Men in beat-up trucks line up at the gates of Don's Metal Recycling Center on Molly Pond Road.
Most of the pickups are loaded with a rusty assortment of old appliances, mufflers, pipes, wires and radiators. Some tow trailers stacked with crumpled cars stripped of their parts.
The "scrap peddlers," as they are known in the business, wait to get their day's bounty weighed on Don's truck scale. Since scrap metal prices started moving up three years ago, there are a lot more of them.
"It's like a wagon train all day long," scrap yard owner Donnie Craven said. "It doesn't stop."
An improving domestic economy and seemingly insatiable demand from China have boosted metal prices to historic highs. The current average price for a ton of No. 1 heavy melt scrap, an industry benchmark, is just under $200 a gross ton. Three years ago, the price was $70.
"These are the good days," said Robert Garino, the director of commodities for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries in Washington.
Scrap prices peaked during the fourth quarter of 2004, with a gross ton of heavy melt scrap fetching about $250, Mr. Garino said. Prices began falling this spring, though they are still relatively high.
"For the last several years we've seen this amazing uptick," Mr. Garino said. "Whether it lasts depends on how much China produces and how strong the U.S. economy is."
About 50 percent of the steel produced in the United States comes from recycled scrap metal, Mr. Garino said, compared with 40 percent in Europe and 20 percent in China.
Feeding the furnaces has sparked a hunt for junk metal in the factories, trash bins and alleyways of Augusta.
"I've seen people push shopping carts filled with scrap in here," said Mr. Craven, whose 35-year-old scrap yard processed about 800,000 tons of recycled metal last year. His volume was one-third of that before the price spike a few years ago.
About a block away, at the CMC-Augusta scrap yard on Old Savannah Road, business has grown 30 percent during the past three years "mostly because of increased pricing," area manager Lou Moore said.
One scrap peddler who decided to strike while prices are hot is Joel Bryant.
In January, the 38-year-old North Augusta resident, who previously worked for his family's convenience store chain, started Bryant's Towing and Transport.
"This is all I do now," said Mr. Bryant, whose 2005 GMC tow truck makes up to four trips a day hauling old cars to Don's yard. He earns about $4.75 for every 100 pounds.
"You don't want to pick up a Corvette, it's all Fiberglas," Mr. Bryant said. "The heavier the better."
Both Don's and CMC-Augusta are known as processing yards; they sort, bundle and ship recycled metal according to its type. Scrap iron and steel is trucked to plants where giant shredders chop it into small chunks for delivery to mostly domestic steel mills. Nonferrous metals, such as aluminum and copper, are usually sent directly to mills.
Unlike publicly traded commodities such as gold and silver, there is no central exchange for scrap metal. Regional prices are tracked by publications such as American Recycler. According to its April prices for the Carolina region, mills paid an average of $120 per gross ton of appliance steel and tin, $135 per gross ton for crushed auto bodies and 50 cents a pound for radiators.
Scrap peddlers, who deal in small volumes with intermediaries such as Don's and CMC-Augusta, receive much less than mill prices.
Neither yard would disclose what it pays for scrap.
Peddlers range from "mom and pop" operations that scavenge from auto body and machine shops to full-fledged businesses with large trucks and roll-off containers.
Scrap yard workers say those who aren't full-time peddlers are an uncommon sight and can be easily spotted by the pristine condition of their trucks. Mr. Moore pointed out that most aluminum cans arriving at his facility are brought in by organizations and charities, such as the Southeastern Firefighters' Burn Foundation, rather than individuals.
"You're not going to find soccer moms bringing cans down here," he said.
Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
100 billion: Number of aluminum cans used annually in the United States
97 billion: Number of steel cans used annually
184 million: Cubic yards of U.S. landfill space occupied if all scrap iron and steel purchased each year were not recycled
62.2 million: Tons of iron and steel recycled each year in the United States
10 million: Tons of scrap metal imported by China in 2004
392: Aluminum cans consumed per person each year in the United States
95: Percentage of energy saved when making aluminum from recycled materials compared with bauxite ore
50: Percentage of aluminum cans that end up in landfills
34: Aluminum cans per pound, up from 22 in 1972
25: Number of cars recycled each minute in the United States
Sources: Western Metals Recycling LLC, Steel Recycling Institute; Environmental Protection Agency, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries