can the scrap recycling industry tie into wider global trends focusing on sustainability and energy innovation? Should the industry try to do so?

JS: I don’t believe the recycling industry needs to purposefully try to tie into any kind of trend. Rather, it’s my position that we need to continue to educate people as to the positive attributes and the sustainability factor that recycling provides.

Our industry employs almost 140,000 people directly, close to half a million indirectly. We’re close to an $80 billion industry that exports $30 billion worth of scrap and offsets the balance of trade. Not only do we preserve natural resources but we save remarkable amounts of energy, reduce tremendous amounts of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and other greenhouse gas emissions. The scrap recycling industry really is sustainable on its own merits.

Jerry Simms is executive vice president of Atlas Metal & Iron, Denver. He can be contacted at 303-825-7166.