Scouring Chicago alleys for scrap metal is a tough way to earn a living

With trucks piled high with pipes and old refrigerators, scrap metal collectors help put discarded waste back into the supply chain.

Curious City metal scrappers
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ
Curious City metal scrappers
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ

Scouring Chicago alleys for scrap metal is a tough way to earn a living

With trucks piled high with pipes and old refrigerators, scrap metal collectors help put discarded waste back into the supply chain.

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It’s a common sight in Chicago: Pickup trucks in the alleys, piled high with old appliances, large rusty beams and broken bikes, all held together with webbing or rope. At the wheel of these trucks are metal scrappers who patrol the streets looking for discarded metal of all kinds.

These recyclers are out there because even old, used metal — including aluminum, steel, copper and brass — has a price tag.

Scrap metal recycling is a multibillion dollar industry in the United States. About 70% of the steel produced in this country is produced from scrap metal, according to Joseph Pickard, chief economist and director of commodities at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Pickard also says it’s cheaper and better for the environment to repurpose scrap metal compared to mining raw materials.

Metal scrappers play a small role in this huge supply chain, but they help clear the streets of dangerous appliances and other metal rubbish that piles up in alleys and might eventually end up in landfills.

Curious City has received a number of questions over the years from listeners who want to know more about how metal scrappers operate. How much do they make each day? And what is it like to spend the day combing alleyways for metal?

We talked with a number of recyclers out on the streets, and one man invited Curious City along for a day.

Francisco Garcia is a scrap metal recycler from Pilsen. He drives around in a truck decorated with dolls and mannequin heads in search of scrap metal. He talked about the challenges of this work and why he’s stayed with it for so many years.

Curious City metal scrappers
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ

Heavy metal

Francisco spends at least six days a week scavenging for scrap metal. The 71-year-old can quickly jump on the back of his truck to load an old grill or lift a boiler by himself. He keeps his long hair in a braid and often wears a black cap to protect his face from the sun.

He came to the United States from Mexico roughly 30 years ago. He’s been metal scrapping off and on for years. He likes being his own boss — the schedule is flexible and it pays the bills.

On average, Francisco makes about $60 per day. On good days he can make about $100. But he has to work hard for every cent. He usually starts his day in Pilsen and from there he drives through other nearby neighborhoods like Chinatown, Bridgeport and Brighton Park.

“Wherever there is scrap metal, wherever the day takes us,” he says in Spanish. Francisco knows what he’s looking for. He can spot metal from a distance — old appliances, metal benches, electronics. He quickly dismisses mattresses and other items that look like metal but are actually plastic or wood.

Curious City scrap metals
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ
Aside from finding the right objects, the amount of money he takes home is determined by the global price of scrap metal each day. That also depends on the type of appliances or metal he finds. Old refrigerators might sell for about $145 a ton. But collecting a ton is difficult, especially because a refrigerator has plastic parts.

Francisco also collects electric cords from fans and other appliances because they contain copper wire. He holds onto them until he gets enough. The price for clean copper wire can approach four dollars a pound, depending on the type, according to iScrap, a phone app that lists the rates for all types of scrap metal. But that’s only if it’s stripped and cleaned, a time-consuming task. Francisco usually gets less for the wire he finds out on the streets.

Historically, metal scrapping is a job done largely by immigrants, according to Carl Zimring, an environmental historian and professor of sustainability studies at the Pratt Institute in New York. These scrappers are often undocumented, speak limited English or can’t find employement elsewhere.

Francisco doesn’t make enough to save after rent and other bills, he says. At his age, he doesn’t have health insurance, savings or a retirement plan. He is not expecting Social Security, either. That’s the reality for many scrap metal collectors who do this type of work independently.

Francisco says he worries about his financial security, especially because metal scrapping is unpredictable. But he tries to stay positive. “Dios aprieta, pero no ahorca,” he says in Spanish. “God squeezes you, but doesn’t choke you.”

Curious City metal scrappers
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ

A truck that’s hard to miss

Francisco rarely takes breaks when he’s out looking for scrap metal. After more than five hours scavenging, he has a truck piled high with rusty car engine parts, a heavy metal fence and a small refrigerator. But he’s not ready to call it a day.

Instead, he keeps driving through alleys. Some people take a second look when he is driving by. His truck is easy to spot. Francisco has glued several mannequin heads to the roof. One has a long beard and a stylish haircut.

“Before, it had a braid,” Francisco says in Spanish. Now he is thinking about giving the mannequin a trim.

His truck is also decorated with dolls hanging from the sides. He spots a few stuffed animals in an alley near garbage cans — a teddy bear, a gorilla. But he quickly dismisses them. He likes the spooky kind of dolls, he says.

Curious City metal scrappers
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ

It’s a dangerous job

The struggles Francisco faces as a metal scrapper aren’t just economic. He and other collectors also deal with serious safety hazards on the job, Zimring says.

“If you’re, say, collecting an old washing machine, it’s going to be heavy, you might cut it up to put it in your vehicle,” Zimring says. “But of course, in doing so you might expose yourself to wounds, you might expose yourself to tetanus.”

Francisco knows those dangers. He often has to cut metal with a grinder, drain the contaminants from old appliances and lift extremely heavy equipment — all without any worker protections.

Near the end of the day, Francisco finds some thick rusty metal beams. He starts cutting them, creating hot sparks. He does not have goggles to protect his eyes. Francisco says he’s more cautious than many other metal scrappers — not everyone can afford the right equipment to clean and cut metal.

Curious city metal scrappers
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ
Experts like Zimring, who was also a board member at the Chicago Recycling Coalition, say Francisco’s job could be made much safer with better regulations and more protections for workers like him.

For example, Chicago could expand its Sanctuary City ordinance to guarantee basic rights for freelance scrap metal collectors and other vulnerable workers.

Zimring also says city departments need to offer better oversight of scrap metal recycling businesses, making sure they follow environmental laws and keep buildings up to code.

Zimring and other environmentalists are critical of metal recycling businesses that buy scrappers’ metal. They point out that metal shredding is noisy and can disturb neighbors. Some facilities have piles of hazardous materials that create fire risks and the potential for air-polluting smoke and dust. Many of these facilities are in South and West Side neighborhoods, close to people’s homes, schools and parks.

But some yard owners say they are providing an important service because they contribute to the reuse of materials.

Francisco understands the different viewpoints. He knows the work is dangerous, both in the alleys and at the scrap recycling yards. But he relies on those businesses to buy the metal he collects.

“It’s hard, it’s very hard,” Francisco says in Spanish. “If we don’t know how to protect ourselves, we can get seriously hurt, get bruises, cuts, hurt our backs. We don’t know if we are gonna be able to make it out the next day.”

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is Curious City’s reporter. Follow her @AdrianaCardMag.