High metal prices bring renassaince of the “junk man”

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The price of most metals has increased sharply in recent years. The value of copper alone has tripled over the last ten years, and now sits at nearly $4 a pound. As prices have shot up, so too has the business of scrap metal recycling so much that more and more people are making a living collecting and selling seemingly-junk items.

On a random Tuesday morning on the south side of Columbus, vehicles ranging from compact cars to light pickups to five-ton flatbeds are backed up more than 20 deep. With engines revving and random metal objects spilling out of windows and truck beds, the scene more closely resembles something out of a Mad Max movie than your typical urban street.

All of these people are trying to maneuver their way into Ace Iron and Metal, a scrap yard on Groveport Road.

Most of the drivers are self-proclaimed entrepreneurs, and all of them are here to sell scrap metal.

Their loads are just as diverse as the vehicles carrying them. Old car engines, washers and dryers, backyard swing sets basically anything that can be salvaged or recycled.

Near the front of the line is Tyrone Elias. He lives on the south side, and brings a load here just about every day. After doing this for a few years, he talked some local business owners into giving him their scrap material for free. Now it’s his main source of income.

Elias: “Yes, you can make pretty good money doing this.” Reporter: “How much do you expect to make from your load today?” Elias: “Probably a hundred and some dollars.” Reporter: “And you probably didn’t spend long collecting all this, right?” Elias: “Well, it all depends. If you have certain clients, it doesn’t take long. You just come in, they have it sitting in a certain place, and you just pick it up and move on to your next destination.”

Elias is, admittedly, not quite as invested as he could be. He still holds a part-time job and doesn’t need to haul scrap every day.

For others, it’s become a full-fledged business venture.

John Cochran started hauling scrap a few years ago, like Elias, just to make a little extra money. But as metal prices ballooned, so did his business and his bank account. He now owns three trucks, and employs six people. This particular load of sheet metal netted him $330.

“Oh I love it,” Cochran says. “You get to be your own boss and make good money. You’re able to take care of your family the right way.”

Cochran says he gets his product through contracts with stores like Meijer and Target. But police say legitimate contracts and tax returns make up a tiny fraction of the industry. Sergeant Richard Curry directs the Columbus Police property recovery unit. He says his department has seen a noticeable increase in metal thefts over recent years. Raw copper is the most sought-after item, but he’s seen thieves take everything from live electrical wires, to manhole covers to gravestones.

Curry helped city legislators draft a law to more-tightly regulate the scrap industry. Passed last fall, the law requires sellers to show identification and submit a thumbprint. The ordinance also licenses scrap dealers, and limits the sale of frequently-stolen items like air conditioners and catalytic converters.

“Before the law nobody was keeping records,” Curry says. “You could go in with your truckload of stolen metal, and they weren’t checking your ID. You could write your own name on your white slip, so you basically write any name you wanted to. Consequently, when we found out metals were stolen, we had no way to find out who brought in.”

But Curry says progress made by city lawmakers, could be reversed by the state.

A bill currently before the Ohio House would standardize scrap sales statewide. State regulations are a good thing, Curry says, except this particular bill would also prevent cities from passing tougher laws.

“It’s not as stringent as the city law,” Curry says. “It wouldn’t have the licensee requirement, they wouldn’t have to collect a thumb print, there wouldn’t be a limit on the number of catalytic converters they could accept per day. It’s just much weaker than current city law.”

Whether or not that’s a good thing depends, of course, on who you ask. Police want total transparency in the system, while scrap sellers like Elias and Cochran say they’re businessmen just trying to make an honest living.

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