With all the ways to make a few dollars, this one was easy to overlook: a broken-down refrigerator sitting on a tidy lawn in Edina.
But the two men shuttling around in a white pickup truck all morning had a knack for noticing what most people miss, and one of them, Carlos Honaker, zeroed in on the little box. “Back up!” he urged the older man driving. “Back up!”
The city of Minneapolis’ increasing crackdown on scrappers — the sharp-eyed operators who trawl alleys and driveways collecting the junk the rest of us put outside and promptly forget — has pushed these two to scrounge for metal in the surrounding suburbs and draw on contacts at auto shops and industrial buildings to cart away their wares. They view their profession as an honorable service, whisking away what people don’t want and keeping the streets clear.
But the city insists that scrappers are stealing, cutting into revenues Minneapolis is entitled to for picking up the throwaways. So here they are, just outside the city limits.
“On your side?” asked Honaker’s boss, Jessie Anderson, the driver.
Anderson hesitated as he looked at the refrigerator tossed a few feet from the homeowner’s BMW, gauging its value. Scrappy’s Express in north Minneapolis might take it, right?
“That’s what I was thinking,” said Honaker.
“Well let’s try — flip it and see what’s going on.”
Honaker, the muscle of the operation, climbed out of the truck and looked closer, Anderson tagging behind. It had some copper and aluminum, they could see that much. About 150 pounds. They could take it back to Anderson’s storage unit and work on it.
Not much, but something.
Although Minneapolis has long dictated that recyclable materials set out for city collection may only be taken away by city crews, scrappers like Anderson, of north Minneapolis, have done it for years.
Now 72, he keeps scrapping to supplement his Social Security checks and provide for his two middle-school sons.
Both Anderson and Honaker have felonies on their records — Anderson, a decades-old crack possession conviction, Honaker, assault convictions for which he was released from prison in 2005 — that could have made it harder to get regular work. They enjoy the independence of this way of life, and it keeps them focused.
But as changes in people’s lifestyle and the economy have reduced the amount of scrap available, Minneapolis has found itself in a battle with scrappers to take what’s put outside.
Minneapolis’ revenues from contracted scrap yards have plummeted, falling to $27,000 in 2012 from $44,000 the year before. The tons of solid waste and recyclable materials have fallen every year since 2004.
David Herberholz, director of solid waste and recycling, said some of that is because of increased scrapping, as well as to people not buying as much and the products that they do buy lasting longer than in the past. For example, once-bulky TVs with lots of metal have given way to flat screens.
Residents know the weekly pickup routes, and set their items out just before city crews are due, but scrappers “know the routes almost as well as we do and they get there the night before,” Herberholz said. Some have even taken to smashing televisions and computer monitors to remove the valuable metals, then leaving a mess behind.
The city has sent out a notice with utility bills asking residents to report theft of recyclables, and police are patrolling alleys.
“People have done it forever and nothing has ever been said, and now the city knows the value of the metal to be recycled and they’re starting to put their foot down,” said Linda Hull, chief financial officer for K & K Metal Recycling, who sat in on meetings last year with the city about scrapping. “I can totally see the frustration of the scrappers; it’s just, we’re kind of in the middle.”
One of the scrappers police ticketed this summer was Anderson, who was hit with a citation for removing solid waste without permission and another for improperly driving in an alley.
“I think it’s ridiculous that you hound people about scrapping. They keep the neighborhood clean, keep the alleys clean … but you allow an able-bodied person to stand on the corner all day and panhandle,” said Eugene McKenzie, a housing contractor who calls Anderson to take away leftover metal from his jobs.
Anderson claims to make $800 or $900 a month after expenses, including car and health insurance, gas and a storage unit.
He views Honaker and himself as among the ethical scrappers, only taking trash clearly set out to be taken away and part of a system that they say moves much more efficiently than the city. And he maintains that it builds a steely work ethic, especially for people down on their luck, some of them ex-cons, others who might have resorted to dealing drugs. You can’t be a good scrapper, after all, when you’re lying in bed until 10 a.m.
For instance, one of his friends left scrapping for a job with more consistent hours at a north Minneapolis Burger King, and hasn’t missed a day of work in years.
“He got it all from the alley,” insisted Anderson, who stops at the same Burger King most mornings at 6 a.m. for coffee before searching for scrap.
Some of his main lessons from scrapping: On any given day, you might get something, and you might get nothing. Don’t take anything you’re not sure the owner intended to be taken. Poor people throw away much more than rich people, who are more likely to call someone to haul away broken-down items or pay for the repairs.
One morning last week, Anderson drove to a Robbinsdale auto parts shop to look for discarded treasures in the back parking lot. He dialed Honaker, following close behind, who is stronger than he is and lifts the heavy stuff.
“Hey Carlos,” he said, “behind the body shop they got a hot water heater … It’s going to be 80, 90 pounds.”
Once that landed in the back of the truck, along with some shock absorbers, Anderson dialed another number.
“What can I get today?” he asked.
“Right now, we don’t have a whole lot … might have some later,” came the response, and so it was on to the next one.
At an auto shop in Hopkins, they stumbled on carburetors and brake rollers and threw them in the truck, too. An initial visit to an elevator manufacturer yielded nothing. They returned later and picked up old elevator parts and a big roll of metallic cord that they’d have to later saw into strips of only several feet each.
Back at Anderson’s storage unit, they loaded some junk they’d been sitting on for a few days, and a half-hour later the truck was ready for Scrappy’s, crammed with car fenders, air compressors and air conditioning parts and a punching machine from a print shop. There were wheels and washing machine parts and aluminum drain pipes and a tin fireplace.
“There ain’t no metal,” said Anderson, “that we can’t handle.”