A glimpse into the world of North Fork metal hunters

Ms. Horton jumps up on a dumpster looking for metal discarded during a house renovation in Greenport. (Credit: Cyndi Murray)
Stephanie Horton jumps up on a dumpster looking for metal discarded during a house renovation in Greenport. (Credit: Cyndi Murray)

It’s 6 a.m. on a cold winter morning in Greenport. While most of the village sleeps, Stephanie Horton is on the move in her purple ’96 Chevy Suburban.

Her mission? Metal.

Ms. Horton, 23, is a scrapper. She spends her days cruising side roads, back alleys and main drags in search of scrap metal, her primary source of income. 

She bundles up in a jacket featuring a camouflage pattern matching the fabric that lines the worn seats of her aging truck. Armed with convenience store coffee, hitting the streets early is a common occurrence for Ms. Horton. After all, the early bird gets the worm.

Unlike a 9-to-5 job, Ms. Horton doesn’t punch a time clock or collect a paycheck each week. She gets paid by the truckload. But she doesn’t waste the nearly $30 in fuel it takes to get paid by driving to and from Crown Recycling Facility without filling her 20-foot trailer to the brim with scrap metal. Then, and only then, will she cash in.

“I wake up early, especially when I know businesses are throwing things out,” she said. “You have to learn those schedules because some days there is just regular garbage pick-up, but other days people can throw out whatever they want, like wood or metal.”

Ms. Horton is hardly alone in her quest for metal. Nationwide, the scrap recycling industry benefits more than 460,000 people in the form of payrolled employees or independent scrappers like Ms. Horton, according to a recent study by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. In fact, the total economic activity generated by scrap recycling in the United States is $87.4 billion annually. Those figures, the study states, rival those of the nation’s cosmetics, milk and aircraft engine industries.

Greenport is a testament to the industry’s popularity. Nearly a dozen people regularly scrap in the areas in and around the village alone, Ms. Horton said.

One of the reasons the hamlet is so sought-after by scrappers is because there are numerous businesses and residential homes located within close proximity of each other, she said.

“We are all civil to each other, but there is a lot of competition,” Ms. Horton said. “There are so many scrappers in Greenport I think people know that if they throw something out, someone will pick it up in 20 minutes.

“If I go to a site and I see metal, I’ll ask about it,” she continued. “Sometimes the owner will tell me, ‘Oh, so-and-so is already picking it up.’ That’s frustrating.”

Committing garbage pickup days to memory and, more importantly, arriving before sanitation workers do is essential to gaining an advantage over fellow scrappers, Ms. Horton said.

On a recent ride with a Suffolk Times reporter, Ms. Horton left her trailer at home; the back of her Suburban would cut it for the morning rounds. She wasn’t expecting to come across any big items, since winter is a traditionally slow time of year for scrapping.

First, Ms. Horton checked her usual spots in Greenport Village: the trash receptacles at Preston’s on Main Street and the dumpsters behind Front Street businesses.

As anticipated, she came up empty.

The ride was far from over, though, as checking the dumpsters of local businesses marks just the beginning of Ms. Horton’s treasure hunts. She slowly traveled along residential streets, her eyes peeled as country music played on the radio. Should the need arise, Ms. Horton even keeps a pair of binoculars in her glove compartment to better observe objects in the distance.

She took her time rolling down side roads to inspect homes that may have put a microwave or refrigerator on the curb overnight. She takes special notice of houses undergoing renovation.

“People usually throw out old stoves, washing machines, a lot of stuff,” Ms. Horton said as she jumped onto a dumpster outside a house that was being remodeled. “I’ve already talked to these people about going through their dumpster.”