Piano and Pop Tops

The original machine we had for packaging our aluminum cans was a crushing type machine. We would send the cans up a conveyor belt and they would drop into a large bucket and then down into a compactor and would be compressed into a cube. They would come out a small door and slide down a trough where we would pick them up, stack them in a bale and then strap them together into a multi-cube bale to be picked up by a forklift and placed on an eighteen wheeler.

As part of the crushing and refining process the cans would go up the conveyor, over a magnet to pull out the steel cans and then before they dropped into the compactor they would be slightly crushed and the debris (paper, cigarettes and other dirt) would fall into a 55-gallon drum. This slight crushing process typically caused the pop tops to snap off the can and fall into the “debris” barrel. Once the barrel was full I would take it out back and dump it. This happened about every day or so.

I got to thinking that if I could salvage the pop tops I could sell them and make a profit since they were being thrown away anyway. This was something the former worker was doing. It also kept us awake during the day since there was not a whole lot to do. Therefore, I spent the entire summer salvaging pop tops. It worked this way:

I had a framed table top on four legs that was about 4 feet high. The top of the table had a screen mess type of metal where I could shovel the debris out of the barrel onto the table. Much of the dirt would immediately fall through the screen mesh table top onto the ground. The mesh was small enough to where the tabs could not go through. What was left on the table top was pop tops, which I wanted, small pieces of paper, rocks, a few other small objects and scores and scores of cigarette butts. Pop tops and cigarette butts were the main things left. Once all of the dirt was hand-sifted out I would pour the remainder of the material on the table into a 55-gallon drum of water. The pop tops would go to the bottom of the barrel and the cigarette butts would float on top of the barrel. I would sift (hand scoop) the butts off the top and throw them to the ground. I would then take a forklift to pick up the barrel of water and clean pop tops and pour them back onto the wire mess table. I could then sift out any remaining debris. Then I would take the pop tops and put them in large thick plastic bags and stack them in the corner. These bags were about 5 feet high. They were huge and very heavy. Once I had a vanload, which was over 600 pounds I had Penny take them to a buyer and we made enough money to buy a piano. It took all summer, was a bit of dirty fun and well worth it. I made over $300 cash for my part-time job.

Alcoa Recycling

Dr. Clark was a big help. He gave me a recommendation for a job opportunity with a “mom-n-pop” recycling organization. I visited one of the two employees that worked for this company. It was located at the White Horse Road Fairgrounds. He was an out-going senior who was going back to Louisiana after graduation. (Not “out-going” in that he was full of joy. He told me that Jesus never smiled and we shouldn’t either. He was a lot of fun!!) He said I could have the job if I wanted it, but I needed to come down in May rather than some time later. He was leaving and they needed somebody. He said he worked there for four years and never did any of his homework outside of the workplace. He said he could have two or three customers in an eight hour day. It seemed like a remarkable opportunity. I took the job and planned to move down in May.

Penny could not quit her job until later in the summer. We worked at the same place, TransAmerica Delaval. She quit in June/July and then moved down with the kids. I lived in a small apartment during that time. We found a house a few miles away, but it was not going to be ready until later in the summer. I felt some pressure about getting the house but thought since our life was changing so much it might help the situation. I don’t know if the pressure was self-derived or externally derived. The house was more than what we needed and could really afford. It seemed like the right thing to do and I hoped we could swing it. We moved in during the late summer. Both of us were making $20.00 per hour in 1986 combined. After we quit our jobs and moved to Greenville I was the only one working making $5.00 per hour.

Work went great! I had virtually no customers that first summer. Not only that, but the owners sold the business to Alcoa Recycling within the first week or two that I was hired. I got immediate benefits and a raise. Alcoa bought the company because during the 80’s they were trying to raise the recyclability of the aluminum can. This small plant was a marketing tool. The recycling rate was under 50% in those days and only a minority of people was on-board with recycling in our country. By 1993, when they closed the plant, the recycling rate was over 70%. We had worked ourselves out of a job so to speak. It was a fun job. I worked there through college and on into 1993 when they shut the plant down due to down-sizing.

I began waiting on the public when they brought in a bag of aluminum cans to sell. It took about 24 cans to make a pound and the rate was anywhere from .25 to .65 cents per pound. It varied in price for many reasons. Alcoa began to promote more and I became busier, but never so busy to where I couldn’t do my homework onsite and they were okay with that. In addition, we owned Golden Goats and Can Banks in 11 (I think) locations from Cheraw, Woodruff, Gaffeney, Pelzer, Fountain Inn and more. People would bring their cans and put them in the machine. It would weigh them and “spit” out the appropriate change. Two or three times per week the big wagon would come with several thousand pounds of cans which we unloaded by shovel, crushed and blew on a tractor trailer to be shipped to Maryville, TN.