Wednesday, January 16, 2008

This is not your father's junkyard

Well, actually, my father didn't have a junkyard, but you know what I mean....

When I was a kid, there were junkmen.

The city DPW picked up garbage, which was stuff like orange peels, coffee grounds, and egg shells, wrapped up in newspaper and tied with a string. (Later, we started using plastic bags for garbage.)

Loose paper trash was burned in a barrel in the back yard or, later, in an indoor burner called, I believe, a "calcinator." I loved burning trash, especially in the winter dusk, when I'd wrap myself in one of my father's old Navy blankets and pretend I was a Displaced Person hovering around the DP camp fire.

Newspapers and magazines were saved for something called a "paper drive", typically run by the Boy Scouts a couple of times a year.

Hard trash was picked up by the junkman. Our was primarily the can man, coming by once a month or so to pick up baskets full of bottles and cans, but you pretty much left out anything that had gotten too old and worn out to repair, and Archie, our can man, would haul it away.  (Archie's side line was an "antique store" which we'd pass on the way to visit the family cemetery. [You have to be Irish to really get this - the cemetery visits, not the can man.] We'd always laugh, imagining the high quality antiques Archie picked up in our neighborhood - irredeemably broken vacuum cleaners, record players that just played 78's, bikes that had been run over in the driveway.)

Then there were scrap yards. You passed them occasionally when you were driving through the neighborhoods with lots of factories and warehouses in them. Or over by the railroad tracks. Or on the outskirts of town.

Scrap yards had towering heaps of twisted metal, totaled cars, ancient refrigerators, lots of rust.

One of the big scrap outfits in Worcester was Abdow Scrap, which I know only because they sponsored a team in the Ty Cobb Little League. Their uniform colors were gray with navy blue, not rust, and I would have rooted for them rather than for National Standard (gray with red) if the boys I had crushes on and, later, my brothers, hadn't played for National Standard. I don't recall what, exactly, they were the national standard of, but I'm guessing plumbing.

Time marches on...

Scrap yards are now big business. Big legitimate business.

All those rusting cars and old rebar are worth a lot of money. As is copper wiring, and just about anything else made with a metal.

Industrial growth in India and China is revving up demand for scrap metal, and the US is one of the biggest suppliers.

We may not make produce much steel these days, but we do produce an awful lot of recyclable steel.

All described in a wonderful article by John Seabrook  in The New Yorker (January 14th) on the scrap metal business.

Read all about Metal Management, which is gobbling up scrap yards - starting with the one that was run by John Gotti's son-in-law before he went to prison. (Carmine Agnello sired the three fine young men who "starred" in the wildly risible reality show Growing Up Gotti, which I found horrifically fascinating for a few episodes a while back.)

Here's some of what you'll learn in Seabrook's article:

  • Steel scrap prices have scooted up from $75 a ton in 2001 to nearly$300 a ton in 2007.
  • Copper soared briefly to $400 a pound in 2006.

No wonder thieves are pulling copper and bronze off of public monuments.l There's gold in them thar hills.

But you know how we really know it?

The CEO of Metal Management, Daniel Dienst, is a former investment banker who, when working on the job of restructuring MM had what he describes as a "classic epiphany" - perhaps becoming the first person in the history of the scrap business to have one.

I said to myself, "Wow, this is a great business - and no one knows about it!" You are the major raw material for steelmaking, and you are sitting on top of the richest scrap resource in the world, right here in the U.S.A. - that's a great place to be. You have these characters; it's gritty. But it's also green- you're taking a wastelike product and making something utilitarian out of it. There's something noble about it.

Well, Dienst is probably the first person in the history of investment banking to use the word "noble" and really mean it. But what's really interesting about this is the transformation of the junkyard  business from the province of immigrants and working stiffs who sent their sons off to college so they wouldn't have to work in junkyards (and/or the province of goons like Carmine Agnello) to the province of the suits.

That and the fact that the U.S.A. - once the mighty industrial giant, manufacturer to the world - can now be billed as the "richest scrap resource in the world."

That world - not to mention the business sub-world within it - is indeed a never ending source of wonder to me.

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