‘Foreign Affairs’: Foreign events impacting scrap prices

Cranes move scrap metal around at Steel City Recycling in West Point.
Staff Writer

Spring cleaning usually means swapping summer clothes for winter clothes, brightening up little-used rooms and going through the clutter of the garage and the storage shed.

And for scrap yards, that can mean a rush of business from people who’ve waited for warmer weather to throw out that old refrigerator, old fencing or other potentially valuable material that got tossed to the side during the winter.

But while spring cleaning may seem like the big reason for increased scrap business, it’s just as likely that events on the other side of the globe are what really are making a difference making a difference as it is the wife’s “honey-do” list.

“If I had a washer and dryer right now, I might wait until next month to bring,” Steel City Recycling Manager Randy Copeland advised Monday. “From the conference call I was on this morning, prices look strong next month so as much as I’d like to buy that washer and dryer from you right now, I’d wait if if I were selling.”

Monday, so called “white goods” like washers, dryers and refrigerators are bringing about $8 per 100 pounds. That could be at $9 or even $10 by next month.

And the reason is a game the U.S. steel industry and freight operators pay each year to keep American scrap from going to places like Turkey and Vietnam where the population can’t produce enough scrap to fill steel mill needs there.

American steel makers often drive up the price to keep scrap from being exported and if the price drops back down, foreign demand will push it back up. Freight companies play a role, too, by fluctuating prices to meet supply, demand and profit margins, Copeland explained.

One of those upticks in prices apparently is coming in April and May.

Those white goods are the largest item for local markets. Aluminum cans also are big. Steel City is paying 55 cents a pound while most competitors in the region quoted 50 cents Monday.

“I’m buying a lot of cans right now,” Copeland noted.

Another big item is copper wire and tubing, but prices now are $1.65 to $1.68 a pound, less than half the $3.50 per pound paid two years ago.

And again, the prices fluctuation is driven more by events thousands of miles away than by local conditions.

“There was a scandal with copper brokers in Europe and it impacted the price. It hasn’t been the same since,” Copeland stated.

The price differences may not seem like much to the casual seller, but they make a big difference to some. Observers call them “scrappers,” people who scour neighborhoods and pastures for potential scrap.

It is their living.

“We have them call all the time to check prices, people from Mathiston, Ackerman, all over. The few cents is important to them,” Copeland said of his customers.

“I call Columbus, I call West Point, I call P and R up there at the Monroe County line. I don’t get up to Tupelo or that far north, but I call around. When you are talking 500 or 600 pounds or 1,000 pounds, a few cents can make a difference,” said one scrapper, who said he’s been doing it for “at least 15 years.”

“It’s a cash economy for me. I make my own schedule and my own time. If the weather’s bad, I don’t go out. But that means I have to work harder on the pretty days,” he added.

For some it’s a living. For others it’s a little extra cash. And for big companies, it’s a huge part of doing business. But either way, it still boils down to one thing for Copeland and others in the business.

“It’s recycling, it really is. It’s the right thing to do. It keeps those washers and dryers and things out of the landfill, it really is the right thing to do,” he summed up.