September 29, 2022
Scouring Chicago alleys for scrap metal is a tough way to earn a living

It’s a common sight in Chicago: Pickup trucks in the alleys, piled high with old appliances, large rusty beams and broken bikes, all held together with webbing or rope. At the wheel of these trucks are metal scrappers who patrol the streets looking for discarded metal of all kinds.

Scrap metal recycling is a multibillion dollar industry in the United States. About 70% of the steel produced in this country is produced from scrap metal, according to Joseph Pickard, chief economist and director of commodities at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Pickard also says it’s cheaper and better for the environment to repurpose scrap metal compared to mining raw materials.

Metal scrappers play a small role in this huge supply chain, but they help clear the streets of dangerous appliances and other metal rubbish that piles up in alleys and might eventually end up in landfills.

Curious City has received a number of questions over the years from listeners who want to know more about how metal scrappers operate. How much do they make each day? And what is it like to spend the day combing alleyways for metal?

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