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Searching for Scrap Metal Is More Fun Than the Jobcentre

Earning £9.78 for a day's work in austerity Britain.
August 13, 2013, 1:45pm

Shane, my friendly local scrap metal collector.

When you forget about the people whose commutes are ruined by the theft of copper wires from train tracks, scrap metal collecting seems almost romantic. While the chances of getting a stable job or a benefits cheque that will last you more than a couple of days are going down, the price of metal is going up, providing a handy stream of income for those willing to reclaim its residual value from landfill. If you can't face the misery of the dole queue or a job that only employs you for 12 hours a week in return for a few beans and a button, maybe you should think about taking it up yourself.

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Seeking an insight into this world, I convinced a scrap metal collector named Shane to take me round his regular beat.

I met Shane at around 8AM, at which point he told us that he usually started earlier in case other “scrappies” beat him to the best metal. He explained that he got into the scrap business after working on rubbish lorries for Haringey Council. “One of the drivers told me to give him any bits of metal we found. One day we found a big laundry bag full of old phone chargers and stuff, and we sold it and made a tenner each, and from that day I was just collecting little bits. Then I lost that job, and I didn’t know how to make any money. I tried to sign on but I couldn’t deal with the situation in the Jobcentres. There was nothing there for me.

"So I tried to help myself. I went out scrapping one day and made £30 and I was happy. I went home, bought my cigarettes, I bought food, I buy a little drink now and again, it supported me, you know? I feel more safe doing scrap than waiting for the Jobcentre or the government to pay me.”

From our rendezvous in Euston, we headed to Hampstead. We got off to a slow start; digging through several skips that contained only planks of MDF, plaster caked copies of the Sunday Sport and broken tiles. Shane got waist deep and encouraged me to climb in and “have a bit of a Wurzel around”. Like a magpie, I seized upon the first shiny thing I saw and triumphantly held it aloft. My pride took a knock when Shane informed me that discarded cans of Nurishment are not very valuable.

Travelling across North West London, our persistence paid off. We found wires, lots of them – scrap metal gold (this is a metaphor as unfortunately we did not find any actual gold).

Shane dragged the wires out of the building rubble bags like a hungry bird eating a worm whose innards are filled with copper rather than semi-digested mud.

Pleased as we were with our wires, so meagre was the rest of our haul that desperation was beginning to set in. Shane started to put his head further and further into skips and bins and I wondered if I might lose him.

Desperation turned to frustration when every so often we would pass a massive metal appliance that would fetch a hefty price in scrap. Unfortunately, Shane can't fit entire washing machines on his handlebars. “I often leave 30 to 40 pounds at the roadside because I can’t lift it – because it’s all iron, heavy stuff,” he said, explaining that copper is the best in terms of value-to-weight ratio. “You have to have a little float. If you come across a building where there’s loads of copper for sale, they’re not going to give it to you for free, so you have to buy them a drink,” he said.

That said, Shane sang the praises of his trusty bike, which allows him to avoid the congestion charge and get right into the centre of town.

He decided that we needed to “get a wiggle” on and I asked him if there was a plan, to which he replied, “I go where the wind blows.” Later on, he told me that you find certain roads that tend to be lined with skips you can routinely return to. This was less romantic than simply following the wind but struck me as more sensible.

Finally we hit the jackpot – a broken-down fridge and a smashed-up TV.

Shane set about it, picking out the most valuable parts like a vulture tearing meat from a carcass.

Even though Shane’s scrapping means he doesn’t need to rely on benefits for income, he reckons the state isn’t his biggest fan. “What they don’t gain from, they don’t like. They hate and they get jealous and they want to stop you in your tracks every day. They harass you just to make a bit of money. Like yesterday me and my friend got harassed by the police.”

Apart from coppers hassling him as he collects copper (ayooooo), aggro comes from other scrappers. “Me and my friend had to fight over some aluminium windows the other day. This woman gave them to me and this geezer tried to rob them. He saw me bring them over the road and then go back to get more, and then he tried to put one in the back of his van and we had a little war about it – me and my mate and him and his mate. I won, but my bike got nicked on the same street.”

After a few more hours on the road, we got a hot lead. Shane’s usual scrap apprentice, who calls himself Tony Montana, phoned in information about a scrapper's treasure chest in Manor House. Tony is from Kosovo and told me how he lost his brothers in the war and is now doing what he can to get by.

Having stacked our metal high in Manor House, and after eight hours of diving in and out of London’s skips, Shane’s bike was heaving beneath the weight of his haul. He reckons that over the course of a week he transports about a tonne of metal. Already on the verge of biting off more than we could chew, we headed to the scrap yard to claim our reward.

We placed our plunder onto the enormous scales. Shane started haggling, which I found surprising, because I thought it would be tough to convince someone that you know more about the price of metal than the digital reader on the scales. But, as Shane explained, “If you’ve got the weight you can haggle. If you have 50 kilos of a certain material, you can say an extra 5p on every kilo, or an extra 10p. But if you’ve only got 20 kilos, you can't – they just take the pile and that’s it.”

In between sips of his Foster's can, the scrap yard manager did his sums. We eyed him hungrily, hoping that we had bagged ourselves a king’s ransom for our efforts. Unfortunately, it was not the most lucrative of days. My cut came in at £9.78.

Disappointing though that seemed, Shane said other days could bring more money in and that scrapping was earning him an honest living. “I could easily go out there and rob people, yeah, anyone can do that. That’s the easy way. But doing this I don’t need no help from anyone and that’s a good feeling. No one gives me nothing, I just make what I’ve got myself."

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See more of Alex's work on his website and follow him on Twitter: @AlexSturrock

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Meet the Merseysiders Who are Waging War on the Bedroom Tax

Hanging Out with the Desperate People at Watford Jobs Fair was Really Depressing

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