Milwaukee's Recycling Industry Struggles as Commodity Prices Drop

Apr 11, 2016

An economic downturn is underway, and most people probably have no idea. It’s not like the Great Recession when the entire country could notice the impact, yet today’s decline is turning some people’s lives upside down. Players in the recycling industry are struggling including in Milwaukee.

Bruce Adams unloads his truck at a scrap yard in Milwaukee.
Credit LaToya Dennis

Bruce Adams hits the road every morning between 3 and 3:30 to scavenge for what most people would consider junk, but for Adams, it’s money.

I met him around 6 a.m. at his house on Milwaukee’s west side, where he’s rearranging his load of found goods. Adams uses a bungee cord to secure a hot water heater, maneuvering around a microwave and a bunch of bikes.

Soon after, we head for the scrap yard.

Adams puffs on his cigarette and tells me that since he started scrapping, it’s become an obsession. He says he’s always scanning for treasures and then points to an old tube television sitting on a curb.

“Nobody wants TVs. They’ll smash the back out of them and pull the copper, but to reach in there with all that glass and stuff to grab that copper, I don’t bother with it. Get cut up,” Adams says.

Adams' truck
Credit LaToya Dennis

Adams says he’s most excited when he comes across a washing machine.

“Washers are heavy cause you’re going by the weight. So if I run into a washer, that means I’ve got some weight on the truck,” Adams says.

Scrap yards pay for the material they want, based on its weight. As we pull into the scrap yard on Fond du Lac, an electric billboard out front lists today’s prices. Bare Copper - $1.75 a pound, sheet iron - $90 per ton, whole cars - $125, aluminum cans - $0.43. Adams says 'wow' when he sees the price for aluminum cans, he notes they were $0.75 a pound last year.

It’s at scrap yards like this across the country that people feel the drop in commodity prices - the prices the market will pay for items such as copper and plastic.

“One of the reasons for the high price rises was the Chinese [were] buying up a lot of stuff and from what I understand, their economy has slowed down,” Marcus Bandos says. He and his wife own Felix Bandos Waste Materials,  a scrap yard on Milwaukee’s near south side.

Bandos says not only are commodity prices low, but the U.S. dollar in strong so buyers are turning to cheaper countries for scrap.

The result - his business is down. "Oh it’s declined by at least 50 percent,” Bandos says.

“I wonder literally how we’re going to survive from week to week, month to month and year to year unless there’s an improvement in the economy,” Bandos says.

Co-owner Melanie Bandos says they’ve already had to lay off three employees because things have been bad for the past couple years. “It’s never lasted this long,” Bandos says.

And Bandos says, in previous years, there was always one sector of the business that could sustain it. “If the metal market was down, the paper market that we also deal in... could carry us, could sustain us. That’s not the case any longer,” she says. 

Materials at the City of Milwaukee's recycling program.
Credit LaToya Dennis

Public recycling programs are also feeling the squeeze.

“So basically right now you have communities that are needing to adjust, either their operator is losing a lot of money or the city is losing money,” Rick Meyers says. He's with the City of Milwaukee’s program.

Meyers says the contract the city has with its recycle yard operator shares the risk. Milwaukee’s curbside recycle program still makes money, but it expects to bring in about $600,000 less than normal this year. Meyers says it looks as if things might turn around in 2017.

That’s welcome news for scrap yard owner Melanie Bandos. She hopes to get through this year as a viable business. Bandos says, right now, hope is all she has.