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Recycling Today Magazines Recycling Today December 2005

Rotten Business

By Curt Harler
12/14/2005 8:34:48 AM

In the wake of the widespread storm damage across the South, a huge influx of appliances has been available to scrap yards. The only problem is finding workers willing to handle the refrigerators and freezers in particular because, to put is succinctly, they stink.

Most of these units are full of rotting, decaying, putrid lettuce, hamburger, milk, butter and unfrozen pizzas, and the problem goes beyond smell.

"Before you can handle the refrigerators you’ll have to find someone to deal with all of the stuff that is in those refrigerators," says Harold Tenenbaum of A. Tenenbaum & Co., North Little Rock, Ark. "Someone is going to have to get them clean and sanitary."

While Tenenbaum says his company is aware of the problems in the Gulf, he doesn’t want any of the scrap until it has been cleaned. He says, "I won’t subject my people to that kind of thing. It is too much of a health hazard."

The government recognized the problem and has set up programs to clean appliances left in the wake of Katrina and Rita.

Environmental Recycling (ER), Lexington, Ky., has held its nose and taken its ferrous balers to the scene. The company has had two units that were initially compressing 4,000 to 6,000 refrigerators daily, until the flow increased to 12,000 per day. ER keeps adding balers in an attempt to keep up with the work.

While the appliances coming from flood-ravaged areas can be ripe, by the time the ER folks get the appliances to bale, they are not too bad.

"We are not taking care of the bio-hazard. We are only doing the baling," says ER’s James Boutcher. The Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA are taking care of contracting out the cleanup of the freezers and refrigerators.

ER President H.C. Morris is in New Orleans. He sounds somewhere between busy and frazzled. "Everything is a problem here: finding places to stay, getting food, finding fuel."

But business is booming. By the end of October, he had seven balers working in New Orleans and expected three or four new units to come in shortly. Another pair of balers are working in Mississippi, and another unit is going to Florida to clean up after Wilma.

"We’ve got one site working 24 hours," Morris says. He runs the company with his son Shawn. He figures they are baling 20 tons per hour, around the clock. At 15 refrigerators per ton, the numbers add up fast.

Boutcher does not even try to describe the smell at the worksites. "It smells pretty bad. Pretty bad," he says. "It’s something to get used to." The staff wears respirators, which help a bit.

White goods have been brought to central sites, either area fields or landfills. Refrigerators are processed at these temporary debris reduction sites.

First, the biohazard crew shovels the decaying meat and other semi-solid gook out of the refrigerators. The units are washed in an alcohol-bleach solution before moving to the balers.

"We are running double shifts," Boutcher says. ER runs 10-hour shifts with two-hour breaks. Currently, the company is hiring almost any qualified person who is looking for work.

All of the material ER processes in the four affected parishes of Louisiana, as well as much of the Mississippi material, goes to Southern Scrap Recycling. "They are talking over 1 million appliances and 150,000 vehicles in New Orleans alone," says Randy Boudreaux, manager at Southern Scrap Recycling, of the overall hurricane damage.

In the wake of the storms, Southern Scrap moved its New Orleans headquarters to Baton Rouge. By the end of October, Boudreaux was back doing business in New Orleans. "Our scale is operational," he reports. "We are working out of one of the buildings that had minimal damage." He hopes to be more fully operational by mid-November, depending on the power supply. Right now, the bales are being stockpiled until full power is restored to run the shredders.

Like everyone else, Boudreaux has noticed the odor from the freezers and refrigerators. "The smell is a given," he says. "But before we see them, they are remediated and refrigerant is removed. Other than that, they are typical bales."

ER handles some Freon removal, but another contractor does most of that work. The company also records the brand and serial number of the units so they can be reported back to manufacturers like Amana or Maytag.

Farther North, Sam Jacobs of Columbus Metal Industries, Columbus, Neb., says, though he has heard about the situation in the South, the company has not yet seen any influx of appliances from the storm area.

"[Flow is] kind of mediocre—we’re not real busy," Jacobs says. Part of that is attributable to the seasonal slowdown resulting from the amount of farm work going on in the area during the September-to-November harvest season; part is in light of pricing.

Prices were up about $50 in September, then dropped $40 in October. "I’m hoping for a happy medium in November," Jacobs says. He says it takes a couple of weeks for word-of-mouth on pricing to circulate. "That leaves only about two weeks for hauling," he says.

With November prices perking back up and the farm season tapering off, Jacobs expects to see more action.

"We encourage counties without recycling programs to start with white goods," says Thomas Heil, coordinator of the Kentucky Recycling and Marketing Assistance Program, part of the state’s Division of Waste Management, based in Frankfort. In addition to keeping appliances out of creek beds and ditches, appliance collection programs can create positive cash flow for local solid waste programs.

Heil says, "When properly advertised, a municipality will get several hundred tons of appliances."

In Iowa, the recycling of appliances is a somewhat different game. The state has some stringent rules on the flow of appliances. "You can’t shred or bale an appliance unless it is decommissioned by someone who has a state permit," says Dan Wycoff of Shine Bros. Co., Spencer, Iowa. The company started its shredder about one year ago, and appliances are part of the usual run. But Shine Bros. is not involved in draining or dismantling appliances.

All of the unwanted materials—PCBs, Freon, refrigerants—must be removed by a certified operation. Those operators tag individual units, certifying that they have followed state guidelines. Shine Bros. does not perform decommissioning services itself. But the company makes sure the regulations are followed by those who provide materials and accept only tagged appliances for shredding. "We follow the state guidelines quite religiously," Wycoff says.

Typically, a load of material will come from the decommissioning site baled and ready for shredding. Removal of other fractions, such as plastic, is up to the individual decommissioning firm. From its point of view, Shine Bros. is interested only in the metal.

The flood of appliances from the hurricane-damaged areas does not dim Tenenbaum’s view of the ferrous scrap market.

"I don’t think it will affect the market a bit," he says. "It will be your tax dollars at work to recycle all of this." Tenenbaum expects the government to foot the bill for hauling the appliances to central sites and cleaning them. "It will be very, very expensive."

Boudreaux says, however, that he does not think that the huge volume of material will have that much effect on the price of scrap appliances. All of the material Southern Scrap processes will go to domestic mills. "We could export it from our dock right here," he notes. "But we haven’t shipped anything overseas in 15 years."

The cost of trucking is up. The price the Army Corps is paying contractors to haul debris has driven up the price—but more in the area of 20 percent as opposed to some of the wilder rumors of $3 to $4 per mile that made the rounds at truck stops. While that will add to the price of a ton of scrap, most observers feel that the market will be able to handle the increased volume. Much of the material generated in the Deep South will stay in the local market, with perhaps some displacement of material into the Mid-South and Midwest. Pricing is seen evening out farther from the storm centers.

The author is a Recycling Today contributing editor based in Cleveland. He can be reached at curt@curtharler.com.