As prices slump, metal recyclers steel themselves

Loddy Loftus cut up an old air conditioner.
Loddy Loftus, 61, of Minneapolis cut up an old air conditioner before heading to Metro Metals Recycling in St. Paul on August 25, 2015.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

If you've bought a new furnace or boiler recently, Loddy Loftus of Minneapolis may have hauled away your old one.

Loftus, 61, earns part of his living collecting and selling scrap metal. He doesn't cruise the alleys, though; he gets most of his metal from friends in the heating, ventilating and air conditioning business.

Before heading into a St. Paul scrapyard, Loftus used a saw to dissect an old air conditioner, separating the more valuable copper and brass from the steel.

"They won't take them the way they are," he said. "You need to strip them down and get the aluminum/copper radiator coil out of here."

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Loftus pulled out the compressor, fan motor and other parts. He said he'll probably get $30 to $40 for everything, far less than he would've last summer. He's been scrapping for about four years, and said it helps supplement his income from a part-time job at a bar. But like everyone in the scrap metal business, Loftus has felt the huge slump in prices first hand.

China's economic slowdown is having ripple effects around the world, including here in Minnesota. The lack of demand for metal, combined with global oversupply, has already led to more than 1,000 layoffs at taconite facilities on the Iron Range.

It's also squeezing a much less visible group of workers: people like Loftus, who make a living recycling metal.

"Copper used to be $3 a pound," he said. "Now it's $2 a pound."

Steel, he said, is down by more than half in the last year, meaning he has to spend twice as much time lifting and hauling to earn the same amount of money. Mark Leder has seen metal prices drop before, but not like this. He's co-owner of Leder Brothers in south Minneapolis, a scrap metal company his grandfather founded more than a century ago.

Mark Leder, co-owner of Leder Bros. Scrap Metal
Mark Leder, co-owner of Leder Bros. Scrap Metal Recycling in Minneapolis, stood near a pile of scrap steel on August 19, 2015.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

If you brought in an old 300-pound cast-iron bathtub today, he might give you $12 for it. A year ago, you probably would have gotten twice that. Leder said anyone who trades commodities must be able to stomach huge price swings, but he's never seen such a big drop.

"This has really been the hardest time in my history, to figure out which direction we're going," he said. "Why did it fall? Are we going to see something come back? How do we price? So this has been the most challenging of times for myself as well as most people in the industry."

Leder's cousin, Adam Minter, keeps a close eye on the scrap trade from Asia. He's a columnist for Bloomberg News and author of the book, "Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade."

Minter said metal prices are down because the boom times in China are over, and the economy is slowing.

"They don't need any more high-speed railways," he said. "They don't need that many more highways. But the other problem that isn't being discussed as much is they have huge overcapacity in the industries that actually supplied the metal to these giant projects. So you have too many aluminum foundries, you have too many steel mills now. And as a result, especially the steel mills are dumping their product overseas."

This price shock means America's scrap industry is at a crossroads. Joe Pickard, chief economist with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group, said he expects a wave of mergers and closures that started during the great recession will continue to shrink the number of metal recyclers.

Leder Bros. Scrap Metal Recycling
Leder Bros. Scrap Metal Recycling in Minneapolis on August 19, 2015.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Today's market is the worst since 2008, Pickard said. And to deal with it, the U.S. scrap industry not only needs to boost efficiency. It must also get better at finding new customers, including in the Middle East, India and Latin America.

"I'm not sure that they're going to be able to take up all the slack in terms of the decrease in Chinese demand," he said, "but we're certainly in need of developing new overseas markets."

Pickard said scrap dealers that can ride out this volatility will survive. Or as Mark Leder put it, there will always be a market for scrap metal: "It's not something that's going to become obsolete, because what we deal with is the obsolete."

For recyclers like Leder Brothers, the question now is when these low metal prices will also become a thing of the past.