High prices for scrap steel cleaning the landscapeby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
High prices for scrap steel have helped push a widespread cleanup of the Minnesota landscape this spring. Scrap steel prices have risen more than 40 percent in the last year. That's causing farmers, business owners and everyday citizens to dig out iron that's been ignored for years, maybe decades.
St. Paul, Minn. — Much of the scrap steel is coming from what might be called eyesores. Car bodies and other automotive items parked behind garages. Old farm machinery abandoned in tree groves. But these days those rusty plows are cutting their last furrow while being dragged off to the scrapyard. And then there's the stuff Jeremy Zafft is finding in his spring cleanup near Jackson in southern Minnesota.
"Rims, old 50's washer right behind you, pipe, cable, wire, engine block," said Zafft.
Zafft is clearing junk around an automotive shop where he helps a friend build stock cars. He says the stuff was left through the years by others who used this building.
"We're just cleaning up steel to sell off to the scrapyard, kind of cleaning up everything," said Zafft.
Zafft, who's from Windom, Minn., said some things he's found have sat for so long that trees grew up through them. Like hundreds, maybe thousands, of other people Zafft loads his take onto a pickup truck for a trip to the nearest metal recycler.
"I've watched this market go up and up and up in the last couple of years," said Zafft.
The rush to sell steel has meant a busy spring for scrapyards across the state. At many, trucks begin lining up even before the business opens for the day. New Ulm Steel and Recycling President Walt Luneburg said at times he's had up to a half mile long line of vehicles waiting to unload.
"Very busy to say the least, markets are exceptionally high and so there's a lot of material moving," said Luneburg.
Luneburg said world demand for steel is increasing. That's pushed prices up. He says that's made it possible for people to make a profit on virtually anything they can find.
"You can tell people are actually digging deeper for it. I think a lot of this is actually coming out of the ravines and stuff like that. A lot of the groves have been cleaned up," said Luneburg.
"But a lot of this scrap is actually coming out of places that people probably would have never went after it before."
Near Jackson, Jeremy Zafft continues to dig through a tangled pile of junk. There's items from cars and trucks, but also a surprising amount of household debris.
"Blender," laughed Zafft. "We've got everything. Heck, there's even a kitchen sink down there."
He may joke about it, but Zafft is after more than just money. He says it's nice getting paid for junk, but he's also happy the landscape will look better when he's finished.
"We got so sick of all the scrap and iron and the garbage behind here that made it look like crap, made us look bad too," said Zafft.
"We started cleaning up and it kind of blossomed into this."
Some of the things Zafft picks up may be headed overseas. Rising steel demand is led by what are known as the BRICK nations: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Korea. Bill Heenan with the Steel Recycling Institute says world steel demand has risen nearly 50 percent in the last five years. He says with natural iron ore deposits running short, scrap has become the most important source of new steel.
"You may look at the Golden Gate Bridge as a beautiful highway," said Heenan. "We look at it as scrap in inventory. Eventually they'll tear it down and we'll get it back."
He said the higher prices move, the greater the reach of the scrap steel market. Right now it's reaching out a long ways. Like a magnet, the high prices attract scrap steel from all corners of the globe, including an auto shop near the Iowa border.
- Morning Edition, 05/05/2008, 7:55 a.m.