A peek behind the metal curtain of one of B.C.'s green giants, ABC Recycling
ABC Recycling’s flagship metal scrapyard, built over a reclaimed Burnaby swamp near the Fraser River’s north arm, is like a graveyard and mine built into one: where metal goes at the end of its life, then takes the first steps toward being reborn as a valued raw material.
Started in 1912, ABC is the oldest and largest privately held metal recycling company in B.C.—one of four big companies that today source ferrous (iron-containing metals) and non-ferrous (including copper, aluminum and lead) metal from wide networks of industry, government, smaller feeder yards and scrap collectors. This 40,000-square-metre Burnaby yard is the terminus for all the metal sourced from ABC’s eight other facilities, which stretch from Vancouver Island to Grande Prairie, Alberta.
It's a big business that's only going to get bigger: as greenfield metal ore grades for commodities like copper continue to plummet, the amount of energy required to harvest what’s left is rising. It will make more and more sense—both economically and environmentally—to increase efforts to mine our cities and industrial sites for the metals we need to live.
On a recent visit to ABC, BCBusiness is met at the gate by 30-year-old Nick Lorenzo, ABC’s environmental and safety specialist. Since Lorenzo started working here in 2007, the company has grown from three locations to nine—including a recent one in Fort St. John, established to exploit all the scrap being generated by B.C.’s oil and gas industry.
Lorenzo points to a handful of men crouched in the middle of the yard, hand-sorting a pile of grimy brass and copper into piles. “Everyone starts in the yard,” he says of the sorters. ABC remains a closely knit, fourth-generation family business (owned by the Yochlowitz clan, with fourth-generation CEO David Yochlowitz now in charge), where all newbies must “learn their metals” on the ground; by the time workers spend a month sorting by hand, they can identify most scrap by touch.
ABC Recycling acquires scrap metal, separates it into the purest possible “commodity streams” and sells it further up the recycling value chain.
Consistent procurement of quality scrap is vital to profitability, and to that end, it’s Randy Kahlon’s job to, as he puts it, “feed the monster.” As ABC’s manager of business development, procurement and sales, he leads a seven-person team sourcing scrap from industrial and government customers while constantly scrambling to find new supply. He says it is extremely competitive. ABC bids to salvage metal from end-of-life pulp mills, farms and bridges. On the day we are in the yard, there are decommissioned tanks, an entire airplane, tens of thousands of spent brass bullet casings, cars, railcars and copper wire of every conceivable size and thickness.
In an average month, nearly 20,000 tonnes of metal will move through this yard, and all of the heavy lifting is performed by machinery: three material handlers, four excavation vehicles and a fleet of “skid-steer” loaders zip around the property in an atmosphere of controlled chaos. Depending on the task, the excavators are fitted with giant magnets, grasping metal claws or “jaws of life” shear attachments, the latter capable of slicing up railcars like scissors through paper. There are also immense, Tim Burtonesque cutting and compressing machines: a “guillotine” that chops metal into smaller pieces and a non-ferrous compressor that works much the way a farm baler packages hay, except the sound effects are much scarier.
The yard is divided into two equal halves: one for non-ferrous metals, including copper and aluminum sold by the pound; the other is for ferrous metals, mostly bulkier iron and steel sold by the tonne. (Ferrous and non-ferrous metals are like apples and oranges: completely different commodities with different markets for sale, necessitating strict separation.) The weight and size of the ferrous scrap necessitated the construction of a spur-line connecting the yard to the main CN rail track nearby (ABC owns 100 of their own railcars). While most non-ferrous metal will end up in Asia via a container ship, the ferrous stuff will be melted down in North America.
Copper is the high-value metal, and Lorenzo leads us to four concrete enclosures stuffed with black, green, white and red copper wire. Copper theft from Surrey’s 26,000 streetlights was costing the city so much in vandalism, it is now preemptively pulling out 340,000 kilograms of perfectly functional copper wire and replacing it with a cheaper aluminum to deter theft; ABC has won the contract to recycle all that wire. In the warehouse, 1,800- kilogram bales of “bright and shiny” grade copper (worth over $12,000 each) are piled high beside boxes of separated titanium, spent brass bullet casings and high-value alloys. Lorenzo reports that even with many cameras and 24-hour security, attempts to rob this building still occur.
On the ferrous side of the yard, a CN railcar is sliced up with excavator-mounted shears while a white pickup truck (stripped of tires, valuable parts and fluids) is lifted by a giant claw and dropped into a crusher. In less than one minute, the vehicle is spit out, smaller than a fridge. There are real fridges here too: ABC has the contract to recycle all the appliances collected through BC Hydro’s rebate program, which are subsequently sold to a recycler in Washington State, ripped into fragments by a specialized metal “shredder,” sorted and sold again.
When it comes down to it, ABC’s scrapyard is like any other mining operation: success is determined by a combination of commodity price, how much metal can be pushed through the system and how cost-effectively the commodity can be separated from waste. “This is the end of the line for all of this,” says Lorenzo, motioning towards bins overflowing with end-of-life sinks, barbecues and electrical transformers.
“The cleaner it is when it leaves, the more money we get for it.”