NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – A wedding cake costs about 14,400 aluminum cans.

Jim Ridenhour, a retired Newport News, Va., firefighter, discovered that when he turned to metal scrapping as a way to pay for his daughter's wedding about two years ago.

Since then, his part-time hobby has turned into a full-blown profession, earning him more than $1,000 in February alone.

Ridenhour, a Carrollton, Va., resident, primarily picks up scrap metal from personal contacts and references. He also responds to ads on websites like Craigslist and solicits friends on Facebook for scrap pick-ups.

"I'm getting it out of the way for someone who would just throw it in a landfill," he says. "This way, the stuff gets recycled. I feel like it's free money out there, but my wife tells me that I've earned it with my time and labor," he said.

Most often, metal scrapping is referenced in relation to a crime, a fact that Ridenhour says makes it hard for the people legitimately recycling the materials.

Copper theft, in particular, is a "longstanding regional problem," the Isle of Wight County, Va., sheriff's office said in a December statement, referencing the theft of outdoor heating and air conditioning units and pipes from several county churches.

Metal theft insurance claims increased by 36 percent when reviewing claims made in 2010-2012 over insurance claims reported in the three-year period between 2009 and 2011, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

"During this period (2010-2012), 33,775 insurance claims for the theft of copper, bronze, brass or aluminum were handled – 32,568 of them (96 percent) for copper alone," according to the report.

Ridenhour said local scrap yards ask for fingerprints and copies of your driver's license when you turn in metal scrap. This way, he said, there's an attempt to separate the honest scrappers from the thieves.

But even for 64-year-old Ridenhour, scrapping can be a bit of a wild world. Drivers eye one another's truckloads as they enter the scrap yard, sometimes negotiating swaps before moving on to have their scraps weighed. Sharing secrets about where they found the metal is never a part of the transaction.

"If someone calls me, and they tell me that they've seen something on the curb, I don't even try to get it," he says. "I know it will be gone before I can get there."

But scrapping is more work than simply finding someone else's trash. Scrappers can make more money when they tear apart appliances, lawn mowers and other items and sell back the components piece by piece.

During a recent scrap dump, for example, Ridenhour dropped off an electric wheelchair. Dumped whole, the chair earned 7 cents a pound. By taking out the batteries – which earn 20 cents per pound – Ridenhour earned an additional $20.80.

This time, he decided not to take apart the rest of the wheelchair to separate the steel from the aluminum.

"You have to decide how much it is worth it to take some things apart," he said. "I've figured out the fastest way to disassemble many things. Like with dryers, now I just cut out a hole in the back and yank all of the wiring out. I used to undo the whole thing, bolt by bolt."

The cashier at Carrollton Metals said she was not allowed to provide a pricing list for metals because the payouts change every day. During a recent run to the scrap yard, steel earned 7 cents a pound, motors earned 20 cents a pound and copper – the most profitable – earned $2 a pound.

Mid-afternoon on a recent weekday, business was fairly slow at Carrollton Metals, but most days the scrap yard sees more than 100 people, said Lamar Harris, an employee who weighs the smaller scrap pieces like copper wiring and batteries.

Now that his daughter's wedding is paid for, the money that Ridenhour earns goes toward his $930 monthly health insurance premium.

"On a $2,200 (monthly) retirement (from the fire department), that's a huge chunk," he said. "So, I'm out here off-setting it. I've never been one to sit around on my days off."


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