- Fascinating documentary goes behind the scenes of thriving scrap trade
- Sydenham Scrap Metal yard in south London turns over £7million a year
- Boss Michael, 31, says: ‘I’ve no exams but I run a multi-million business’
- Self-employed ‘scrappers’ collect waste from the streets and sell it to him
- Scrappers with lorries earn £800 a day; others with pony and trap just £12
- Getting Rich In The Recession: Scrappers will be on C4 on 28 November
As austerity continues to bite and metal prices soar, the sight of scrap metal men hurling old microwaves into the backs of vans is an increasingly common one.
The job’s not glamorous, but what few realise is that while other industries are struggling, Britain’s scrap metal industry is a thriving, £10billion-a-year business that makes serious money for those who work hard.
A fascinating new documentary lifts the lid on the secret world where the Rolex-wearing, Mercedes-driving scrapyard boss turns over £7million a year, and the rag and bone man makes £12 a day trawling the streets with his pony and cart.
Called Getting Rich In The Recession: Scrappers, the show focuses on the characters who make their living at Sydenham Scrap Metal in south London.
Packed with compacted old cars, vacuum cleaners, cables, washing machines and other sort of metal junk, the yard is a thriving business run by 31-year-old Michael (his surname is not given) and his staff of eight.
The yard turns over 200 tonnes of scrap metal each week and pays out £60,000 a week to an army of self-employed scrappers, who scour London’s streets for rubbish they can turn into cash.
Tattooed Michael, whose grandparents set up the business with just £50 decades ago, now makes millions from his business buying metal from scrappers and selling it on to be recycled.
They use a magnet to sort the metals – if it sticks it’s iron and not worth much, and if it doesn’t it’s precious metal – copper, brass or lead – and worth up to 100 times as much.
Michael said: ‘I started here at 14, no exams, nothing, and I turned over £7m last year. This is my life, but I’m happy.
‘I’m 31. Who runs a multi-million pound business at 31?’
Going straight: Adam has done time for his part in a violent criminal gang – now he makes £700 a day
Family business: Charlie and his grandson Alfie, 15, scour south London in a pony and cart for scrap
One of Michael’s busiest scrappers is Adam, who turned to scrapping after he found it hard to get a job when he got out prison.
Former criminal gang member Adam, 26, said: ‘It was going in houses tying people up to make them open their safes – it was all stockbrokers, footballers, really wealthy rich people.
‘A lot of people got hurt, traumatised by it, things like that.’
Sentenced to 10 years in prison for burglary, theft and possessing prohibited weapon at just 18, Adam got out three years ago after serving five years and now makes up to £800 a day scrapping.
He said: ‘No-one wanted to give me a job. This isn’t what I wanted to do but it’s easy, it’s good money and it’s not really against the law.’
Grandfather and grandson work full-time collecting scrap metal to sell at Sydenham, earning up to £30 a day
Metal theft is a problem that grows alongside the price of metal, and results in lead being taken from churches’ roofs, bronze statues being stolen, and vital cables stripped from railway lines.
One of the UK’s fastest-growing crimes, the problem is barely addressed in the show, but Sydenham Scrap Metal has always refused to buy goods they believe to be stolen.
Keen to stay on the right side of the law, Adam concentrates on working hard to earn as much as he can, getting up early to beat competitors to the old printers and radiators he finds left on the streets overnight.
He said: ‘I don’t really know what a recession is. The most I’ve earned in one day is about £700 or £800, and I can earn up to £100,000 a year.
‘I want the nice things in life. I want to be eating steak three times a week, I want a nice car, I want to buy stuff.’
Form of therapy: Single mother of three Cheryl goes out scrapping all night while her children sleep
Rachel is the scrapyard boss’ fiancee – people ask her if she is a footballer’s wife when she’s out in her car
But Adam said he didn’t see scrap metal as a long-term career for him, and hoped instead to make enough money from his ’embarrassing’ trade to set up on his own as a car dealer.
He said: ‘I don’t want to do this much longer really but I don’t want to go back inside and see my son growing up outside.
‘I’m doing this for him. I want my son to be driving around in a brand new M3 when he’s 18.’
While Adam has a white van, grandfather and grandson scrappers Charlie and Alfie trot through the south London streets in a pony and cart, as their ancestors have done for five generations.
Charlie estimates he makes around £12-14 a day, or maybe up to £29 by collecting old washing machines and saucepans and taking them to the yard.
Dream job: Forklift operator Jamie, 21, used to come to the yard when he was 10 and beg for a job
At 15, Alfie left school last year to work full-time collecting scrap metal with his grandfather and their piebald pony, Crackerjack.
Charlie said: ‘He’s a little bit streetwise so what can you do? Look at the size of him, how can a little teacher tell him what to do?
He added: ‘It’s in the blood. We’re like scavengers.’
Cars are the most prized items to be brought to the yard, as the men enjoy crushing them, but old tumble-dryers from laundrettes are also popular, particularly if they still have coins in them – the record is 880 pound coins in one machine they crushed.
The only female scrapper to visit the yard at Sydenham is Cheryl, a newly-single mother of three in her 30s who goes out scrapping all night when her children sleep to take her mind off her marriage breakdown.
Cheryl, whose father was in the same trade, is undeterred by her male competitors.
She said: ‘Everything that someone throws away is something I can make money from. I’m going to register as self-employed and I’m going to be taking all the scrap from those men.’