In a rotted-out building in Suttons Bay, Jeff Bryant sifts through a pile of rusted desks, abandoned cabinets, broken windows and molding furniture. A grape vine, with violet berries still attached, snakes through the gaping hole in the ceiling into the collection of junk.
Bryant wasn’t always digging through forgotten items; but between the downward spiral of the economy post-9/11 and the global financial crisis of 2008, the Traverse City resident has been pretty much out of a job.
“I’ve been a jack of all trades—with things like repossession—but I’m mainly a truck driver,” said Bryant, who worked primarily with Tower Automotive before the auto parts plant closed in 2008.
“By that time, I was working around 12 hours a week, if that. The rest of the time I was waiting for a call,” he said.
These days, Bryant spends his time cleaning up the stuff others don’t want.
“It may not be what most people think of as a good job, but it pays the bills,” said the man holding a cigarette, whose outward appearance—stocky, bearded and dark from outdoor work—is thrown by his hazel eyes and soft demeanor.
“With the bus I used for repossession, I got the idea of picking up scrap as extra income,” he said.
SCRAP TO IT
Bryant is part of the growing industry of scrap recycling, one that saw 40% growth from 2009 to 2011; and while the industry employs approximately 130,000 men and women, Bryant’s participation is that of a “peddler,” someone who makes money— but not a paycheck—by collecting materials for recycling.
These items range from ferrous metals, such as steel, to non-ferrous copper, lead, nickel, aluminum and tin. Just about everything is recyclable, including batteries and electronics. Pay depends on what the market value is and where the items go.
At Padnos, Traverse Bay Recycling Services in Traverse City, materials are worth the following per pound: steel is 40 cents, aluminum and stainless is $1.75, brass is $4 and copper is $5.
The global economy has also offered opportunity in the form of record prices for scrap metal, partly due to increased demand from Asia.
“Many of our customers scrap to supplement a part time job or do it while in between jobs to make some money,” said Karl Marcusse, district manager of Padnos.
They are one of four scrap yards in Traverse City, alone.
“The reality is, there are always new competitors springing up. Recycling is a very popular industry. As long as materials are being produced, there’s always going to be a need for recycling,” said Marcusse. “There are a lot of small companies, a lot of bigger companies. There are companies that pop up and others that fail. It’s not like it’s all sunshine and lollipops.”
However, Marcusse said Padnos doesn’t consider itself cutthroat.
“We like to play nice in the sandbox,” added Nathan Hoard, Padnos yard manager.
IN THE FIELD
The same can’t be said when it comes to ‘playing nice’ out in the field.
While Bryant insists his operation is courteous and legal, not every peddler plays by the rules.
“People are taking wire off telephone poles, stealing electrical transmission lines, going through and stealing stop signs,” he says, resting his arms on a truck bed that holds a heap of salvaged wires. “You have people who are always first on scene at a fire to watch the place go down. Then, when you’re not looking, they’ll be rummaging through the crap.”
Salvaging is taken to a whole other level when it comes to situations like a hurricane.
“I knew people who drove down to Katrina, cleared house and brought semi loads back to Michigan,” he said. “I personally can’t do that because that was someone’s life that was destroyed. Unless you have 100% permission to haul, it’s not worth it. It’s just not worth the karma.”
Permission is important to Bryant. “I’m a little anal when it comes to making sure I do it right. I always ask, because the way I see it, I’d much rather ask to be on someone’s property than be in a heap of trouble with the law,” he notes while cleaning out the rotted building in Suttons Bay.
The former orchard, winery and produce stand is owned by the parents of a local police officer who referred Bryant for the job of hauling out items before the building came down.
His working relationship with law enforcement is just one way Byant maintains a legitimate business.
“I had a gentleman come by my house this summer,” he said. “I was working in the backyard. He wandered in and was looking into one of the scrap bins by my house and was like, ‘I could use this.’ “I was like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’ He told me he saw the stuff from the road and I said there’s no way he could unless he was already on the property. I told him he needed to leave and he says, ‘well, this is America.’” Bryant ended up calling the state police on his unwanted guest who, it turns out, isn’t very welcome in many places.
“He’s done a couple shady things throughout the area. People just think your stuff is fair game.”
So, what is fair game? “Dumpsters are a grey area,” said Bryant. “But if it’s under lock and key or behind a fence, it’s off limits.”
The same goes for any items that are on private property, regardless of their state of appearance (i.e. abandonment, age), as well as personal property.
“I couldn’t go to the scrap yard and just turn in this propane tank because it’s here,” he said, lifting a tank that sports a local gas company’s stamp from the Suttons Bay property. “I’d call them and let them know one of their tanks is here and set it out for them to pick up.”
By law, people who turn in scrap must have a finger print and government-issued photo ID on file.
“Since the Non-Ferrous Regulatory Act was implemented in 2009, I think theft has gone down with the increased awareness,” said Marcusse. “The state also has a regulated tag and hold system where if something questionable comes in, we’re still able to purchase it and place it on the side in a designated area with a tag indicating where it came from. If there doesn’t seem to be a problem after seven days, then we’re able to process it.”
Questionable items could include large amounts of material you wouldn’t expect from a certain source, said Hoard.
Just as Bryant does, scrap yards also have a close relationship with local law enforcement.
“They’ll contact us if there’s something reported missing or stolen,” said Hoard. “We’ve gotten calls on anything from an old plow someone used as a yard decoration to someone returning to their seasonal home and a tractor’s missing.”
GOOD, NOT GLAMOUR
Aside from the financial gains of scrapping, there is an environmental benefit to the industry, taking in materials that would have otherwise been thrown out and added to growing landfills.
It also saves fossil fuels. “Recycling steel requires 60% less energy than producing steel from iron ore,” reports the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. “Recycling one car saves more than 2,500 lbs of iron ore, 1,400 lbs of coal and 120 lbs of limestone.”
Bryant admits his work may not be the most glamorous—“for most people, it’s a pride issue,” he says—and it may not be the most consistent—“I can go days without a good haul,” he adds—but there’s something symbolic to what Bryant does.
“With each item I’m helping make the earth cleaner. You have to look at it as a revolving circle, a new life. One day this will be a sink,” he says about the discarded stainless steel sink under his hand, “another day it could be a needle for a life-saving operation.
“It’s about giving things a second chance.”
Jeff Bryant can be contacted at 231-645-1483. He will travel to areas in Kalkaska, Antrim, Charlevoix, Leelanau, Grand Traverse, Benzie and Wexford counties. For information on Padnos, Traverse Bay Recycling Services, visit traversebayrecycling.com or call 231-943-9000.