“We’re recyclers,” Johnson said succinctly, looking at the thousands of cans in the back of the trailer. “That’s a whole lot of litter not on the side of the road and not filling up landfills.”
This morning, the Can Man and his assistant, Jimmy Gaston, wait for customers in their normal spot, a lot south of Legend’s Car Wash on Sparta Pike, about a quarter mile north of Interstate 40. They wait here from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Scales hang from the back of the truck where Johnson makes his transactions. He runs the operation for Murfreesboro businessman Bart Dodson.
Around 10 a.m., farmer Billy Jack Tubb and his great-grandson, Desmond Minter, 12, a sixth grader at Castle Heights Upper Elementary, pull up in a pickup truck. They unload a passel of plastic bags filled with cans and observe the scales carefully as Johnson weighs the bags. However far the needle tips determines how much money Minter will make after about a year of saving cans from around the house and picking them up at his great-grandfather’s farm.
“They talk about recycling all the time. That it’s good to pick them up. They cost money to buy, but you can sell them and make money back off of them,” Minter said.
Today, the lad will pocket $7.50 for 30 pounds of aluminum beverage cans.
It’s “easy money” he said, but with the Can Man only paying 25 cents a pound that translates into eight-tenths of a penny per can. (It takes approximately 32 12-ounce soda cans to make a pound.)
Pulling up next with six months’ accumulation of aluminum cans is Randy Hutson of Lebanon. He has been cashing in his cans to the Can Man for a couple of years.
“When I first started they were bringing pretty good money, 45 or 50 cents a pound,” said Hutson, who today rakes in $14.50. “But with gas prices where they are today, every little bit helps.”
Johnson said the price of aluminum goes up and down daily. In the past year it has ranged from 15 cents to 30 cents a pound.
He said anywhere from two dozen to four dozen customers come every Saturday as he pulls in from 500 to 800 pounds of aluminum, be it cans or scrap aluminum.
“I’ve had ’em lined down the street waiting to drop. It really depends on the weather. If it’s nice and warm, they’re waiting on me,” said the Can Man, who is a mechanic on weekdays.
He enjoys the Saturday morning enterprise, mostly just visiting with people. “They pull up. We have a good conversation. Then they go their way and I go mine,” he said.
Every three weeks or so, the Can Man transports his cans to sell to a bigger recycling outfit dictated by whichever one is paying the best prices. Those companies reside in Murfreesboro, Tracy City, Columbia and Nashville.
As for what happens to aluminum cans after the Can Man has done all he can? They go to material recovery facilities where the cans are compressed into dense briquettes or thousand-pound bales.
The bales are shipped to companies where the condensed cans are shredded, crushed and stripped of decoration. The small pieces of aluminum are then placed into melting furnaces and blended with new, virgin aluminum.
After the metal cooks, it is shipped to aluminum can manufacturers, which produce can bodies and lids that are delivered to beverage distribution companies to be filled.
Feature Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.