ROM THE TIN CANS OF THE CIVIL WAR to the soda cans of today, Americans are creating and using scrap constantly. Scrap (and potential scrap) is – quite literally – all around us. This scrap has created both innovative opportunities and complex challenges for our nation, and particularly for those who have made scrap
their life’s work.

When you close your eyes and think of the word “scrapper,” what do you see? The public image of the scrap industry, and those who work in it, has fluctuated over time, often shaped by writers, journalists, and artists’ depictions. For much of its history, scrap has been stereotyped as a “dirty” industry, both literally and figuratively. Scrap materials are often covered in actual dirt, along with grease, grime, chemicals, and unidentifiable bits of schmutz and the industrialized process of breaking scrap apart and transforming it into reusable material can produce pollutants and cause exposure to unhealthy substances. Perhaps as a result, those who work in the scrap industry have been unfairly labeled as uneducated, untrustworthy, and unclean.

Both of these beliefs, “dirty” scrap and “dirty” scrappers, have had a profound effect not just on the public’s perception of the scrap industry, but on the scrap industry’s views of itself and how the industry has risen to meet the challenges of the world around it.

Scrappers in Popular Culture before World War Two

In the first half of the history of the American scrap industry, up until the 1960s, the “dirty scrapper” stereotype was foremost in public perception of the industry. Those working in scrap have mainly come from the most marginalized sectors of society – poor people, immigrants, and people of color. Looking at depictions of various types of scrap workers over time shows us how the general public both viewed these marginalized communities and painted the scrap industry itself with the same brush.

This newsreel footage featured an immigrant rag scrapper purchasing old clothes on New York’s Lower East Side. Although the scrapper was scrap rag and clothes peddler in life, the scene in the film is scripted.

Old Clothes Merchant (excerpt). Fox Movietone Newsreel, 1929. Courtesy of the Moving Image Research Collections Digital Video Repository, University of South Carolina.

World War Two and Patriotic Recycling

Around World War II we see a more positive depiction of scrap workers as the collection and reuse of scrap begins to be presented as a patriotic action, including a multitude of scrap-related propaganda commission from leading ad agencies by the U.S. government, to encourage Americans to think of their scrap in a different way.

The song “(Get Some) Cash for Your Trash,” by Fats Waller, which focused on the economic potential of scrap and came out in 1941. Music by Fats Waller and lyrics by Ed Kirkeby (1891-1978), 1941. Sony Music Entertainment. Spotify.

In this 1944 documentary film set in Youngstown, OH, on the process of smelting scrap metal, we see a celebration of the immigrant roots of the workers as a counterpoint to propaganda from Nazi Germany.

Steel Town (excerpt), Willard Van Dyke (1906-1986), 1944. Steel Town - 1944, 1944; Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900-2003; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

The Scourge of Automobile Graveyards

Unfortunately, by the 1960s the patriotic verve for scrap had disappeared, and the stereotype of the poor scrap worker returned, as heard in this 1967 song from The Hollies.. “Charlie and Fred,” The Hollies. Music and lyrics by Alan Clarke (b. 1942), Tony Hicks (b. 1945) and Graham Nash (b. 1942), 1967. Parlophone. Spotify.

During this period, the main source of public perception of the scrap industry shifts from focusing on the people in the scrap trade to focusing on the physical aspects of the industry – specifically pollution and the environment. Many credit the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for bringing pollution and other effects of industrialization on the land to the forefront of America’s vision.

While America as a whole may have started to take notice of effects on the environment, the problems had been growing for much longer. One of the most public challenges dealt with “automobile graveyards.” Starting in the 1940s, as household incomes rose and families began to move to the suburbs, Americans began buying more cars than ever. They also began discarding and replacing them faster than ever, with a new model in the driveway every few years.

A Growing Concern

“The environmental problems of running the business are great now...(even) the water that runs off the scrap yard. Part of the problems of processing scrap metal is removing these detrimental things.” -- Mort Leder (1924-2015), founder of Leder Brothers Scrap Metal, Minneapolis, MN

The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 paralleled the growing awareness of environmental damage across America – in 1971 the agency began the DOCUMERICA project to record the changes in the American environment through photography. Pollution became a leading topic of conversation both within the scrap industry and among the general public.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

At the same time that cars were filling up the scrap yards, and Americans were recognizing the environmental hazards of consumer waste, trash dumps were bursting with paper, glass, and steel. It was time for recycling to take center stage.