Making scrap metal great again
HOUSTON — It isn’t easy to see a bright side to a hurricane’s destruction. But in the mountains of metal piling up in Dennis Laviage’s scrap yard, a sense of a silver lining emerges in the sheen of aluminum.
The Dallas Morning News reports Laviage is better known as the scrap metal king of Houston, and after Harvey, he had to order a new half-million-dollar cutting machine just to keep up with the work. It can’t get here soon enough, said the owner of C&D Scrap Metal Recyclers.
In his yard stand mountains of bed frames, refrigerators, heating ducts, stoves, twisted metal roofs and other storm debris from Harvey. Mud-caked automobiles arrive every day.
So he needs a new cutting machine to pair with the other one in his yard that just sliced through an old Brinks truck like it was a watermelon. “This is all hurricane material,” Laviage, 62, said as he stood watching his employees cut and smash junk into tight silvery squares of metal.
“I’d say business is up about 35 percent,” said Laviage, who said he usually processes about a thousand tons of scrap a week.
Most of the increase is from stuff he wouldn’t normally be getting, such as refrigerators. Unfortunately for him, some of them still contain food. He’s sympathetic to people rushing to get bad refrigerators out of their homes. But by the time a fridge full of food gets to his yard, “it’s a biohazard,” he said. “I’m not equipped to be a disposal for old food.”
The Houston native has been in the scrap metal business for nearly 40 years. He’s seen hurricanes come and go, but nothing as destructive as the storm that has hobbled southeast Texas over the last month. “I’ve never seen water rise like it rose this time in my entire life,” he said.
Laviage grew up in the Meyerland neighborhood of Houston, which has now flooded three times in three years. “I play poker over there with three guys,” he said. “They all lost their homes.”
He lives near downtown Houston at the top of a layered 15-foot slope. “If the water had come up another 2 feet it would have been in my house.”
He’s not sure there’s enough space in area landfills to handle all the city’s trash left by Harvey. “There’s an overabundance,” he said. Irma Reyes, a spokeswoman with the city’s solid waste management department, said there is enough landfill space in the Houston-Galveston region to handle all the debris.
A lot of it is still sitting on the curb waiting to be picked up. But he can’t just drive by and pick it up. “Here in Houston, once it gets put out on the curb, it becomes city property. No one can drive by and legally take their metal products. That’s against the law and it’s theft.”
Laviage, who calls himself the “scrap metal king of Houston,” has a higher profile in the Houston community than your average scrap metal businessman. He’s well known for paying his customers in $2 bills. Recently he had red T-shirts printed that said, “Make Scrap Great Again.”
Laviage’s dad was in the scrap metal business, too, and he prides himself on his deep roots and love of his community, especially its sports teams. His office building is decorated with sports memorabilia from the Rockets basketball team and the Astros baseball team — he’s been a corporate sponsor for both.
But he’s got a lot of competition in the scrap metal business. When he opened his business in 1979, there were 24 scrap metal companies in Houston. When the price of metals peaked about 10 years ago, there were almost 200 scrap yards. The recession and then a decline in demand from China hurt the scrap market, and the number of companies has dropped to about 80, Laviage said.
To stay competitive he recently moved to a new location on a larger property — almost 8 acres — and modernized his facility. It cost him $7.5 million to put it together, he said. “I’ve got one of the cleanest, best organized yards in the country, and I’m not shy about putting that out there,” he said.
He sells a lot of his metal in the state of Texas, including copper to Oncor in McKinney. Scrap yards like his help the economy, Laviage said. “If you don’t recycle, then our prices will go up on everything.”
He understands that he’s benefiting from the bad luck of others. But he thinks that his city’s recovery will produce a booming economy that will benefit everyone in the long run.
“As bad and as serious as the storm was, I think Houston will ultimately benefit,” he said. “Between the automobile dealerships, the appliance stores, the construction workers, the plumbers, the electricians, the mattress people, there’s no doubt in my mind that their business will increase, maybe double,” he said.
“Because every person that lost an appliance needs a new one,” he said.
In the short run, he said, “I’m going to make more money than I anticipated. It’s a sad situation what’s happened here,” he said. “But it’s evident it’s going to help everyone ultimately.”