Alyce Dunn has been collecting scrap metal to take to recycling centers for close to 25 years.
The first time she went to a scrap yard she was helping other people turn in a large bag of cans. Just by saving their own beverage containers over the winter, they made $150.
It was a light-bulb moment for Dunn, whose business cards now read "Alyce the Garbologist."
"I said, 'Whoa, cans are everywhere!' That's money on the street," Dunn said.
Dunn works daily collecting scrap metal to sell for a profit. Usually she travels within Kane County but goes as far north as southern Wisconsin. Rather than sweeping through random alleys before the garbage trucks rumble through, Dunn takes calls from regular customers, monitors the garbage bins of companies that give her exclusive access, and drops off business cards wherever she sees construction.
In many cases, people appreciate the services of scrappers like Dunn because it saves them space in their bins they rent for other trash.
Rising prices for scrap metal and high unemployment have encouraged more and more people to turn to the type of scavenging Dunn has performed for decades. Recycling centers across the region have seen the trend.
"People are more inclined to save aluminum cans when they need extra money," said Barry Segal, who opened St. Charles Scrap Metal in 1974 and Lake County Scrap Metal in 1981.
And the price is right for people who choose to recycle more than just cans.
Bob Conroy owns Elgin Recycling with centers in Palatine, Crystal Lake and Gilberts as well as Elgin. Five years ago Conroy said people could get only $50 to $100 a ton for iron. Now it's closer to $300 or $400.
Same story with copper -- Conroy said 10 years ago it was only 80 cents per pound, but now it sells for up to $4.
"It costs so much to refine the raw materials into something we can use," Conroy said. "The recycling takes a lot less energy."
Dunn takes most of her collection back to Conroy's Gilberts facility. She said some days it's coal, some diamonds, in terms of her finds, but overall she can make enough to survive as a full-time scrapper.
The Gilberts scrap yard is the largest of Conroy's recycling centers and the one in which his employees sort and process all the ferrous and nonferrous metals and materials, electronics, paper and plastics.
Conroy started collecting metal in much the way Dunn and other scrappers do today. Before the multiple locations, he went around in his own truck with a scale paying for scrap metal to sell. For him, the recycling philosophy is a deeper, moral one about the environment.
"Eventually you can run out of all these natural resources," Conroy said. "That's why it's so important not to throw these into a landfill but to recycle."
But the reputation of the scrap metal industry is often tarnished by people breaking into homes that are either vacant or under construction and stealing copper pipes. Others have been arrested on charges of stealing hundreds of brass funeral urns from cemeteries.
Then there is the growing parade of old pickup trucks with plywood sides scouring the neighborhoods the evening before garbage day.
People in some communities don't like that. Some municipalities don't like the effect they have on the streets.
In Carpentersville, for instance, trucks licensed at more than 10,000 pounds cannot park in town. Taking scrap metal from recycling bins or off curbsides is a code violation. Village President Ed Ritter said scrapper trucks cause more wear and tear on the roads and make it hard for other drivers to see around them.
And beyond that, they're taking recyclable material -- and therefore money -- away from the waste company with which the village contracts.
"They take the best stuff before the garbage company can go and pick it up," Ritter said.
Schaumburg and West Chicago are two other communities with similar rules against picking up recycling at the curb. But Julie Fitzgerald, director of community development in Schaumburg, said there haven't been problems prompting special enforcement.
When it comes to stolen materials making their way to recycling centers, David Wong, director of operations at Red Line Metals in Lombard, said a state law that went into effect in January 2009 has helped keep the illegal activity down. The law requires recycling centers to make copies of the photo IDs of anyone selling more than $100 worth of material as well as document descriptions of the metal being returned. Police officers then can request that information to follow up on any major thefts.
Across the scrap metal industry people say the thefts are a tiny minority of activity. Even so, "garbologist" Alyce Dunn said the missteps of some make it harder for legitimate scrappers like her.
"That's why I have a business card and that's why I ask before I take anything," she said.
When Dunn started collecting scrap metal to recycle, she lived in Elgin and often made the rounds catching choice items before garbage trucks arrived. Then the field got too crowded as more and more people started keeping similar schedules.
Now she lives in Hebron in McHenry County but maintains the contacts she has developed over the years in Kane County, returning to Conroy's Gilberts facility several times each week.
John Alesi, of JA General Construction in Huntley, sells his own scrap metal to recycling centers instead of allowing scrappers like Dunn to do the work for him. Alesi said he often has steel or aluminum scraps to recycle, depending on the job he is working on. For him, recycling is a far better option than filling the large garbage containers he pays for at his work sites.
"Instead of paying to dump it, you get paid to dump it," Alesi said.
In 2010 the scrap recycling industry processed more than 130 million metric tons of materials, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. That includes metals processed at recycling centers throughout the country. In Illinois alone, ISRI estimates the economic impact of scrap recycling industries to be $5 billion.
Call it the original "green" industry if you will, but people like Dunn call it their livelihood.
"I'll be doing this until the day they plant me," Dunn said. "Until I can't do it anymore. And I learn something new every day. It's just another way of life."