We've all seen them in the alleys behind our homes... they're about as prevalent as those rat extermination posters the city tacks to utility poles each spring. I'm talking about the scrap-metal guys that skulk through the alley ways in 30-year-old pick-ups trucks, trucks with bad spray paint jobs and hauling beds that have been built up with cheap chain-link fencing, rusty support rods, and splintered two-by-fours.
And who hasn't left an unwanted item off to the side of the dumpster, in hopes that someone else will claim it before the garbage men come? I've been guilty of this myself... both of leaving trash and of finding treasures. Well, this isn't always the best idea. I won't even go into how it provides a way for undocumented workers-- who, let's face the facts, make up the vast majority of these scavengers-- to acquire a tax-free income, even though it does.
For the purposes of this blog, I would like to keep my focus on the environmental ramifications of this phenomenon. I watched from my kitchen window today as my landlord cleaned out the garage. The pile of stuff he had amassed was astounding. Within minutes, along hobbles a rusty pick-up truck, already heavily laden with scrap metal. Not only did these guys stop and gobble up the appliances, electronics, and building materials that my landlord had already dragged to the curb, they (with his blessing) finished clearing the unwanted metal items out of the garage for him, with nothing but dollar signs in their eyes!
As the poor old truck groaned and lumbered out of the alley, I began to wonder what would happen to all the non-metal components of these items once the metal portions had been weighed and sold as scrap. While I don't have the specifics on any particular metal recycling center, if I've learned anything from my haz mat and contaminated properties remediation classes, it's that these scrap metal yards tend to not give much thought to the heavy metals, corrosive liquids, and other hazardous wastes they separate from appliances, electronics in particular. Sure, the metal gets recycled, which is great, but where does the rest of it go? Into our landfills, soil, and drinking water. Not cool.
That said, I'm willing to look the other way for scrap metal items like ironing boards and pipes that don't contain hazardous materials. But when it comes to old electronics, folks, take them to some place like Abt Electronics or the Chicago Hazardous Materials Recycling Center (it's free!) where you can be sure that all the parts of that old computer or behemoth television set will be properly disposed of or recycled. And if you get new appliances, many places will haul your old ones away-- if not for free, then for a nominal fee. Take advantage of and throw your support behind these legit services and quit relying on the scrap metal guys to do the right thing!