After many years of leaving my aluminum cans out for alley scroungers, I decided in April 2011 to start saving aluminum for myself and my family, mainly because I had moved into a new home with a four-car garage which allows for a lot of space to store empties.
Seventeen months later – which was last week – I finally tossed all 15 large bags of cans into my Volkswagen bus and drove to Bandos Recycling, 1132 S. Barclay St., because it's in my neighborhood.
There are many other scrap yards in Milwaukee, including one less than a block from Bandos called Mill Valley Recycling, 1006 S. Barclay St. Others include United Milwaukee Scrap, 3232 W. Fond du Lac Ave., and National Salvage, 600 S. 44th St.
I randomly chose Bandos, but I was very pleased with the experience from start to finish. As a first-time can recycler, I had no idea what to do when I rolled into the lot. There were a half dozen people already there, some pushing shopping carts filled with springs and pipes, others loaded down by bags of cans or stacks of newspapers.
I had so many questions. Was this going to be worth the effort? What's the going rate for aluminum? How do I get 15 bags of cans out of my van and onto the massive scale?
Luckily, an employee in a white hardhat made it easy for me. I expressed my uncertainty and he got a humongous box, put it on a pallet, weighed it in front me (it weighed 60 pounds) and drove it via forklift next to my van. Then he gave me the bad news: I had to empty every bag into the box because the cans can't get weighed in bags.
This turned out to be a disgusting job, and the biggest lesson learned: I will definitely rinse my cans before storing them. Needless to say, the bags, especially the older ones, were stinky and sticky and I got droplets of old Guinness and root beer all over my hands in the dumping process.
Whether or not cans are crushed doesn't matter – Bandos will take them either way. The cans are later bailed into 1,000-pound cubes and sold, primarily, to can companies.
Recyclers of some scrap materials, cans not included, must present an ID which is then submitted via computer to a system connected to the police department to ensure the customer is not wanted for burglary.
Once the box was filled up, and it was filled completely to the top, the guy returned in his little truck, lifted the box and drove it over to the large scale where it weighed in at 155 pounds. Minus the original 60 pounds for the pallet and the box weight, I had 95 pounds of aluminum, so at roughly 60 cents per pound for aluminum these days, my can collection was worth $57, paid in cash.
The price of aluminum is determined by the London Metal Exchange and therefore, as a commodity, it varies. Scrap yards can adjust the price, but most are usually offering about the same amount per pound in order to stay competitive. Co-owner Melanie Bandos says she's seen the price-per-pound for aluminum cans as low as 30 cents and as high as 90 cents in the past few years.
Melanie and her husband, Marcus, have owned the recycling business since 2008. Prior to that it was owned by Marcus' father, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor named Felix Bandos who emigrated to Milwaukee in 1953 and started out searching for recyclable goods in alleys. In 1971, he opened the business, and today he still spends time in the office.
Melanie Bandos says her customers are from all walks of life, with more and more people showing up since the recession started about four years ago.
"We see the gambit. From 18-year-olds without other job opportunities to people who are 70 or 80 who need extra income to people who do it just to do something to help the environment," she says.
As a mother with grown children, Bandos sees can recycling as a valuable experience for young people as well as a way for them to earn allowance money.
"It's a great experience for the whole family," she says.
Ruth Holler, known as "The Can Lady," was recently recognized by the City of Milwaukee for collecting more than one million cans and donating every penny received for the aluminum to charity. Holler, who is in her 80s, brought all of her cans to Bandos for recycling.
"We would always try to go above and beyond the going rate for her," says Bandos. "And she's still collecting. She's now up to 1,033,000 cans. She's the only woman they allow to go into Miller Park after the games and scavenge for cans."
Bandos also buys copper, brass, auto batteries and paper. Currently, copper goes for $2.50-$2.80 per pound and brass for $1.50-$1.80. Car batteries are worth $10.
"We are one of the only scrap yards that have been in the paper recycling business almost from the beginning," says Bandos. "We started shredding in this facility before there were confidentiality laws."
At this point, I plan to be a lifelong aluminum recycler and have my kids take part in the activity, as well. (My younger son is particularly pleased about this because just a few months ago he was lamenting that the only way he could earn money was via tooth loss.) We got a can crusher and, even though can crushing is not necessary, the kids find it fun. And we will definitely rinse our cans before crushing and storing.
I'll admit, I was a little disappointed with my earnings at first. I had no idea how much I would get, but I had been hoping for three digits. However, when I cashed out, Bandos reminded me that "$57 is $57."
My attitude instantly changed. She was right. After all, $57 was a dinner out for me and my family. And in the end, collecting was not very much work and the actual recycling process took less than an hour.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.