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4 Metal Recycling Tips for the Frugal Salvager

Want to earn more from your scrap metal and recycling hobby? Here are four helpful tips.

Want to earn more from your scrap metal and recycling hobby? Here are four helpful tips.

Do you like to recycle metal materials to do your part for the environment and make some extra cash? I know I do. The more I dig into this fun and rewarding hobby, the more I learn about how to do it in ways that reduce waste and maximize profit. Here are some tips on how you can do the same.

A box of 10 trash bags gets me at least 20 loads.

A box of 10 trash bags gets me at least 20 loads.

1. Reuse Your Plastic Bags

One of the easiest ways to transport your plastic bottles and aluminum cans is with plastic trash bags, but those cost money. I've discovered, however, that there are ways to reuse them.

Those of you familiar with plastic tie bags probably know that the plastic pulls stretch enough that even tying a bow can result in a knot that's nearly impossible to untie. I have two ways to at least double your use per bag, which is to say cut your bag expense in half.

When you are ready to turn over your bevy of containers, ask the attendants to tear the bags at the top if they can't release the pull ties. Save the bags—you can reuse them and tie them off at the tear. Tearing off a piece or two of masking tape to pull the tear closed works also.

Another way to deal with the problem is to snip the ties and ask for the bags back. I keep tape and a pair of dykes in my truck for such occasions.

2. Recycle Aluminum Products That Others Forget About

Another way to maximize your return is to save aluminum cans that many folks forget about. For instance, cat food often comes in aluminum cans. Most companies that use aluminum etch the word on the top of the can. If you know neighbors with pet cats, they might be willing to save their cans for you.

Spam and Vienna Sausages also often come in aluminum cans. In July of '98, Austin, MN-based Hormel Foods began to transition from three-piece to two-piece aluminum cans for Spam. Believe it or not, these cans are thinner and hence cost less to produce even though they are made of two thin layers of aluminum. The salt content in such foodstuffs would corrode steel cans.

A plastic shopping bag suspended from a chair works great for storage. I move the stuff to a shed when the bag gets filled. Take any paper labels off—recyclers don't like the paper mixed in. Potted meat cans work too.

One more example is canned fish. Some small tuna cans are made out of aluminum and also recycle easily. Just use a magnet to test if the can is ferrous. If not, it's aluminum. I carry a little magnet with me on a small belt clasp so I can test for iron.

Sardine cans, like many canned meat cans, often have pull-off lids. These can be recycled as well. Use your magnet on these cans to determine if they are steel.

It takes 95 percent more energy to make original aluminum than it takes to remelt used aluminum. In one study, all companies using aluminum cans reported source reduction by reducing package weight.

3. Sell Aluminum Pop Can Tabs

I discovered this side hustle just recently. Bags of 1,000 aluminum pop can tabs (the silver ones) sell for between $4 and $10 on eBay. Sort them according to color. Some crafters are only interested in certain colors like red, blue, etc. Of course, you can determine if they are aluminum using a magnet.

You can save time by storing them in zipper baggies. Storing in them in bags makes them easier to pack and ship. Time is money.

Using a pair of needle-nose pliers saves the fingers and frequently gives you a cleaner break. You should pack 500 or 1000 per baggy. Since colored varieties are more difficult to find, you may choose to bag only 400–500 per bag.

Really rusty metal won't necessarily  be accepted in some scrap yards.

Really rusty metal won't necessarily be accepted in some scrap yards.

4. Prevent Your Metal From Rusting

I recently reviewed a metal scrapper's website in California and was very surprised. This recycler warned of yards that pay less for rusty iron. My yard doesn't do that. Nevertheless, I keep my iron and steel in containers in my shed. If you would like an eye-opening experiment, which I inadvertently performed a long time ago, leave your steel in a bucket outside to be rained on. Check it out in 24–48 hours. It won't look the same.

Just because the metal will be melted down does not mean that its condition doesn't matter, especially when the metal contains rust. Understand that rust doesn't go away easily. Once the metal is melted and reformed, the rust will appear again. If you have a piece of heavily rusted metal, scrap yards may not accept your metal.

Even if the yard will take the rusted parts, you will likely receive a reduced amount. Scrap yards value clean metal based on weight, and there are misconceptions about the weight of rusted metal.

It is sometimes claimed that rusted metal weighs less than metal in pure form. This isn't quite true. When iron oxidizes, oxygen from the air combines with the iron to make iron oxide or rust. The weight increases due to the increased weight of oxygen atoms that have combined with the iron.

When smelted, the oxygen burns off, leaving the same amount of iron content. So to make for a slightly technical explanation, the rusty iron would be paid less for because it weighs more—not because it weighs less. The value of the ferrous scrap is based on the fact that after smelting, the iron from the rusty metal will weigh less.

If some time will pass before you can recycle a piece of metal, ensure you keep the pieces protected. A metal's appearance makes a difference.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 John R Wilsdon