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Recycling for riches: With scrap-metal prices hitting new highs, hoarders ? and thieves ? are cashing in
[April 10, 2006]

Recycling for riches: With scrap-metal prices hitting new highs, hoarders ? and thieves ? are cashing in

(Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Apr. 10--There's a lot of money in junk these days.

Old drain spouts, window screens, electrical wire, engine parts, even the metal panels from campers are fetching record high prices at local scrap-metal dealers.

"It's as good as it's ever been," said Jim Schrock, owner of Earthworks Recycling in Spokane. "It's finally worth it to scrap out things that have been sitting around."

Aluminum cans always have been a staple of recycling programs. Prices for cans are topping 60 cents a pound in some parts now. Other commodities are bringing even bigger payouts, including copper scrap, which is going for as much as $2 a pound for the shiniest, least-blemished pieces of pipe and wire.

Recycling businesses say the prices are prompting "hoarders" to cash in on old pieces of metal, including used copper pipes, spools of wire, metal doors, cast aluminum engine parts from lawn mowers and even old brass radiators.

"Everybody's looking in all the nooks and crannies," Schrock said. "I'm even thinking I should go through my garage."

Most of the demand is being fed by a Chinese economy hungry for copper, aluminum and steel. The country is now boosting its domestic steel production, but not enough to satisfy demand, said Doug Stewart, manager of Pacific Steel and Recycling in Spokane.

Stewart expects Asia's appetite will put additional pressure on steel prices in the United States, including scrap. There also appears to be little end in sight to the hunger for copper, which is used in everything from construction to high-tech wiring. "We're right on the leading edge of another (price) push, from what I can see," Stewart said.

The high prices have made construction sites prime targets for theft. Last year, as prices were rising, the Spokane Police Department saw about 500 cases of thefts from sites, said Cpl. Tom Lee, department spokesman.

Thieves are stealing everything from loose copper pipes to wiring from light fixtures, Lee said. Recycling centers now circulate reports of thefts and are on the lookout for people with large volumes of metal.

"It's really gone through the roof the last two years," Lee said of the thefts.

Aluminum irrigation pipes from farm fields also have been a target, said Schrock, with Earthworks Recycling. His business is paying 58 cents a pound for the heavy tubes, but precautions are taken to ensure they haven't been stolen.

"You can usually tell who a farmer is pretty well," Schrock said, adding that his business requires photo identification for sales.

In other places, thieves have swiped everything from aluminum highway guardrails to siding from new houses.

The operator of a recycling business in North Idaho said he was in the process of adding extra security. He currently keeps copper in a locked wooden shed and his business is already surrounded by security fence, but he said new precautions will be taken in coming weeks, including requiring photo identification of those seeking to sell scrap metal. The businessman asked that his name not be used – his additional security would not be ready for several weeks, he explained.

Much of the theft has been linked to methamphetamine users, he said. "I've never seen anything like it. They'll take anything."

Many continue to take their old metal objects to the junkyard. The Kootenai County solid waste program previously gave away the waste metal to recyclers, recovering only the cost of transport, but the county has since started crushing, bundling and selling the cubes of scrap. Last year, the county made a cool $60,000 off scrap metal, said Roger Saterfiel, solid waste program director. More profit is expected this year with rising prices and an ever-growing volume of waste from the county's growth.

Last year alone, Kootenai County collected some 5,000 old refrigerators. Once the freon is removed, the units are crushed, bundled and sent to coastal cities for further processing. Profit from some of this scrap metal could soon be used to fund a free recycling program for computer monitors and television sets.

Some homeowners have been surprised by the windfalls from the junk, said Paul Wingfield, owner of North Idaho Recycling in Kellogg. One man replaced his aluminum siding with vinyl and brought the old material in for disposal.

"He walked away with $500," Wingfield said.

Wingfield, a former miner, said the high prices illustrate the world's growing need for metal. He said he would rather see the Silver Valley return to the time when it produced vast quantities of metal from the ground. Wingfield added that he can't complain too much – the high prices have meant a booming business in recycling.

"It's mind-boggling to think it's gone up this quick," he said. "We just hope this bubble doesn't burst. We like riding it."

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