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Over Easy: Holiday Dumpster Diving Update

4:44 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

Deep diving a dumpster in Seattle. (photo: sea turtle via Flickr)

This morning’s Over Easy is an addition to the first diary I ever posted at Firedoglake, with an update on our dumpster diving experiences during the holiday season.

WikiHow has an excellent article on dumpster diving technique, to which I only add: 1. Never dive a medical or hospital dumpster 2. Never dive a compacting or off-limits (ie, gated/not in the public domain) dumpster 3. Dive in quadrants. This way, you never have to throw anything outside of the dumpster in order to get at the contents at the bottom. 4. Double your configuration, like  a cave diver, and carry two of everything (flashlights, wire cutters, magnets), except your wallet or money, which you should not take with you, into a dumpster.

Scrap metal recycle prices vary a bit from one junkyard to the next. The money scrap metals are copper, brass, aluminum, and non-magnetic stainless steel; junkyards want your scrap load sorted prior to reaching the scale. January is the best month of the year for scrap metal divers (scrappers) because Christmas is now a disposable holiday. Post-holiday Christmas lights are abundant, for example.

I am a baby boomer, born in 1960. Christmas was sacred and magical for as many years as I can remember until recently. We hand-made many of our own ornaments (remember felt, glue, sequins and styrofoam?) and saved everything from year to year. My mother kept our precious ornaments in the same box, each carefully wrapped in newspaper and saved. We saved our bubble lights and ice cycles.

That doesn’t happen anymore. Christmas is manufactured overseas, sold in the Big-box, and disposable, including all ornaments, lights, fake trees, nativity sets, and gifts, toys and clothing. We are losing our craftsmanship and precise arts as quickly as the Arctic melts.

People begin shopping on Black Friday, and get a tree up shortly thereafter. Late November/early December dumpsters may deliver insulated copper in the form of last year’s lights that have been inexplicably replaced by this year’s model, a few fake trees and even Christmas wrap, tape, bows, ribbon, lace and tags, still new in packages as though people are actually afraid to use anything from last year, God forbid.

December 26 through the New Year are generally cardboard box days, and although cardboard brings $60.00/ton at recycle, cardboard transport is problematic without a modified truck bed.  After the first of the year, the land of dumpsters is most interesting and productive. Lights. Rejected presents,  New With Tags. Fully decorated trees. Appliances, if new gifts replace the old, and even furniture, again if old must be discarded to make way for new.  We have not been to the mall in years. Every appliance we have was retrieved, new, boxed, and never used, from dumpsters. Same with all of our furniture and all of our clothing. If you live in an area where people don’t take down their trees until February, you can vicariously celebrate the holidays for two or three straight months.


The year after I wrote this, our local recycle center reduced the cash payment for all Christmas light strings and other plug-in cords by sixty percent, causing many scrappers to discontinue retrieving cords in lieu of collecting bulk magnetic scrap metal.

Last year we exchanged our truck for a motorcycle and quit scrapping. Our most lucrative scrap dumpster was related to infrastructure, and when the company itself began to recycle and disallow scrap dumpster divers, we made a decision to give up scrapping.

We are now entering our third consecutive year of eating from dumpsters. About 75% of our nutrition comes from dumpsters. We did observe what we believe to be an abundance of meat in the fall due to the sell-off of livestock during the exceptional drought season of the summer. We most often eat steamed vegetables and crock pot meals, with salads, abundant fresh fruit, and some sweets. We must purchase coffee and tea. We have been sick only one time, and that was after eating a fast-food meal inside a restaurant and not from a dumpster meal.

Our appliances, dishes, household items and many clothes now come from our own apartment complex dumpsters or curbs, during end-of-month move-outs. We are transitioning from diving due to great need to diving by choice, because we continue to believe strongly in the principles of reuse and living with less.

Years ago I began this strange, stigmatized hobby because of need, when I inadvertently discovered my real passion of looking for things that show sociological or historical trends and stories, so for me, the fun is in the urban archaeology. What media and social culture wants us to see is on the surface. If you want to know about the real world, look at what people throw away.


Northwest Cook: New reality cooking show starts with Dumpster diving

From Trash to Table: Austrian Activists Launch Freegan Cooking Show

Dumpster divers swoop in to grab $40,000 worth of pricy fresh food

What Not To Take To A Scrapyard

12:51 pm in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

“I’ve got about a thousand dollars in my wallet. How much would you like to borrow? Five? Ten?”

Even if I had a thousand dollars in my pocket, I would continue to dumpster dive and scrap. What this country sends to the landfill each day is shameful.

Thank goodness for scrap right now. Since we are open about our scrapping activities that get us by, people often initiate conversation with us. Recently, a man with an excellent full-time job told my husband that he would not be able to get by without supplementing his income with the cash that he gets from recycling scrap metal.

During that conversation, they got to talking about air conditioners.

Before I begin this discussion, if you are new to this subject and curious about just what a scrap metal is, please read this article.

So, let’s begin with air conditioners. These items are very heavy, and they are laden with two money scrap metal elements: copper and aluminum. There is a honeycomb looking structure in an air conditioner that the scrap yard calls a copper-aluminum radiator. These things are worth their weight in gold and, a couple of these things a month can mean the difference between eating and not eating, if you are not already eating for free from the dumpsters. Read the rest of this entry →

Scrap Metal Recycle: The Metals And The People Collecting Them

8:55 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

Van Crushing

Van Crushing by Proggie on flickr under non-commercial creative commons.

A few days ago, a friend and neighbor of ours asked for directions to the metal recycle center. He needed some extra money and he had some aluminum that he wanted to exchange for cash. Our friend has an excellent job as a cook at a national chain steakhouse that consistently receives excellent Zagat ratings. He is married, with one young daughter.

Our friend is uninsured, and his family receives food stamps because, even though he has a good full-time job, the pay is insufficient for the family to live on.

When our friend returned from the recycle center, he was ecstatic, as a first-time visitor to recycle always is, because it is fascinating, and also because he had received just over four dollars for his clean piece of aluminum. By “clean” I mean that the aluminum was not mixed with other metals, and there was no plastic attached to it.

The working poor are now collecting scrap metal to get by and this is a recent trend. This man’s example is just one of many that we have seen in the past three to four months.

‘Our’ dumpsters that were once bounties of riches that we had mostly to ourselves are now harvested so often that we can no longer expect to find anything; the practice of collecting recycle scraps no longer is limited to the unemployed. At recycle we have witnessed everything from people on foot or in wheelchairs or pushing grocery carts to well dressed people in high-end vehicles.

What is scrap metal?

For the purposes of this discussion, scrap metal is salvaged metal that can be recycled. The most popular scrap metals are copper, aluminum, brass, stainless steel, iron, chrome, steel, bronze and shreddable sheet metal.

Copper, aluminum and iron are elements, listed in the Periodic Table with symbols Cu, Al and Fe. Copper and aluminum do not stick to magnets. Sometimes it is easy to be fooled. I have taken coils of shiny, beautiful copper wire to recycle, only to find out that the wire is copper coated or copper color, over a basic layer of sheet metal.

Magnets are essential to distinguish between types of scrap metals. In a pinch, a small old car stereo speaker makes a pretty good magnet.

Copper and aluminum are money metals, with copper being the most valuable of all scrap metals. Copper is perhaps most often associated with wiring. Anything that plugs into the wall will have copper, and so, appliance cords are popular among scrappers. Some wires are easy to strip and some are not. If I cannot strip a wire easily with box cutters, I turn it in at recycle as insulated copper, at a reduced rate. We do not burn wiring, nor do we condone it, although some people do.

The electricity grid, because of its high copper content, is sometimes the target of thieves. High-end plumbing pipes are made of copper. Metal theft often involves plumbing.

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Brass is a high-quality money metal that does not stick to a magnet and, due to its unique composition and sound conduction, it is a metal of choice for musical instruments. Most of our brass comes from door knobs, drawer pulls, lamps, and discarded items from the electrical grid. Some lamps can fool. Die cast can look almost exactly like yellow brass. Match Box toy cars, for example, are die cast. Die cast brings a fraction of the price of real brass.

Stainless steel, or corrosion resistant steel is a steel alloy with at least 10.5% chromium. Steel is an alloy of mostly iron, combined with a small percentage of carbon or other elements.

The term “money metal” is a common slang term for those metals that bring the most money for the least amount of weight. Stainless steel is a money metal that is often overlooked by the scrapper and tossed onto the sheet metal pile at the back of the yard.

Things marked “Stainless steel” can either be magnetic or not. This depends on the atomic arrangement. Perhaps a reader can explain the metal chemistry and physics better here. For the scrapper’s purpose, if it sticks to a magnet, the scrap yard will most likely consider it sheet metal, and the scrapper will receive a reduced price, or scrap price. However, the difference between high-grade stainless and reduced-rate scrap is significant.

By the way, just so you know, what happens to be stamped on a metal does not necessarily mean it is what it says. I have had items marked “14K” that were not gold. The exception to this is silver. Silver items are stamped, somewhere on the item, on a rim, a ridge, somewhere not very visible, with the symbol “925,” meaning 92.5% elemental silver by weight. If you are not looking at such a symbol, you are not looking at silver. You are most likely looking at silver plate or stainless. So, if you are thinking of cleaning all of the silver out of the thrift stores and flea markets, take a magnet (silver does not stick) and a really good magnifying glass, because for now, anyway, silver plate is essentially a scrap metal.

Another note on silver: Consider hanging onto it if you can. Silver is generally increasing in value. Here is a precious metal prices ticker.

Bronze is an alloy of mainly copper. It is not a common metal for a scapper to encounter; bronze is used, for example, in the manufacture of truck gears. Bronze chemistry is interesting. (My sister is a bronze foundry foreman.)

Metals that do stick to magnets bring “shreddable sheet metal” prices, which in this area is currently between ten and twelve cents a pound. Sheet metal is valuable to the scrapper due to its collective weight. For this reason, it is nice to have a long-bed pickup truck. Our truck is a reconstructed 1995 Dodge Ram 1500 that we got from a salvage yard, and it is perfect for hauling metal scraps.

In a future post, I will talk about the steps in metal recycle, from the initial scale to the mill.

I encourage everyone to visit their local metal recycle center, because it is fascinating. For example, in addition to the brass urn with someone’s ashes inside (the owner of the ashes eventually retrieved the urn), we saw a coffin, among other things, including a train engine car without the engine and a perimeter wall made of school buses.

Hat tip to Masoninblue, my scrapping partner, for editing this post.

Is Scrapping For Metal Becoming Mainstream?

4:50 pm in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

We never actually drive straight to any given destination. Even a simple trip to the local gas station involves a foray past “The Doors,” at the very least. The Doors is our nick name for Derrick’s dumpster and curb side site. Derrick has a remodeling business near us and since he does not have time to haul his own scrap, we have permission to remove metal from the dumpster and haul metal away from the curb. Often, he has metal doors. So we swing by The Doors every day.

When we drive down the road, any road, in any town, our eyes are trained to spot and evaluate dumpsters not unlike how some people notice restaurants. Or liquor stores. Anything that shines, any glint, no matter how fleeting is an automatic side trip. Our original planned foray can take hours, as we supplement a social security income to get by.

Conversations start with one or more of the following sentences every time:

“That thing is full of metal. Turn around.”

“You missed it. Computers out the ass. Where are your eyeballs?”

“It looked like wood to me.” and “You didn’t look under the wood. There’s metal.”

“Turn down this street. Guaranteed scrap. We’re right here. It will be gone when we come back this way.”

“Don’t pass this neighborhood. Everyone is always moving out. It’s always full of scrap.”

“Drive these alleys. We’re here anyway.”

“Remind me to hit that dumpster on the way back.”

“Take a good look at what’s in it now and that will be our baseline.”

“Aluminum. Ten o’clock. Stop the truck.”

I look fondly and longingly at dumpsters, as if stalking a lover. We have named them and characterized their locations. This one is the Crazy Dumpster. That one is Mount Everest. These are the best alleys. This one is a waste of time. These guys haul their own scrap so there’s no use in even checking.

Even my orientation and sense of direction is in relation to some dumpster or alley: ‘Go down to the Crazy Dumpster and take a right.’

We know when they are emptied. Just as one might be psychologically trained to wake up at the click that precedes the buzz of an alarm clock, I awaken to a beep-beep-beep of a backing up garbage truck every Tuesday morning at 4:30 AM and listen for the crash of the garbage into the compacter, and I secretly know that the crash and crunch is garbage and not metal.

Today I saw an article in the Christian Science Monitor called Scrap Metal Prospectors and I honest to God thought there was at least a possibility that someone had placed a recording device in our truck and was telling our story. Our daily life is identical to the couple in the story- getting by, supplementing social security income with scrap metal.

I also came across another story called Scrap Yards Are The New Pawn Shops.

In this economy, metal thieving is becoming commonplace. Infrastructure. Utility pole transformers. Sections of train track. Copper pipes and wire. Stainless steel. And, of course, my husband and I have seen what cemetery theft looks like. By the way, the brass urn with Grandma’s ashes is still sitting safe on a table at the back of the garage at recycle. We saw it today. Anyway, metal thieving is an unfortunate development that we see and read about more and more.

The bank teller where we cash our scrapping checks tells me that there has been a huge increase in scrapping in the past year. Practically everyone we speak to, whether the person is young or old, employed or not, either is him or herself a “junker” or has a family member that is.

Personally I love scrapping and all things related to recycle. But it used to be sort of a rare thing. Now it seems almost mainstream. Is this what our economy has sunk to really? Is this the best we can do? I would rather see scrapping, junking and recycle as an environmentally friendly and fun activity than a desperate last-ditch last house on the survival block.

A note about the urn: We saw the urn at recycle, and the worker told us that it is, in fact, full of ashes. The recycle center has notified the local constabulary, and every effort is being made to get the urn back to the owner, if at all possible. Meanwhile it is safe. We were told that the brass urn was most likely a cemetery theft.