Marginal Metal: Steel is the most recycled material in the world, but volume doesn't always mean profit.

Author:Friedman, Sam
Position:STEEL & SCRAP

In the world of recycling, the line between trash and treasure moves with geography and the state of world markets.

Generally speaking, plastics tend toward the trash end of the spectrum, especially low-grade materials like the "clam shell" plastic boxes that Anchorage and many other towns across the United States recently began to throw away as they've lost value as recycled materials.

Used metals, on the other hand, usually have value. Sometimes they have enough value to warrant extensive processing work--even enough to inspire thieves to tear out copper wiring or vehicle catalytic converters to "recycle" them. That's especially true for non-ferrous metals: metals that don't contain iron. Non-ferrous metals include aluminum, copper, and even precious metals like gold, silver, and platinum.

Ferrous metals include steel, the most recycled material in the world. On average, the United States produces enough ferrous scrap by weight to produce twenty-five Eiffel Towers every day, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a national trade group.

But ferrous metals usually have less value by weight, which can make profit margins thin for scrap yards when prices drop, especially in places like Alaska with high transportation costs. It doesn't help that many of today's consumer products like cars and refrigerators have less steel and more unrecyclable parts like foam and plastic than they used to.

No Cash for Clunkers

It wasn't nearly as big a payout as the $1,000 from the 2009 federal government "Cash for Clunkers" program, but vehicle owners in Fairbanks about five years ago used to be able to get a bit of cash (less than $20 to as much as $40 for a 1 ton pickup) from metal recycler C&R Pipe and Steel for the metal value of their cars.

Those payouts stopped in 2014. when metal prices dropped. Today, C&R founder Dennis Wilfer doesn't accept junked cars from the public because they're more trouble than they're worth. He does process junked cars for salvage yard clients and for the Fairbanks North Star Borough's junked car program.

Newer model junked vehicles in decent shape in Alaska's second largest city can still be turned into cash, but at auto salvage yards, not metal recyclers. Most of their value is in their still-working parts, not their bulk metal value.

Because of scrap metal prices, junked cars have become a liability in Fairbanks instead of a small asset. Despite the low or even negative market value of junked cars, the...

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