Metal scrapping in Chicago is a tough way to make a living, says Pilsen’s Francisco Garcia
It’s a common sight in Chicago: pickup trucks rolling through the alleys, filled with old appliances, rusting beams and broken bicycles, all held up by straps or ropes.
At the wheel: scrap dealers patrolling the streets in search of scrap metal of all kinds.
They do this because even old used metals – aluminum, steel, copper, brass – will have a price.
Scrap metal recycling is a multi-billion dollar industry. About 70% of the steel produced in this country is produced from scrap metal, according to Joseph Pickard, chief economist and director of raw materials for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Pickard says it’s cheaper and better for the environment to reuse scrap metal rather than extract raw materials.
Metal scrappers play a small role in this huge supply chain. In the process, they help remove potentially dangerous appliances and other metal waste that accumulates in back alleys and might otherwise end up in landfills.
Francisco Garcia, a scrap metal recycler from Pilsen, drives around in a truck decorated with dolls and mannequin heads, looking for scrap metal.
He spends at least six days a week foraging. At 71, he can still jump in the back of his truck to load an old grill or lift a boiler on his own. He keeps his long hair braided and often wears a black cap to protect his face from the sun.
He came to the United States from Mexico about 30 years ago and was an off-and-on scrap metal dealer for years.
He says he likes being his own boss, the schedule is flexible and it pays the bills.
On average, Garcia says he earns around $60 a day. On a good day, he can make $100.
But he works hard for every penny.
It usually starts in Pilsen and goes through other nearby neighborhoods, like Chinatown, Bridgeport and Brighton Park.
“Wherever the scrap is, wherever the day takes us,” he says in Spanish.
Garcia can spot metal from a distance – old appliances, metal benches, electronics. It quickly rejects mattresses and other objects that look like metal but are plastic or wooden.
Besides finding the right items, the amount of money he brings home depends on the world price of scrap each day.
Old refrigerators can sell for around $145 a ton. But collecting a ton is difficult, especially because a refrigerator has a lot of plastic parts.
Garcia also salvages electrical cords from fans and other appliances because they contain copper wire. He keeps them until he’s had enough. The price for clean copper wire can approach $4 a pound, depending on the type, according to iScrap, a phone app that lists rates for all types of scrap metal.
But that’s only if it’s stripped and cleaned, a time-consuming task. Garcia usually gets less for the wire he discovers on the street.
Historically, metal scrapping has been done largely by immigrants, according to Carl Zimring, environmental historian and professor of sustainability studies at the Pratt Institute in New York. Scrappers are often undocumented, speak limited English or cannot find other employment, he says.
Garcia says he doesn’t earn enough to save after paying rent and other bills. At his age, he has no health insurance, savings or retirement plan. Nor does he expect Social Security. This is the reality of many freelance scrap pickers.
Garcia worries about his financial security, especially because the scrapping is unpredictable. But he tries to stay positive.
“Dios aprieta pero no ahorca”, he says in Spanish: “God squeeze you but don’t choke you.”
Garcia rarely takes breaks from scavenging. After more than five hours of cleaning, his truck is full of rusty car engine parts, a heavy metal fence and a small refrigerator.
But he’s not ready to call it a day. He continues to roll through the alleys.
Some people take a second look when he passes. His truck is easy to spot. He glued several mannequin heads to the roof. One has a long beard and a stylish haircut.
“Before, there was a braid,” he says in Spanish.
He is thinking of giving the model a haircut.
Her truck is also decorated with dolls hanging from the sides. He spots a few stuffed animals in an alley near the garbage cans – a teddy bear here, a gorilla there. But he likes the kind of spooky dolls, he says.
The challenges Garcia faces as a scrap metal worker aren’t just economic. He and other collectors also face serious security risks, Zimring says.
“If you collect, for example, an old washing machine, it will be heavy, you could cut it up to put it in your vehicle,” says Zimring. “But, of course, by doing so, you could be exposing yourself to injury, you could be exposing yourself to tetanus.”
Garcia knows these dangers. He often has to cut metal with a grinder, flush contaminants from old appliances and lift extremely heavy equipment – without any worker protection.
Towards the end of that day, he finds thick, rusty metal beams. He begins to cut them, creating sparks. He has no glasses to protect his eyes. He says he’s safer than many metal scrapers – not everyone can afford the right equipment to clean and cut metal.
Experts like Zimring, who served as a board member for the Chicago Recycling Coalition, say such work could be made much safer, with better regulations and more protections for workers. Chicago could, for example, expand its sanctuary city ordinance to guarantee basic rights for independent scrap metal collectors and other vulnerable workers.
Zimring also says the city needs to have better oversight of scrap metal recycling companies, making sure they follow environmental laws and keep buildings up to code.
Zimring and other environmentalists are critical of metal recycling companies that buy metal from scrap dealers. They say metal shredding is noisy and can disturb neighbors and some facilities have piles of hazardous materials that create fire hazards and the potential for polluting smoke and dust. And many of them are in the South Side and West Side neighborhoods near homes, schools, and parks.
But some yard owners claim to provide an important service that contributes to the reuse of materials.
Garcia understands the different points of view. He knows that the work is dangerous, both in the alleys and on the scrap metal recycling yards. But he relies on these companies to buy the metal he collects.
“It’s hard, it’s very hard,” he said in Spanish. “If we don’t know how to protect ourselves, we can get seriously injured, have bruises, cuts, hurt our backs. We don’t know if we will be able to get out of it the next day.