"Recycling" the Bricks of St. Louis: Coming to a Town Near You

brick rustling st louis photo

Image: Rob Powers, Built St. Louis

Two years ago, when gas was expensive and resources were in demand, we talked not only of Peak Oil but also of Peak Metal, Peak Copper and wrote posts with titles like Meth Heads Go For Recycling. Not much of that is happening right now as the recession has wiped out the economics of both legal and illegal recycling, but like gas prices, this will come back. One of the most extraordinary examples of the extremes that people went to during the last round of resource shortages are these photographs of St. Louis, where bricks are being "recycled" from standing buildings.

brick rustling in action st louis photo

"Note the man in the white shirt -- he's chiseling out an opening in the bottom of the sidewall. That wall will come tumbling down after a bit more of this, and the rustlers will simply walk out and pick up the bricks"Rob Powers, Built St. Louis

"Recycling" Bricks

These photos were taken by Rob Powers as part of his thesis and interest in the destruction of the architecture of St. Louis; He writes:

In 1890, St. Louis was the fourth largest city in America. Today it's ranked 48th.

In 1950, there were almost 900,000 people living inside the city limits. Today that same land is home to only 300,000. That's out of two and a half million people in the metro area.

A hundred years ago, fifty, even 30 years ago, the city was full of life, the streets vibrant and bustling, the neighborhoods full of people and activity. But today you can walk around many of the streets in the old city and they're empty. Nobody's there. Four decades of urban decay have left the city of St. Louis, Missouri with some of America's most devastated urban landscapes.

brick rustling st louis side of building photo

He describes his discovery of Montgomery Avenue:

Seeing the astonishing events on the 1900 block of Montgomery, I had a sudden realization. The most bizarrely and completely devastated buildings I'd seen in the last year... they had not collapsed.

They had been harvested.

brick rustling bungalow st louis photo

Image: Rob Powers, Built St. Louis

More at Rob Powers' Built St. Louis

In his dystopian novel World Made By Hand, Jim Kunstler describes the operation of the shopping experience of the future at the "general supply":

He has a large crew out there systematically digging up all the old landfill and sorting out valuables, especially glass, plastic containers, hinges, screws and nails, anything that can be reused. He sent other crews around the countryside to disassemble abandoned houses for their materials. Back in the glory days of the suburban expansion, many split-level houses had been bout on roadside out-parcels far way from the towns, the stores and the jobs. The people who built them expected to be able to drive cars everywhere to work and meet their daily needs forever. Now with the population so far down, and many empty houses in town itself, and the oil gone, and no ability to drive heroic distances, these buildings had no value except for salvage.

But Kunstler could be writing history rather than fiction here. Now that oil is rising in price again, what will follow?

harvesting metal photo

Spencer Platt/ Getty Images

"Recycling" Scrap

Back in the boom, we were shipping $61 Billion in scrap to China each year. That may well be over because of the price of shipping as gas prices come back; Economist Jeff Rubin writes in his new book Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller:

Long before the recession blew up the US steel market, Chinese exports fell and US steel production was up, All of a sudden American steel producers were winning back their home market. Who would have thought that triple-digit oil prices could breathe new life into America's Rust Belt?

More in Planet Green: Peak Metal

"Recycling" Copper

copper theft billboard photo


We wrote earlier about what happens when thieves take copper from the wrong places:

* According to open-source reporting, on 4 April 2008, five tornado warning sirens in the Jackson, Mississippi, area did not warn residents of an approaching tornado because copper thieves had stripped the sirens of copper wiring, thus rendering them inoperable.

* According to open-source reporting, on 20 March 2008, nearly 4,000 residents in Polk County, Florida, were left without power after copper wire was stripped from an active transformer at a Tampa Electric Company (TECO) power facility. Monetary losses to TECO were approximately $500,000.

* According to agricultural industry reporting, as of March 2007, farmers in Pinal County, Arizona , were experiencing a copper theft epidemic as perpetrators stripped copper from their water irrigation wells and pumps resulting in the loss of crops and high replacement costs. Pinal County’s infrastructure loss due to copper theft was $10 million.

More on Copper theft:
Better Late Than Never: Copper Thieves on FBI Radar
Meth Heads Go For Recycling
Verizon Gets Out of The Copper Business


"Recycling" Platinum

And don't forget catalytic converters, stolen for both their platinum value and for the stolen parts industry. John wrote in Platinum Theft: More On Recycling's Dark Side:

Platinum is more valuable than gold, and the contents of a typical converter are worth $40 to $50 to scrap-metal dealers.

Some thieves use saws, but the preferred weapon in Southern California is a ratchet with a 14-millimeter socket. The thief crawls under the car and unfastens the bolts holding the converter, a process that accomplished crooks can complete in 90 seconds.

locking manhole cover Philadelphia photo

Installing lock on manhole cover; Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

If the economy stays in the tank and we go into Kunstlerland, the meth heads will still be running the scrap business and Philadelphia will still be locking down its manhole covers. If the economy comes back as economist Jeff Rubin predicts, we will be living in a different, smaller world. Either way, somehow we have to get control of this or we will have a lot more places like St. Louis.

"Recycling" the Bricks of St. Louis: Coming to a Town Near You
Two years ago, when gas was expensive and resources were in demand, we talked not only of Peak Oil but also of Peak Metal, Peak Copper and wrote posts with titles like Meth Heads Go For Recycling. Not much of that is

Related Content on Treehugger.com