Earnest Williams and Louis Warren are not the first men to think they can make a good living off the metal Washingtonians discard. Competition for even the odd AC unit or lamp languishing in an alley is stiff. The better strategy, says Williams, is networking.
“I stopped by one place in Northeast D.C. every day for three months,” he says, referring to a restaurant supply outlet off Bladensburg Road. “We saw he had stuff; he was setting it out. We said, ‘Just call us.’ He finally did.”
A meat slicer from that guy, together with aluminum window frames, an old sink and faucet, batteries, motors and wires galore are in the back of their pickup truck now as they barrel down New York Avenue. They finished breaking down the appliances at Williams’s house and are headed to Capitol Heights, Md., just over the D.C. border, to what they hope is a satisfying payoff.
Joseph Smith & Sons, established in 1898 and now an international corporation trading in scrap metal, is the most popular destination for area scrappers. The sheer scale of work occurring there is remarkable. Using massive, 4,000-horsepower machines, “We can shred a car in 30 seconds,” boasts Paul Tharp, information officer for Smith Industries, Joseph Smith & Sons’ parent company. Almost all of the material gets recycled.
Most of the traffic selling scrap metal at Smith’s comes from big firms such as utility companies and demolition groups, but Tharp says that the company supports the small peddlers, the industry’s term for scrappers. “It means more people bringing in scrap,” he says. “They make a big difference at the end of the day.”
The District has its own scrap yard: Super Salvage in Southwest , though its days are numbered. The new D.C. United soccer stadium is slated to be built directly on the scrap yard’s footprint, and Super Salvage — receiving a reported $16 million from the city for the land — will probably close by December.
Though barely visible to the public, Washington’s community of scrappers is substantial. There are scrappers with incorporated businesses who claim to make $60,000 a year working part time. They’ve built connections with plumbers and HVAC people and general contractors; they’re registered to bid on metal from the government. And they’ve earned the trust of scrap yards, which pay higher prices for their goods. But for every one of those entrepreneurs, there are dozens of others at a lower level. Those scrappers also have trucks and contacts, but their ambitions are narrower, and their efforts — paid for in cash by the scrap yards — are off the books.
Then there are the guys who push carts or ride bikes. Digging through trash bins for aluminum cans, searching alleys and vacant lots for treasure, they might slide $20 into their pockets each day.
Those are the scrappers who will suffer when Super Salvage closes. Few of them can make it to Capitol Heights on foot, and Smith’s doesn’t accept walk-in traffic anyway.
But Williams and Warren are serious partners in this business. One of the many things they agree on is their distaste for the label “scrapper.” Warren explains that many people associate it with dirt and dishonesty. “I like to say ‘recycler.’ ”
Today their destination is a warehouse at Smith’s that accepts nonferrous, nonmagnetic metals such as copper, brass and aluminum.
Smith’s provides battered carts and buckets for the scrappers’ materials, and soon Williams and Warren are filling them with the truck’s contents. The price for mixed metals dropped precipitously in February, but nonferrous metals, particularly copper, still fetch a good price. Unfortunately, they’ve got only about 20 pounds of copper today; that’s maybe $40.
But it’s not a bad day in the end. With their full haul weighing in at 900 pounds, they’ll walk away with almost $500.
As they drive back home on New York Avenue, Williams points out a truck dealership with commercial vehicles — bigger trucks, with dump beds — parked by the road and zeroes in on one in particular. “That’s my dream,” he says.
It’s not a job either man imagined having, though both grew up around the corner from Smith’s scrap yard . Williams, who at 41 is a single dad and has a master’s degree in liberal studies, spent several years with the D.C. government. Seven years ago, he was laid off.
He took on a range of odd jobs, and two years ago he was hired to clean out a house. He wound up with a truck’s worth of junk and took it to Smith’s, walking away with a wad of cash — and an idea for a new business.
“I thought, if I could do this volume daily, there’s no limit to where I could go,” Williams says.
But he needed a partner, someone to help lift the heavy pieces. So he brought Warren in, and the two became 2W Recycling. Warren, 55, was Williams’s track coach in high school; he’d taught Williams how to train his body with rigor and discipline. Now, together, they’re applying that level of focus to the world of metal.
It’s a warm, breezy day in June, and Williams and Warren are standing in front of a RadioShack in Largo, Md.
“Excuse me,” Williams says to the store manager. “Do you have anything else you’re getting rid of?”
“I just threw some stuff out,” the manager says. “It might still be in the dumpster in back.” Williams goes to look. Meanwhile, Warren and a RadioShack employee begin ferrying large metal grids from the store to the truck.
Williams returns with a microwave and a snarl of flexible metal conduit, and soon they’re bouncing down the highway to Smith’s.
Williams has been thinking about that truck he noticed back in February. It’s spacious, with a long bed and high walls, and dumps its contents at the touch of a button. These days, they rent a truck when they have a big job. “I think we’d save a minimum of $600 a month,” Williams says. It would be a huge step up from their little pickup.
2W Recycling has more pressing issues, though. Warren has decided to move to North Carolina, where his wife has been living for the past year to take care of her ailing mother. He plans to come back for big jobs, but he’ll also help out from his new home. For Father’s Day, his wife bought him a skinning machine that takes the plastic coating off copper wire. By hand, you can maybe strip five or 10 pounds in two hours. With the machine, Warren can do 100 pounds or more. And skinned copper wire fetches the highest prices.
But losing Warren will be a huge blow to Williams.
At Smith’s, the men drive across a scale and then back up to an enormous pile of metal. They unload and head back across the scale. The vehicle weighs 6,720 pounds, which means Williams and Warren just redeemed 1,600 pounds of metal. In a way, that’s an impressive figure: They’re trying to increase their daily average, which has been inching toward 1,300 pounds. Still, all that metal amounts only to a little over $100.
“This is the lowest it’s been since we started,” Warren says.
The key, Williams says, is to shift into more nonferrous goods, what he calls “precious metals”; their value is still relatively high. The new skinning machine should help.
“Most scrappers will probably say it’s been an extremely difficult year,” says Joe Pickard, chief economist for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.
February’s downturn in prices was the biggest monthly drop since the recession. Prices fell about $100 per ton for ferrous metal, cutting scrappers’ returns by at least a third. That crash was due to several factors: China’s shrinking import market; a stronger dollar, which makes European exports more attractive; and sluggish manufacturing growth in the United States.
As of July, rates were still way down compared with last year. And nonferrous materials, particularly copper, were finally being affected, too. “We’ve seen double-digit drops in cents per pound for copper,” Pickard says. The future of copper “doesn’t look great now.”
By late July, Williams sees that the price of ferrous metal has fallen again, and true to Pickard’s analysis, copper is down, too. Williams finally turned in all that skinned copper wire a week earlier and got $900 for it. Six months ago, that would’ve been more like $1,500. Plus, at 300,000 miles, the pickup finally died. And Warren has moved to North Carolina.
But today, Williams is focused on upgrading what he can. He pulls a rental truck into a Ford dealership in Alexandria.
A salesman points out a used commercial truck with a dump bed. “It’s rare to find one of these; usually they get run into the ground,” he tells Williams. The cost? Between $18,000 and $20,000, but Williams might be able to get it for less.
Williams’s credit took a brutal beating when he was laid off, and he’ll probably have to make a large down payment. But after an hour of negotiations with the dealership’s loan officer, Williams walks away with a jubilant smile. “It’s a deal, a real, real good deal,” he says.
The down payment is sizable, and maybe buying the truck is a little premature, given the state of the business. But as Williams says, climbing back into the rental, “You can do a lot more with a dump truck.”
After all, scrap metal prices will undeniably rise again. And when they do, he’ll be ready.
Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer in Washington. Her previous story for the Magazine was about teaching meditation at the D.C. jail. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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