The smell of stale beer wafts from piles of aluminum cans. The sound of metal clashing resounds in the air. Old car parts rest in heaps across the property. Pickup trucks with piles of metal in their beds roll in.

This is the the scrap yard — comfortable territory for a group of North Charleston residents.

Roy Knighton recently brought an old refrigerator to the yard several days ago. He stripped it for its aluminum and stainless steel. Combined with some other metals, about 900 pounds of scrap earned him $45.

Retired from Bosch, the longtime scrapper visits the yard twice a week, cashing in items he's picked up from beside garbage cans.

"I need some spending money," he said.

North Charleston's scrap metal culture encompasses a wide range of people — retirees needing extra cash, everyday people trying to make ends meet, ex-prisoners struggling to land a job and wanting to make an honest income.

Some scrappers engage in criminal activity. While state laws passed several years ago have sought to reduce scrap theft by requiring permits, North Charleston police report copper thefts went up last year.

But scrap metal collectors and professionals say there are more good people than bad involved in scrapping. Turning into cash what many consider trash — broken radios, televisions, lamps — scrappers find joy in what's considered a hustle and hobby.

'Keeping economy going'

Between the '80s and early 2000s, the yard at 1951 Stokes Ave. in North Charleston operated solely as a salvage yard for auto parts run by Shaun Stroble's parents. In 2007, Stroble expanded the family business to include scrap metal because he said it was "the fastest way to make money."

shaun stroble scrappers.jpg

Shaun Stroble is one of the brothers who run B&D Scrap Metal in North Charleston, behind Trident Technical College, on Friday, Mar. 1, 2019. Wade Spees/Staff

Today, B&D is one of several scrap yards in the tri-county area. Scrap yards dish out money for various metals, including steel, copper and aluminum. The items are eventually resold at higher prices to overseas buyers who melt them down and create new products.

The metals can be found in all sorts of items that people discard — old air-conditioning units, cans, microwaves, computer units. Individuals can make good money scrapping depending on how well they know the ins-and-outs. An AC unit, for example, runs 10 cents a pound. But if stripped for its copper, which runs $2.05, a scrapper can walk away with more money.

B&D sees about 175 people a day. Most of their customers represent large companies, though several come as individuals looking for extra change. In February, B&D bought $500,000 worth of scrap metal. Stroble says the money is helping families pay bills and large companies stay afloat.

"It's the small companies like us that's keeping the economy going," he said.

Scrapping is also good for the environment. Stroble estimates they ship out about 20 million to 30 million pounds of scrap a month to include electronics, which contain mercury. If they were thrown away and ended up in landfills, the chemicals could've leaked into the ecosystem and damaged plant and animal life.

Instead, the items were recycled and residents made some money.

'Means of Income'

The value of copper has also enticed criminal activity. In South Carolina, high amount of copper thefts forced the state to pass laws making it illegal to buy, sell or transport scrap metal without a permit.

Though the amount of copper thefts in North Charleston declined from 63 in 2014 to 30 in 2016, thefts ticked up from 37 in 2017 to 51 in 2018.

At B&D, they don't accept anything that looks suspicious, like items that still have price tags or large amounts of copper from individuals. Most copper scrap comes from large companies, so if an individual comes to the yard with buckets filled with copper, that raises a red flag, scrap workers said.

"If it looks shady, we send them back," said Dave Talbot, whose worked at B&D for the past 10 years. 

Gary Franklin, who visits the yard several days a week, said thieves have given scrappers a bad name.

"There's good people out there scrapping," he said. "Everyday people like us."

For North Charleston resident Wendell Wellington, 58, scrapping is a fun hobby and a way to earn an honest income while keeping the community clean.

In 2006, a friend showed him that he could collect aluminum cans and make money by selling them to the local junkyard. 

"I made about $60 my first time," he said. "After that, I've been on my own."

Neighbors along Dobson Street and Sumner Avenue are familiar with Wellington's hobby, greeting him on Thursday mornings with trash bags filled with aluminum cans. City employees driving by stop to point him toward parks where the garbage cans are filled with used cans.

Wellington searches Dumpsters and recycling bins. Old lamps, abandoned bikes, and stereos all make it into his shopping cart.

Wellington suffered a stroke years ago and walks with a limp. But on any given day, he can be seen pulling his cart filled with scrap metal — a blue barrel attached to it by bungee cords provides extra storage space — between Remount Road and Rivers Avenue. A round-trip from his home to the B&D scrap yard is about 6 miles. 

While Wellington gets Social Security, scrapping helps put additional money in his pocket. He makes about $45 a week between three weekly trips to junkyard. The work is tiring, but enjoyable.

"I clean up the community," he said. "It's fun."

B&D employees love him. They often set aside scrap for him to exchange for cash. They also see many residents like Wellington. Some use scrapping as their main source of income, coming to the yard four or five times a day. 

During the partial government shutdown earlier this year, Stroble saw an increase in customers.

"It's a means of income for a lot of people," Stroble said. "It's not only chasing the habit."

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Rickey Dennis covers North Charleston and faith & values for the Post and Courier.

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