Cleaning Up After Construction
NJC Scrap Metal Recycling Inc. helps both contractors and the environment
When a new building goes up or an old one comes down, people celebrate the architectural accomplishment. The debris left behind, not so much. Fortunately, dealing with discarded steel, copper and other metals is the mission of the folks at Long Island-based NJC Scrap Metal Recycling Inc. (NJC).
“Every construction project has two sides,” says John Cohen, who with his brother Nick founded NJC in 2011. “The creation of a new building is the one that gets the public attention. The other is that there are always leftover materials, like cutoff sections of steel girders and rebar from new builds, or steel and copper components of demolished or remodeled structures."
“Something has to be done with it, and we’re here to help contractors by buying their metal scrap for a fair price and making sure it’s recycled properly,” John says. “Our service gives developers revenue from salvaged metal, and it benefits the environment by making sure less materials end up in landfills. And, for us, it’s the basis of a thriving business.”
NJC’s customer base is much broader than just general contractors, Nick says. “We buy scrap from everyone with metal to recycle—demolition specialists taking structures down, utility companies laying replacement cable, sewer and water line contractors replacing old mains, plumbers upgrading infrastructure, HVAC and electrical contractors doing upgrades to old buildings, fence companies, tool makers, auto dealers getting rid of old trade-ins and auto body shops with lots of damaged parts."
“We buy everything from structural steel plates and beams to aluminum siding, copper wire and piping and cast iron pipes and water mains. If a homeowner brings in an old refrigerator or washer, we’ll pay a good price for that, too.”
Nick adds, “We’ve bought coffins, airplanes and armored cars. But most of our business comes from receiving scrap metal from contractors working on building projects.”
From Neighborhoods to Warehouses
The Cohen brothers’ road to a flourishing business grew out of a family background in auto parts and scrap. Their grandfather, John Spinelli, was a pioneer in the used auto parts business, and they had cousins who operated auto salvage and scrap metal enterprises. During their high school years, they both worked in those businesses.
Around 2010, while John was attending Farmingdale State College in Farmingdale, New York, 16-year-old Nick began driving his pickup around Long Island neighborhoods collecting the metal junk homeowners would leave at the curbside for trash collection. John worked with him in between classes.
After a year or so, they began buying scrap metal from auto repair operations, tool shops, plumbers and other businesses. “We would pay, say, $1 for a brake drum,” Nick says, “and then sell it to some scrap metal business—the kind of business we run now.” By then, John had a tow truck and collected junk cars to sell for scrap.
In 2012, they found a 15,000-square-foot warehouse in Hempstead to lease. But there was one problem.
“I was 20 and Nick was 17,” John says. “The owner didn’t believe we had a real business. Our father had to come down with us and sign the lease.” The building still serves as their headquarters. In fact, a few years ago, they bought it. “Once we were in the building,” John says, “we were able to begin to buy from the public. It opened up our prospects a lot.”
Today, with a workforce of some 25 employees, NJC operates out of the Hempstead warehouse and a second location, a one-acre lot in Bay Shore. It’s a family business. Together, Nick and John serve as Co-Presidents. Their mother, Marie Cohen, runs the office. Their sister, Marla Cohen, works on compliance and safety management. After he retired from his career as a truck driver, Jay Cohen, the father who signed the Hempstead warehouse lease in 2012, joined the operation to manage that facility.
“Working with family,” John says, “means we share the core principles of transparency, integrity and fair dealing.”
Structural and Heavy Melting Steel
“Scrap metal obviously comes in varying types and in grades within those types,” Nick says. “The Hempstead site is somewhat small so we concentrate on nonferrous metals there—aluminum, copper, brass and wire. Pound for pound, they’re more valuable than steel, but there’s less of it to deal with. We send steel and iron scrap to the Bay Shore site.”
At each property, a truck scale weighs full trucks that bring in scrap metal and empty ones that leave without it, the difference representing the weight and value of each seller’s load. Laborers sort and process the material, striping wiring of its insulation, cutting beams and columns into appropriate lengths and otherwise meeting the specifications of whatever buyer it’s bound for.
Steel is usually sent to mills in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where it’s melted down and reformulated into new steel. Copper and aluminum are sent to other mills and foundries.
As an alloy containing iron and carbon, steel is classified into a range of grades depending on the alloy’s formulation. Structural steel is the high-quality variation with significant loadbearing strength minus the weight that other materials might require. Higher structural steel grades are used for the beams, columns and girders that hold up buildings and bridges. But structural steel finds its way into uses as diverse as transmission towers, freight cars, crane booms and other construction equipment, Army tanks, truck frames and heavy machinery. Grades are standardized by nonprofit ASTM International (originally the American Society for Testing and Materials).
As a result of all this, structural steel is among the most recycled construction material on the planet, according to the nonprofit American Institute of Steel Construction. U.S. production of structural steel averages some 93% of recycled steel without any loss of its physical properties, the group says. It estimates that over the past three decades, the U.S. steel industry has reduced its greenhouse gas and overall emissions by 36% through recycling.
Heavy melting steel (HMS) involves lower-grade scrap ferrous materials, anything from auto bodies, engine blocks and transmissions to old appliances like washers and water heaters, chain link and wrought iron fencing, metal wall and roofing panels, and cast iron water mains. HMS comes in two categories. HMS 1 has no galvanized or blackened components, HMS 2 does. And, of course, there are grades within each category.
“For recycling purposes, we have to keep each type of material separated and processed,” Nick says. “Depending on the buyer it’s going to, each has to be cut to size and otherwise prepped.”
“We’re here to help contractors by buying their metal scrap for a fair price and making sure it’s recycled properly. Our service gives developers revenue from salvaged metal, and it benefits the environment by making sure less materials end up in landfills.” John Cohen, Co-President, NJC Scrap Metal Recycling Inc.
Prepping also includes resolving the problem of “dirty metals,” which refers not to the spotlessness of the scrap but to the presence of undesirable materials that might interfere with a mill’s melting and reformulation processes. In the case of scrap steel, this might involve concrete or roofing materials attached to it or a plastic substance layered onto its surface.
Copper and aluminum wires are more obvious examples. They’re almost always encased in plastic insulation when they come in. For the highest grades, NJC uses automated wire-stripping machines at its warehouse in Hempstead. They work quickly and efficiently, able to strip 100 pounds or more per hour— depending on the grade of the copper or aluminum.
“The speed varies,” John says. “Some wire takes longer, depending on the thickness. But it’s not feasible for us to strip some wires in our shop.” As an example, he notes, 500 MCM building wire is 90% copper, 10% plastic, a ratio that is feasible for NJC to strip in-house. But basic household extension cords are more like 35% copper, 65% plastic and require special methods of shredding and granulating.
Another aspect of the business worthy of mention: Certified Asset Destruction. Some customers want or need to be certain that their scrap is disposed of properly, not simply made available to anyone. A prime example would be police departments getting rid of old vehicles. Other customers may be manufacturers wanting to make sure defective products are destroyed—like the lot of shovels that had the blades installed upside down. NJC uses a tracking process that certifies a metal object’s demise.
The Cohen brothers pride themselves on paying good prices for the scrap metals they acquire. In setting up a scrap-collection arrangement with contractors, they discuss the volume and types of scraps expected and arrive at a per pound price to be paid for each type.
Some contractors might collect and deliver their scrap to the NJC facilities themselves, but more likely they’ll rely on roll-off collection containers provided by the company.
“Some customers do bring in their scrap themselves, but a lot of our collection is done with the bins at contractors’ sites,” Nick says. “The steel roll-off containers range from 10 to 50 cubic yards in capacity."
“We deal with more than 100 companies each day and have containers spread over some 150 sites at any given time. Often, there are multiple bins at a site so that the contractor can keep different types and grades of metal separated from the start. They get paid different amounts depending on each type of metal, so it’s in their own interests for them to do so.”
The movement of bins results in a busy choreography of trucks coming and going, full bins being continuously taken out, replaced by empty ones. It depends on the site, Nick says. There could be multiple swaps a day at a specific location. But in some, a bin may sit there for 30 days while it’s slowly filled.
‘It’s a Win-Win-Win’
“We take great pride in our work,” John says. “We see our business as playing an important role for the environment. We’re focused on the ‘Big Picture,’ recognizing the importance of this work. We take tremendous satisfaction in it.”
He adds, “We’re happy to work with any customer who has metal to get rid of, whether general contractor, demolition specialist, MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) sub, utility company, auto body shop, public works contractor or just homeowners scrapping their washers or barbecue grills. We pay fair prices, we’re always there when we say we will be, and we help our customers maximize their salvage revenue."
“And for us, it’s a great business. It’s a win-win-win.”