Recyclers crushed by commodity prices

wiserecyclingBrown makes his living searching through trash cans and dumpsters across the city for any piece of metal he can sell to local scrap recyclers. But like his fellow tradesmen around Richmond, a drastic decline in commodity prices has hurt Brown’s business.

Jim Brown rode his bicycle over the 14th Street Bridge, his load of bagged aluminum cans carefully bungeed to his frame.

He stopped in shock when he reached Wise Recycling on Mayo Island. A handwritten sign in the window signaled that the cash-for-scrap operation was closed for the day.

Brown makes his living searching through trash cans and dumpsters across the city for any piece of metal he can sell to local scrap recyclers. But like his fellow tradesmen around Richmond, a drastic decline in commodity prices has hurt Brown’s business.

“It’s put a damper on my income by about two-thirds,” Brown said, adding that in the past month prices have dropped about 30 cents a pound for aluminum.

Local recyclers said they are paying 30 to 35 cents a pound for aluminum cans. The drop in price means Brown has to work harder and longer each day to make the small amount he depends on for day-to-day survival.

“Sometimes they cut me a break, but today being closed — it really hurts. Because now I got to go somewhere else, and hopefully they are open,” Brown said.

Many factors have contributed to the reduced demand for scrap: dwindling home construction, scaled-back automobile production and diminishing overseas markets. In the past six weeks, scrap prices have fallen 60 percent for steel, 33 percent for aluminum, 25 percent for copper and 15 percent for nickel. Scavengers who work on-foot make most of their money from aluminum cans. Those with a pickup truck can snag old washing machines and the like, and make some on steel.

Copper was so valuable earlier this year, hovering between $3 and $4 a pound, that thieves in the Richmond area posed as workers and stole the shiny metal from downspouts and flashing. In February, a man was severely injured allegedly trying to steal copper wiring from an electrical substation. Now that the price has dropped to about $1.50 a pound, the cost-to-risk ratio is not nearly as favorable for potential copper bandits.

For hunters such as Brown, the global manufacturing and construction boom of the past couple of years boosted incomes. But with the housing bubble popped and U.S. manufacturing at a 26-year low, the bottom has dropped out of the scrap market just as it did with luxury home building.

“We were holding up better than everybody else, but we joined the rest of the crowd,” said an owner of a Richmond scrap recycling business who asked not to be identified.

He said his company is trying to get rid of inventory as quickly as possible, but customers are afraid to buy. Prices are expected to keep falling, he said.

Fewer haulers and can collectors visit his location. For many, the prices have fallen so much that it is no longer worth their effort.

Jim Brown, meanwhile, has no other option but to keep on collecting and take what he can get.

wiserecyclingBrown makes his living searching through trash cans and dumpsters across the city for any piece of metal he can sell to local scrap recyclers. But like his fellow tradesmen around Richmond, a drastic decline in commodity prices has hurt Brown’s business.

Jim Brown rode his bicycle over the 14th Street Bridge, his load of bagged aluminum cans carefully bungeed to his frame.

He stopped in shock when he reached Wise Recycling on Mayo Island. A handwritten sign in the window signaled that the cash-for-scrap operation was closed for the day.

Brown makes his living searching through trash cans and dumpsters across the city for any piece of metal he can sell to local scrap recyclers. But like his fellow tradesmen around Richmond, a drastic decline in commodity prices has hurt Brown’s business.

“It’s put a damper on my income by about two-thirds,” Brown said, adding that in the past month prices have dropped about 30 cents a pound for aluminum.

Local recyclers said they are paying 30 to 35 cents a pound for aluminum cans. The drop in price means Brown has to work harder and longer each day to make the small amount he depends on for day-to-day survival.

“Sometimes they cut me a break, but today being closed — it really hurts. Because now I got to go somewhere else, and hopefully they are open,” Brown said.

Many factors have contributed to the reduced demand for scrap: dwindling home construction, scaled-back automobile production and diminishing overseas markets. In the past six weeks, scrap prices have fallen 60 percent for steel, 33 percent for aluminum, 25 percent for copper and 15 percent for nickel. Scavengers who work on-foot make most of their money from aluminum cans. Those with a pickup truck can snag old washing machines and the like, and make some on steel.

Copper was so valuable earlier this year, hovering between $3 and $4 a pound, that thieves in the Richmond area posed as workers and stole the shiny metal from downspouts and flashing. In February, a man was severely injured allegedly trying to steal copper wiring from an electrical substation. Now that the price has dropped to about $1.50 a pound, the cost-to-risk ratio is not nearly as favorable for potential copper bandits.

For hunters such as Brown, the global manufacturing and construction boom of the past couple of years boosted incomes. But with the housing bubble popped and U.S. manufacturing at a 26-year low, the bottom has dropped out of the scrap market just as it did with luxury home building.

“We were holding up better than everybody else, but we joined the rest of the crowd,” said an owner of a Richmond scrap recycling business who asked not to be identified.

He said his company is trying to get rid of inventory as quickly as possible, but customers are afraid to buy. Prices are expected to keep falling, he said.

Fewer haulers and can collectors visit his location. For many, the prices have fallen so much that it is no longer worth their effort.

Jim Brown, meanwhile, has no other option but to keep on collecting and take what he can get.

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