Investigate

Who are those men going through your bin?

25 January 2017
A scavenger with a trolley full of scrap metal

Spain’s recent financial crisis has had a profound effect on young people, but its impact on older working-age men is often overlooked by the media. Even before the crisis hit, traditional trades were already threatening to become obsolete. Then, when the work dried up in 2008, many traditional tradesmen found themselves unable to learn new skills because of either their age or financial obstacles. Some went on to make their living by scavenging the streets for metal.

Scrap metal is a profitable business that requires no skills or qualifications – just physical strength and a magnet. And, as it doesn’t require you to speak the local language, it often attracts out-of-work migrants from all over the world.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and, to a scrap collector, the streets of Madrid are paved with gold.

HOW IT WORKS

At the very bottom of the scrap-metal food chain come the ‘scavengers’. You’ve probably spotted these guys rummaging through skips, recycling bins and private bins, plying the streets with supermarket trollies containing wires and parts of old appliances. They’re collecting discarded scrap metal to take to a chatarrería, where they can exchange it for money.

A scavenger with a trolley full of scrap metal

A scavenger with a trolley full of scrap metal

Spain has cleaned up its act in recent years but, as many of you will have noticed, people still routinely throw unwanted belongings onto the street right in front of their building. There is a system for this: if you call the council on 010, they will come and collect these objects in an open-top van. But, if the scrappers get there first, the treasure is theirs.

A chatarrero on the hunt for scrap metal

A chatarrero on the hunt for scrap metal

One small Lavapiés business has done fairly well out of the recent crisis, and it’s a no-frills business – of course. Mayorista de Chatarra is a local scrap metal dealer’s that’s been going strong for over 100 years, and especially for the last ten.

The scavengers bring the local dealer at Mayorista de Chatarra their haul of today’s scrap, then the chatarrero goes through it with a magnet – if it sticks, it’s probably iron and is almost worthless. If it doesn’t stick, it’s either aluminium or copper or – even better – silver or gold. Once the metal is sorted, the chatarrero weighs it and writes out a cheque.

The chatarrería scales and decades of licenses

The chatarrería scales and decades of licenses

The scrap is then sold on in bulk to a much larger dealer, for a reasonable profit, before being shipped to the new industrial capitals of the world in India and China. Once there, the scrap is melted down and recycled for use in everything from microchips to ships.

ILLEGAL SCRAP

The industry has a dark side, with a lot of scrap metal being stolen from private property such as houses or railway lines. After Madrid’s construction boom, newly built streets or even entire neighbourhoods were left unoccupied and unmaintained, and this is where many thefts now take place. But how can you rob an empty house? Answer: the properties are riddled with wiring and pipes, and the absence of security cameras, occupants or neighbours means that thieves can strip the walls, ceilings and floors without fear of being caught copper-handed.

Old motors and engines precariously piled into the corner

Old motors and engines precariously piled into the corner

Police often make visits to the scrap dealer’s to trace stolen metal. If dealers pay their scavengers with a cheque, this creates a paper trail that ultimately deters any dodgy scrappers from collecting illegally.

There’s also a grey area when it comes to scrap metal licences. Although anyone can take an old pan or bashed up filing cabinet to a scrap metal dealer’s and get a bit of money for it, regular collectors need a licence. As many scavengers don’t have one, I’ve purposely avoided showing the face of anyone dealing scrap.

STEP INSIDE (BUT BE CAREFUL)

Perhaps you’re after something specific? An antique chandelier, a 1950s radiator, an antenna for your ghetto blaster, a bell for your bike, a car part, or even an engine. If you’re willing to artfully dodge your way through the labyrinth of precarious piles, you can find anything and everything in this rusty 100-square-metre treasure trove.

At the back of Mayorista de Chatarra

At the back of Mayorista de Chatarra

Right at the back of the store, I found a dusty, ponytailed man kneeling on the floor and excitedly dismantling an old fridge. With a wide grin on his face, he looked as though he was about to snatch a copper pearl from inside a giant, galvanised oyster. Nearby, a workbench stood laden with enough power tools to cure even the most serious mid-life crisis. The chatarrero seemed to enjoy his job.

Reels of copper wire stacked in front of the tool bench

Reels of copper wire stacked in front of the tool bench

RECYCLE YOUR METAL

Next time you’ve got some metal to throw out, consider taking it to Mayorista de Chatarra to see what you can get for it. You never know – it might be reincarnated into your next mobile phone.

INFO

  • Address: Ronda de Valencia, 4
  • Nearest metro: Embajadores
  • Opening hours: 9 am – 2 pm / 5 pm – 8 pm

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