Making Money from Recycling: How to Maximize Earnings with Scrap Metal

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Metal recyclingOnly a small percentage of people work with some type of metal or make a living collecting and selling scrap metal. This prevents the average person from knowing how to maximize the value when recycling metal products.

There are a few simple guidelines that will enable you to sort copper, aluminum, stainless steel, brass, lead, cast iron and steel so they can be organized into separate batches and your local recycler can weigh them individually and subsequently pay full value. Making the job easier for the recycler is how you’ll maximize your earnings, since this cuts costs for them.

Identify Types of Metals with Magnets

The most valuable "tool" to start with is a hand-held magnet. It will stick to steel and cast iron, which are the lowest-value metals and known in the trade by the term "ferrous metal" - that basically means they have iron (chemical symbol-Fe) content. You have probably seen a show on television where large circular magnets with a flat bottom hang from a crane and lift scrap iron, moving it from one area to another. To demonstrate this at home, take a small magnet, hold it over some steel paper clips or nails, and watch how it grabs onto them, even snatching them up off the table before touching them.

A magnet will not stick to the more valuable "non-ferrous" grades of metal. This is most important to know when separating metal gutters and siding stripped from buildings, food or beverage cans and similar light-weight items that make it hard to feel the difference in weight between steel and aluminum. If you had a one-inch thick piece of steel plate and aluminum plate measuring 1 foot square, you would quickly notice the difference in weight between the pieces when picking them up - not so with thin material. So when using the magnet on the afore-mentioned items, anything that does not stick is usually aluminum. Anything that sticks is steel.

Stainless Steel

The same is true for stainless steel - it's only a valuable grade when it does not stick. It is hard to tell stainless from aluminum, because both have a silvery color. Stainless steel, like normal steel, is substantially heavier than aluminum and harder to bend or dent with a hammer. If it feels light-weight and easy to deform, it is probably aluminum.

Non-Ferrous Metals

The following metals are non-ferrous and don't stick to a magnet. Copper is golden-brown colored and used for plumbing and electrical wire. The appearance of brass ranges from a bronze, or reddish-gold color, to yellow. Sometimes it is coated with a silver-colored metal like tin, but you can see the bronze or yellow by cutting through the surface with a file or sturdy knife.


Lead is a dark gray metal, denser than steel. You can feel its heavy weight when holding it in your hand. It is usually soft enough to bend with your hands unless you have an extremely thick piece of it. One fun test of lead is to chop the piece in half, then take the freshly-cut area and rub it on white paper. It will actually leave a grey mark similar to what a pencil makes when you are writing.

Using this information will help you sort these metals into separate batches so the more valuable grades don't get mixed in with a pile of iron and bought at a really cheap price. The result will be more money in your pocket when you recycle.

Dave Fusselman is the owner of Fusselman Salvage, a used metal recycling center located in Moberly, MO. For a list and more information on different types of metal recycling, visit their website.

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