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Scrapyards, shredders face growing resistance from local communities to setting up shop


When a recycling executive comes before town planners with a proposal to open a scrapyard, he or she can expect to be questioned at length about its operations.

Scrapyard operators may be one of the few businesses that will take over a brownfield industrial site and improve it. They'll help clean up the mess that a manufacturer or chemical producer left behind when it pulled up stakes and moved overseas, where environmental rules often are easier to live with or don't even exist.

Today's scrapyards are paved to prevent toxic substances from draining through the ground and polluting the water table; storm water retention basins are installed to prevent runoff from contaminating a nearby stream or river; and the perimeter of the yard is fenced and in many cases lined with trees and other landscaping to hide society's discarded waste like old vehicles and appliances.

Despite the good recyclers do, few people want to live next door to a scrapyard or an auto dismantler. That's understandable; these places are not as attractive as parks and woodlands. But in some instances, the scrapyard was on the fringe of a town or city when that site was undesirable land—before urban sprawl brought housing developments and shopping malls.

For the most part, scrapyard operators try to stick to the industrial regions of a city. After all, if they are on the wholesale side of the business that's where many of their customers are located. That's also where local zoning codes allow them to operate, where they can employ workers and turn a profit for their owners. In the process, they make much of society's refuse reusable and recycled into new products. Most scrap metal is not dumped in a landfill with materials that have little or no recovery value.

It sounds like something most towns and cities would be satisfied to have. Right? Wrong.

Today, when many of the scrap industry's entrepreneurs go before town planners, one of the first questions they have to answer is: Are you going to install a shredder? A "yes" frequently draws an immediate "no" from local politicians. Elected leaders depend on votes, and if there are enough hostile residents in the meeting room they realize that they could be out of office in the next election by approving the scrapyard and a shredder.

Several years ago, one scrapyard in Minneapolis was barred from installing a special type of shredder called a Kondirator. The yard sued and collected millions of dollars from the city for the grief it caused by continually putting up hurdles to block construction. That was hardly a wise use of taxpayers' money, was it?

The scrap industry has been progressive in terms of helping other industries to make use of old metals. It has devised new ways to process those metals and make them more valuable to steel mills and foundries. In some instances, it may require no more than a torch or a saw to cut the metal apart so steelmakers and foundries can use it in their furnaces.

But this also is an industry where ingenuity has helped to make scrap metal processing more economic and more productive. The most obvious example of that ingenuity is a shredder. Some people still refer to them as auto shredders, since that is what they were initially developed to do—tear vehicles apart, quickly and cheaply.

These days, though, the machine developed to take a car apart also shreds old appliances, metals from demolition work and whatever else can be fed into it. And the newer machines do more than recapture the ferrous metals with magnets. Many are equipped with high-tech systems that recover much of the nonferrous metals as well.

The higher horsepower machines with wider beds can do the work more efficiently and have been replacing smaller shredders built 20 or 30 years ago. Unfortunately, they also are noisier and spit out more dust, and have made not just the next-door neighbors unhappy but also the folks a few blocks away. Water sprayers are used to minimize that problem, but even such preventative measures are not sufficient for some towns and their residents. In one Texas town, where a $4-million machine began operating less than a year ago, residents, politicians and state environmental officials are up in arms about odors, noise and dust.

So what's the next step? Indoor shredders? There already are several machines that operate that way. Some processors, realizing that they might be too close to residential areas, opted either to build an enclosure for the shredder or install it in an existing unoccupied factory large enough to accommodate it. Is this the only answer to the complaints about noise and dust? Probably not. Some also can be equipped with hoods, for example.

One thing is certain: shredders are not going away even though there are some who believe there are now too many on the American landscape. Unfortunately, this is no longer just a nimby (not-in-my-back-yard) response. It has broadened to become a not-even-in-our-town outcry.


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