Constant search for metal sparks recycling industry

Trademark Metals Recycling yard in south Orlando, Florida has a machine that can pulverize an entire car in seven seconds.
Trademark Metals Recycling yard in south Orlando, Florida has a machine that can pulverize an entire car in seven seconds.

ORLANDO, Fla. — After a car’s “check engine” light winks on for the last time, there’s a place where the expired vehicle can be reduced to fist-sized chunks of unrecognizable metal in less time than it takes to read this sentence.

The action end of this metal-salvaging operation sounds like a mechanical dog chewing an iron bone, steams with the heat of metal being ripped apart, and suggests a post-apocalyptic scene. Now and then a tire explodes, the boom muffled by heavy shielding.

Still, there’s an efficient elegance in the way sport utility vehicles, minivans, sedans, and other vehicles are treated at the end of their lives, on the cusp of the Earth-friendly reincarnation process known as recycling.

And the stomach of the recycling business growls with a worldwide appetite for metal, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

The vehicle shredder at Trademark Metals Recycling LLC — unlike a paper shredder that relies on blades to slice documents into ribbons — swings an array of 225-pound hammers to pulverize car doors, engines, and frames, which emerge as palm-sized confetti. Operators call it the “hammer mill.”

“It will shred a car, or even a school bus, in about seven seconds,” said Brian Hazlewood, the salvage yard’s general manager.

At the recycling industry’s annual meeting, held last month in Orlando, Fla., topics included ways to foil metal theft; how to handle used electronic products; and tips for detecting gauges, cameras, and other equipment that emit radiation. As with other heavy industries, recyclers want to do their work better, faster, cheaper, and safer.

Plastic, paper, aluminum, copper, lead, zinc, and tires are prized for recycling, but steel is the real plum. Last year, more than 75 million tons were processed nationwide by recyclers, which are competitive gatherers of the metal.

At Trademark Metals Recycling, the yard’s three-story-high pile of iron and steel is an ever-changing sculpture of our industrialized society’s discards: Sewer pipe, store shelves, water heaters, stoves, drums, awnings, stairways, and cars of all varieties.

The recycling company is owned by Nucor Corp., whose main business is melting scrap metal.

“Scrap is not waste,” said Brenda Anderson, Trademark’s environmental manager in Florida. “It’s our business.”

Mr. Hazlewood said the salvage yard will buy as little as a few pounds of steel from “Joe the Junkman” peddlers — or cars by the dozens from auto-parts companies that first strip usable components from the wrecks or junkers.

A bare-bones car will fetch as little as $100, while a mostly intact one may bring $500.

Mr. Hazlewood’s shredding machine is not large, compared with some others.

But it still seems monstrous. Its 3,000-horsepower motor consumes so much electricity that operations are shut down every day at noon, when the daily demand for — and price of — electricity rises.

At the heart of the shredder is a spinning, 30,000-pound drum fitted with the 225-pound hammers.

When cars, water heaters, or other steel scrap tumble into the maw of the machine, the violence creates so much heat that water must be sprayed into the mass of shredding metal to snuff out what would otherwise become a roaring fire.

The mess of material that emerges is separated by a high-velocity blower and magnets. Foam, insulation, rubber, plastic, and glass stream down one conveyor belt — for further processing elsewhere — while grey, paintless wads of steel fall clinking from another conveyor belt onto a pile of scrap worth approximately $350 a ton. It’s hauled by train to a Nucor mill in South Carolina.

Mr. Hazlewood said that a decade ago, Florida had eight shredders. Now the 20th is being built.

“It’s a very competitive business.”