From Part-Time Pop-Top Job to a Piano

RMlogo From Part-Time Pop-Top Job to a Piano

Summer 1986 – Our first recycling machine compressed the cans into 24-inch long, rectangular blocks (or something like that). We raked the cans from the caged wagon into a large pit. Then we ran them up a conveyor to drop into our compacting machine. The last step was a little door opening, and a block would come out. We stacked a hundred or so of these blocks into a large bale. We banded them together and used a forklift to place the bundles on a tractor-trailer. From there, we shipped them to Tennessee.

Now For the Good Part

Before making the cans into blocks, we ran them across a big magnet that would pull out all the steel and other items our customers tried to sneak into their bags to get more weight. They were sneaky. I used to say that they brought in everything but the kitchen sink. Then one customer tried to sneak kitchen faucet parts into his bag. Wet jeans and books were popular.

Then they went through a “pre-crusher.” This process caused many of the pop-tops to snap off and fall into a 55-gallon drum underneath. The steel and other debris, i.e., paper, cigarettes, and dirt, were also collected in the barrels. Once the barrel was full, I would haul it to the back and dump the debris on the floor. This process happened every day or two, depending on the traffic.

James, my non-smiling predecessor, taught me how to sift the pop-tops to make a profit. It was one of the ways we stayed awake. After he went back to Louisiana, I spent my first summer salvaging pop-tops. It worked like this.

Profiting from Pop-Tops

I had a frame, like a tabletop, which was on four wooden legs. But instead of a solid table, there was a steel mesh that sifted the cigarettes, dirt, paper, and other debris. I shoveled all the debris out of the barrel, and onto my makeshift mesh table. After filtering the junk through the mesh and onto the floor, the only things that did not fall through were the pop-tops and cigarette butts.

I scooped the butts and tops into another drum that was full of water. The butts would float, and the pop-tops would sink. I hand-scooped the butts from the top of the water and threw them on the ground with the other debris. I used the forklift to pick up the barrel of water with clean pop-tops and poured them back onto the wire mess table. I then sifted out any remaining debris.

Yes, it was a huge mess.

And it smelled to high heaven.

I then put the clean pop-tops in large, plastic bags, and stacked them in a corner. Each bag was five feet tall, which was significantly heavy when filled with metal pop-tops. I have no idea how many zillions of pop-tops I sifted and cleaned that summer. I do remember it being more than 600 pounds when we loaded them into the van to take to the recycler.

It took all summer but well worth it. We made over $300 cash from my part-time pop-top job, which we used to buy a piano.

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.