My Affair with the Aluminum Can Begins

RMlogo My Affair with the Aluminum Can Begins

February 1986 – Dr. Clark, the dean of the Bible college, was a huge 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 there. Thankfully, it was only a couple of miles from the school, at the White Horse Road Fairgrounds.

The guy working there was a graduating senior who was going back to Louisiana in a few months. He was not an outgoing dude. I remember him telling me that Jesus never smiled, and we shouldn’t either. Boom! There you have it. Let’s just say that he was not a lot of fun to work with for the few weeks that we were together.

Jesus wept!

You’re Hired

The interview process was extensive and comprehensive: he said that I could have the job if I wanted it, but I needed to come down in May because he was leaving after graduation. All righty, then. His name was James.

The upside is that he worked there the four years of school. And, it gets better: he did all of his homework while at work. James said that they had two or three customers a day. It seemed like a remarkable opportunity. I took the job and planned to move to Greenville in May.

The Transition

My wife could not quit her job until the summer, or that is what she told me. I found out afterward she had a relationship with a guy—possibly from Ohio, whom she met while he visited our plant in Monroe. I will never know for sure the real reason she had to stay, but that’s okay; it’s murky water under an old bridge.

Both of us worked for TransAmerica Delaval. I’m not sure if that company still exists today or if it continues to be part of the TransAmerica Corporation subsidiaries, headquartered in San Francisco. She did quit her job in mid-summer and moved down with our two children.

I lived in a small apartment during this transition time, which was across the street from the church and school. I walked to our church meetings, which was nice. We did find a house a few miles away, but it was not going to be ready until later in the summer. The gentleman who rented it was named, Mr. Pepper. We called him Dr. Pepper. I liked him.

I did feel the pressure of finding a home quickly because our life was changing so rapidly. I thought it would soften the “transitional blows” if we had a nice place to live. The house we found was much more than we needed or could afford. It was huge. At the time, it felt right, and I prayed that we could swing it. (I made it right in my head, which is what a person does when ignoring the Spirit of God.)

We moved officially in mid-summer. I had been there already for two months, working, attending church, and settling into the new situation. We were making $20 per hour combined at our jobs with Delaval. After we quit and moved to Greenville, I was the only one working at $5 per hour. That can’t go wrong, right?

The Aluminum Can and Me

As far as the job, James was right; it was ideal that first summer. I had tons of time and only had to fight to stay awake during the day. But it got better. Within two weeks of starting, the owners sold the business to the Alcoa Corporation. We became a subsidiary, officially dubbed the Alcoa Recycling Company.


Alcoa bought the company during the ’80s because they were trying to raise the recyclability of the aluminum can. This small plant became a marketing tool. The recycling rate was under 50% in those days, and only a few folks were 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. Regardless, it was a fun job. I worked there through college and into 1993 until they closed the plant due to downsizing.

My job was to receive aluminum cans from the public and to raise awareness about recycling. It takes 24 of them to make a pound, and the going rate was between .25 and .65 cents per pound. The price per pound varied due to market trends, as well as competitive pricing with other recyclers in the area.

Alcoa began to promote more, and I became busier, but never so busy to where I couldn’t do my homework at work. And they were okay with it as long as I did my job. It was low-key and low expectations.

Jesus smiled.

Feeding the Goats

In addition to our little plant, we also owned eleven Golden Goats and Can Banks. Think ATMs. These machines were set up around the upstate where folks could bring their cans, place them in a Golden Goat, and receive money in return. Think soda machine, but backward. You put your money in a soda machine, and it gives you a soda. People would put their cans in a “goat,” and it would spit out coins.

Two or three times per week, a big, caged wagon about the size of a tractor-trailer would come with several thousand pounds of cans, which we unloaded by shovel, crushed, and blew into an actual tractor-trailer that we shipped to Maryville, TN.

I had no idea that in seven years, I would lose a home, job, wife, and children, and be picking up aluminum cans on the side of roads so I could collect a few coins to buy a burger. The times were changing.