The Basics of Recycling Scrap Metal for Money

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Originally written by Virginia Buechel, of iScrap App.

Most of us know the value of recycling and reusing items like plastic bottles, hand-me-down clothing, and newspapers. Through reuse and recycling, we can reduce what goes to the landfill, reduce waste, and save on energy used to produce new materials.

But one sector of the recycling industry that may not be as popular, but is just as important, is scrap metal recycling. Scrap metal exports are one of the largest in the U.S. And by recycling metals, we reduce the amount of ore mining throughout the world. Some of these metals include copper, steel, aluminum, brass, and iron.

Unfortunately, these materials often end up in the garbage due to the lack of knowledge and sources for metal recycling. We’re here to help educate the community about the opportunity to bring your unused metal items it to the right place for recycling — and make some cash, too. This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links we will receive a small commission from the sale.

Recycling Scrap Metal Makes Money

Many people don’t know that most scrap metal can be recycled for cash payments at local scrap yards around the country, keeping this useful material out of landfills.

Scrap metal yards deal with customers in industries that handle metal on a daily basis. For example, construction companies may have tons of steel beams from structures, electricians could have old wires and electrical equipment, or plumbers might have old or broken copper piping and brass fixtures that they need to dispose of. While scrap yards see a large quantity metal from the trade industry, they also welcome homeowners and other individuals.

By bringing your metal scrap to scrap yards, you can make money and recycle the materials at the right place.

A Magnet Assesses Metal Value

Determining if you have a ferrous or non-ferrous metal and separating the two types is the first important step before bringing metal to be recycled.

The easiest and most common way to figure out what kind of metal you have is by grabbing a magnet. Hint: Any magnet will do — even one from your fridge.

If the magnet sticks to your metal: You have a ferrous metal in your hands — something common like steel or iron. Ferrous metal is not worth very much when you bring it to the scrap yard, but the scrap yard will accept it and make sure it is recycled properly.

If the magnet does not stick to your metal: The metal you have is a non-ferrous metal. Many common metals like copper, aluminum, brass, stainless steel, and bronze — are categorized as non-ferrous metals. These metals are very valuable to recycle and are worth more money at the scrap yard.

Once you have your metals separated, search for a local scrap yard and call to see what metals they accept. Make sure you ask about their procedures and requirements so you know before you go. Oftentimes, homeowners feel intimidated going to a scrap yard. By calling ahead for information and making sure you have your metals separated to the best of your ability, you can proceed with confidence. Some scrap yards will require you to pull up to their doors and unload your metal onto their scale; others may have someone to take it out for you.

It Helps to Know Your Metals

The most challenging part of metal recycling is recognizing what material you are looking at and its value. Know these basic metals and it gets a whole lot easier.

Copper – $$$$

Copper is a reddish color if it is in good condition. If it is a bit worn, it can have a darker brown color with some green rusted areas.

copper pipes

Find a location to recycle copper near you, using the Earth911 Recycling Search — just enter your ZIP code.

Copper is a common material in your home. You may find it as plumbing pipes, roofing materials like gutters, and inside air conditioners. Electrical wires also contain copper; underneath that black or colored plastic insulation is bright colored copper wire. Copper is one of the most valuable metals to recycle. So, separating it from your other metals can earn you some “pat-on-the-back” money for recycling it at your scrap yard.

Aluminum – $

Aluminum is often painted, but unpainted, it is a whitish, silver color. It bends easily if it is thin.

crushed aluminum cans

Find out where to recycle aluminum scrap.

Aluminum cans are often collected and brought to the scrap yards in bulk. But cans are not the only use for this metal. You can find it in many places throughout your house, including gutters, siding, window frames, doors, and more. Although not worth a lot of money at the scrap yard, aluminum can be recycled and used again within a few months. Recycled aluminum saves 80 percent of the energy that was used to make it originally, so it’s important to recycle this metal.

Brass – $$

Brass is yellowish with a hint of red in it and is quite heavy.

brass fittings

Find a location to recycle brass near you.

You can often find brass in hardware like keys, door handles, light fixtures, and bathroom fixtures. Composed of copper and zinc, brass is used often in plumbing fixtures and also at the end of copper piping. A mid-level priced item at a scrap yard, brass can add up quickly in weight because of how dense it is.

Steel – $

Steel often rusts easily and a magnet will stick to it.

steel cable

Find a location near you that recycles steel.

Steel is one of the most common metals used throughout the world. You can find in many places, from your car to chairs, shelves, cabinets, and more.  Unless you have thousands of pounds of it, you won’t get a lot of money for steel at a scrap yard. However, it is still wise to collect it your scrap steel for recycling. Steel is one of the most recycled materials. It can be melted down and reused over and over. Visit the Earth911 Recycling Search to find a scrap metal recycling facility in your area.

Editor’s note: Originally published on June 23, 2016, this article was updated in May 2019.

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