Each year millions of tons of metal is deemed scrap.
From run-down cars to broken appliances, we are constantly trashing the old to bring in the new.
What I wanted to know is what happens to all that junk?
At a time when environmental awareness is entrenching all aspects of life, I assumed there was an avenue to recycle the metal. However, it wasn’t until I stumbled upon a scrap metal yard that I found my answer.
It was a sunny Wednesday afternoon and I was out with my Documentary Photography class shooting in Rensselaer. As I walked down Riverside Avenue, looking for something interesting to photograph, I heard the sickening crunch of metal in the distance. Naturally fellow photographer Kayla Galway and myself decided to investigate.
Passing through the gates marked Port of Albany the noise continued to grow as piles of metal began to tower over us. That is when I realized I had found out where all those old appliances and dead cars go to meet their final demise.
Looking around I couldn’t completely comprehend what I was seeing. Where did it all come from and where was it going? Were these just huge piles of trash or valuable material? Was I seeing waste management or recycling at it’s finest?
These questions and many more flooded my brain as we got chased off the lot for trespassing. Apparently we were not welcome, but I knew if I were going to get my questions answered I would need to go back.
As soon as we had escaped the gate I stopped and immediately called the Albany Port District Commission to figure out how to get access.
For the first time in my journalism career I found a public official who told me everything I needed to know. Richard Hendrik, the General Manager, gave me the numbers and names of the three scrap metal yards in the Albany area located along the Hudson. After being rejected by Rensselaer Iron & Steel and getting no answer from the Cohoes yard, Hudson River Recycling of Albany gave me my break.
Gary Chace, the General Manager, listened intently as I explained my project. He heard the word student and welcomed me to come by anytime. They would be happy to show me around.
I was excited and nervous all at once and told him to plan on me the following Monday. When I hung up the phone I felt like a real documentary photographer. I knew what I was doing was important.
Yes, there will be those who don’t care what happens to their ancient Buick when it finally dies, but I have always cared about the impact we are making on this planet and to me this isn’t just about metal.
Just think about it. In the last two months Hudson River Recycling has refined 92,000 tons of scrap metal. This is just one of three scrap metal yards in the Albany alone. Hudson River Recycling’s parent company, Sims Metal Management, produces around 13 million tons each year. Imagine if all that metal was just thrown into landfills. It would mean adding to the already enormous 220 million tons of garbage the U.S. produces annually.
Hudson River Recycling is one of the 230 metal refinery plants owned by Sims worldwide. Metal comes in from all over N.Y. and surrounding states, and refined metal gets shipped both nationally and internationally to various Sims plants.
Walking onto the scrap yard I couldn’t have felt more out of place. There I was a student photographer, rocking jeans, a hoodie, and canvas sneaks, surrounded by men in hard hats and steel-toed boots. Each wore the same mask of skepticism as they assessed Kayla and myself. Each was wondering what the hell we were doing there.
When I walked onto the yard I had extremely limited knowledge of the scrapping business. With the help of Operations Manager, Bill DeFoe, I developed a sound understanding by the end of the day. DeFoe took the two of us around the entire lot, explaining the different sections over the drum of heavy machinery and the tearing of metal. There was no place that the sound of metal being worked over couldn’t be heard.
I’m sure we were a sight the two of us, armed with out digital cameras and recorders, orange vests and hard hats draped awkwardly over our civilian clothes.
Walking through the metal yard, surrounded by mounds of scrap, colossal machines, and an eerie barrenness, I learned that a shredder could squish my 2003 Mercury Sable to the size of Kayla’s camera-bag. 75% of a car can be re-used. There have been no accidents on the yard in the last year and DeFoe has only seen two men get hurt on the job in his 20+ years. Nelson, one of the injured men, recovered fine and still works the machines.
It takes roughly the same amount of machinery as men to do the job of refining scrap and no company takes safety more seriously than Sims. Safety meetings are held each day and management will not tolerate anything more than a 15-minute respond time for any oil spills.
Hudson River Recycling will take steel in any form, but does not accept radioactive material. From Albany residents with pick-up loads of scrap to 18-wheelers from private companies, everyone has useful metal that the yard can use.
Of all the material taken in, less than 5% is determined waste. 75-80% of all steel used in the production of goods is refined scrap.
As an outsider it may be hard to see why any of this would be important, but after spending the day with DeFoe and talking to the other workers I began to think more people should know what is happening down by the river.