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The Big Business of Scavenging in Postindustrial America – The New York Times

“I’d probably guess that’s around 150 tons,” Levin said. He speculated that this would translate into 10 truckloads of scrap. “We’d come in, either with a shear or a grapple, and just rip it apart.” Levin estimated that he could pay roughly $30,000 for the plant. Hypnarowski nodded and added that he had some other, even bigger plants elsewhere in the quarry, which also needed to be scrapped in the coming months.

Hypnarowski later told me that his company, New Enterprise Stone and Lime, also owned some of the land where Bethlehem Steel once existed. The steel mills had been scrapped long ago, but there were still nuggets to be had — or “buttons” to be precise. Buttons are essentially giant metal boulders that weigh as much as 20 tons. When the mills were still operating, iron ore was melted and poured into great big ladles, at which point the less desirable slag would form at the bottom. This slag was then dumped onto Lake Erie’s shoreline, where it hardened and formed buttons. Together, Hypnarowski and Levin worked to salvage these buttons from the lakeside. They had, it seemed, thought of every conceivable way to mine big scrap. Over time, scrappers have remade Buffalo’s landscape. The city has survived, in part, by devouring itself.

Back when steel mills first closed, Lou Jean Fleron, an emeritus professor at Cornell’s school of industrial and labor relations, ran a series of educational programs for the workers who had been laid off. She got close with the families that became destitute. It was a very hard time, she recalled, and whenever she visited Buffalo’s waterfront, her eyes inevitably drifted toward the derelict mills. “Oh, God, it was like a ghost town — like a skeleton — a big, massive black skeleton,” she recalled. Then the demolition crews and the scrappers arrived to do their work. Now when Fleron goes down to the waterfront, she sees young families with their children having birthday parties. The scene is almost pastoral.

“It was important to take it all down,” Fleron told me. “It does make some of the pain go away.”

There are a few different places Paisley’s copper might have gone after it left Niagara Metals. Most likely it went to a local copper mill, Aurubis Buffalo, which is Niagara Metals’ primary buyer for copper. Jeff Nystrom, who runs Aurubis Buffalo, gave me a tour of his plant, a facility encompassing more than one million square feet — roughly the equivalent of 17 football fields. It employs about 650 employees, many of whom whizzed past us on special bicycles equipped with toolboxes.

Nystrom escorted me to the plant’s intake center: a great big space, almost like a cavern, bathed in murky light. As far as the eye could see, there were big Gaylord shipping boxes brimming with copper. The metals here had been sorted by size and shape, which varied from shards that looked like razor blades to cylinders that looked like hockey pucks. There was even a box filled with tens of thousands of decommissioned Canadian pennies. The various copper alloys, which ranged in color from silver to gold, gleamed and sparkled.

Aurubis takes these materials, melts them and blends them with other metals to produce a number of different alloys including brass, Muntz metal and a variety of copper grades. These metals are formed into ingots weighing 10 tons, which are then sent through a giant rolling machine (the size of a large house) that churns out a coiled continuous sheet. Imagine gigantic rolls of paper towels, three feet wide and thousands of feet long. That’s what Aurubis Buffalo makes, only in copper. Their clients then use these sheets to manufacture a range of products including Zippo lighters, heat exchangers, coffins and exterior panels for skyscrapers.

This content was originally published here.

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