Every last ounce
Photos by Recycling Today Media Group staff

Every last ounce

Features - Operations Focus | Metals Recovery

Historically high scrap metal prices create blessings and burdens for demolition contractors and mixed C&D recyclers.

May 4, 2022

Photos by Recycling Today Media Group staff

Demolition and construction sites yield numerous recyclables, with metals ranking high on the recycling “to do” list for contractors and materials processors alike.

As global economies have rebounded from the contortions caused by COVID-19 and workplace restrictions, metals prices largely have moved in an upward direction.

Identifying and diverting every last ounce of metal also is spurred by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) scorecards that affect workplace methods.

As the busy spring and summer construction season goes into full swing, operating in ways that maximize the volume and value of scrap metal will be on the minds of Construction & Demolition Recycling readers.


Avoiding the disappearing act

For demolition contractors, the competition to maximize metal recovery can be over before it starts if metal thieves get their way.

Packard automobiles have not been built in Detroit since the 1950s, but the sprawling, multibuilding complex where they were assembled remains standing (somewhat) in the Motor City.

Had the multiple acres of industrial buildings been demolished shortly after they became inactive, the steel, aluminum, copper and other metals to be harvested would have totaled an impressive amount.

By this spring, however, according to a Detroit historical website, for the past several years, vandals and metal thieves set in “literally ripping the place apart, turning it into 3.5 million square feet of rubble and ruin.”

The structural steel that holds the buildings in place are still on-site, but any copper wiring or any pipes or siding—whether made of copper, brass, aluminum or iron—have been removed.

The circumstance is all too common for winning bidders of demolition contracts. For example, a 10-year-old report from the Illinois-based National Insurance Crime Bureau looked at the three-year period from 2009 to 2011 and identified more than 25,000 insurance claims related to metals theft.

The issue is well-known to the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), members of which face accusations from property owners as being culpable when thieves receive payment for their stolen metal.

Earlier this year, ISRI appointed former Bedford, Virginia, police Chief Todd Foreman as its new director of law enforcement outreach. “We’ll continue ISRI’s long-standing commitment to helping prevent metals theft by creating a team environment between the industry and law enforcement,” Foreman said upon being appointed.

When prices scrap yards pay for copper and other metals rise, though, a demo contractor or property owner might be able to do little to keep away determined thieves.

AmTrust Financial Services, New York, offers a list of what building owners can do to protect their premises from metals theft. “Make sure the police know the building is vacant and keep them updated on any suspicious activity at the site,” the insurance company suggests.

Greater security could require higher expenses, AmTrust says. “This may include security guards, alarm systems, fencing, exterior security patrols, security cameras and/or motion-activated lights.”

Noting that “thieves may go after the copper in your HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system, securing your HVAC unit in a cage can help prevent this,” AmTrust advises. It also recommends adding window security devices.

Once a contractor is on-site, the incentives are greater than ever to use dismantling and shearing techniques that can maximize the recovery and value of ferrous and nonferrous metal, even for materials toward the bottom end of the value chain.


Stepping up to the rebar

The steel reinforcing bar encased within concrete is not highly sought after by most steel mills or iron foundries, a circumstance reflected in its lower value at the scrap scale house.

“Rebar is a grade of scrap that generally isn’t sought after by dealers or steel mills,” a scrap buyer for one of America’s largest scrap processing firms tells C&DR.

That being said, he remarks that recovered rebar “is normally bought as part of a package of other scrap grades sold by demolition companies.” Concrete crushing firms also recover their rebar and “sell it regularly to recyclers,” the buyer says.

Steel rebar starts its life at the lower end of the chemistry spectrum, providing one reason mills and foundries don’t seek it out. Regarding end-of-life rebar yielded from sheared or crushed concrete, the processor says, “It’s bulky and doesn’t charge well into the furnace.”

Like dealers, mills “generally will only buy [steel rebar] as part of a package with other grades,” the processor says, meaning the rebar might be blended into heavy melting steel (HMS) shipments.

In terms of what a demo contractor can expect for rebar scrap, the processor says, “Normally, the price is $10 per ton under that of No. 2 HMS.”

Nonetheless, contractors estimate and count on the money that will accrue when rebar is harvested at a job site and sold to a scrap dealer.

During its recent take-down of a 14-story apartment building, Illinois-based Alpine Demolition Services and its co-owner Karsten Pawlik say the company deployed equipment with the specific intent to maximize its rebar recovery volume and quality.

Pawlik says Alpine used a Stanley LaBounty UPX950 universal processor with different jaws: a shear designed to cut clean steel rebar, structural steel like I-beams, H-beams and pipes; a concrete cracking jaw designed to break “large, oversized concrete,” such as abutments and columns; and a concrete pulverizer jaw that can downsize and crush concrete while separating rebar.

In the latter case, Pawlik says the booming scrap iron market caused Alpine to maximize its harvesting of rebar in part by using a lifting magnet from Lockport, New York-based Moley Magnetics to “pick out mostly rebar from the concrete that had been processed” to ensure it was recycled.


Beyond the dollar signs

Operators of mixed C&D plants welcome in a staggering variety of materials to their facilities. Metals are welcome in such plants, and an incentive beyond the profit motive likely will help yield a recycling outcome.


Bill Keegan, president of Shakopee, Minnesota-based Dem-Con Cos., cites the LEED scorecard as one reason his company “works to maximize recovery of C&D materials independent of commodity pricing, with changes in the process typically being driven by recovery and capture improvements.”

Regardless of how high copper or aluminum scrap prices might rise, Keegan says, “Commodity pricing does not impact the way we work with demo contractors or other customers” to attract their material.

However, he continues, “During a strong economy, there is increased interest in LEED certification from project owners and, thus, more requests for LEED points [resulting] from the C&D processing.”

The sky-high metal prices currently being seen create a Catch-22 situation for mixed materials processors such as Dem-Con, Keegan says. “To the extent higher commodity prices are correlated with the strength of the economy” then the more overall construction and demolition activity might occur, resulting in steady inbound material flows to Dem-Con’s sorting plant.

“However, higher commodity prices can also lead to more recovery on the job site for that commodity, and less of those materials will make it to the C&D MRF (material recovery facility),” he notes.

As is the case at the demolition job site, within the Dem-Con Recovery & Recycling facility, Keegan says awareness of high metals prices can result in operations modifications. “When a particular commodity price is high, such as metal, we may reinforce our training with the staff to ensure they are maximizing the capture rate for that particular commodity during manual [sorting] efforts,” he says.

Copper, brass and aluminum might carry the highest price tags, but Keegan says Dem-Con also can play a role in recovering the omnipresent steel rebar scrap grade.

“Regardless of commodity price, steel rebar scrap is an acceptable material at the scrap yards and is typically chopped and blended into recovered steel,” Keegan says, finding common ground with the scrap processor from several states away.

Unlike copper and aluminum, Keegan notices that rebar sometimes falls off the recovery wagon in a depressed commodity market. “Lower steel prices can decrease the amount of effort the concrete crushing plants are willing to put into recovering the steel,” he comments.

Unless economic and commodity circumstances change, contractors and recyclers serving the C&D market are likely to keep a close eye in 2022 on any scrap metal they handle.

The author is the senior editor with the Recycling Today Media Group. He can be contacted by email at btaylor@gie.net