Scrap peddlers in the 1880s, electronic waste today, and everything in between, are topics explored in the Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM) exhibit Scrap Yard:  Innovators of Recycling.   

Although no longer physically on display at the Baltimore museum, the JMM has moved the content of the exhibit to its own website, scrapyardexhibit.org. This exhibit provides an enormous resource of information about the history and operations of the scrap metal recycling industry. The exhibit, which opened in October of 2019, traces the history of scrap yards in the United States and the prominent role of the Jewish community in the success of the scrap metal recycling industry.

For anyone interested in the history of scrap metal recycling or an examination of its growth and development, this exhibit provides a wealth of material.  It is a treasure trove of photographs and stories from earlier days.  It gathers into one place information about the process of scrap metal recycling, its development with the growth of our nation and how the business of scrap metal recycling has changed.  The original exhibit at the museum closed in April of 2020, but the online version includes all of the content, illustrations and resources.  It also makes available Educators’ Guides that can be used as a classroom resource. The Guides include background information on the scrap metal recycling industry and the prominent role of Jewish immigrants.  They outline curriculum connections and recommend classroom activities and reading lists appropriate for every age.

Scrap Yard’s home page explains the focus of the exhibit: 

“What if we could take things that were thrown away and turn them into raw materials to make new things? This basic tenet of recycling sounds commonplace now, but once upon a time, it was true innovation.  An innovation that allowed generations of immigrants and native-born Americans to build a global industry.  These scrappers—peddlers, collectors, dealers, scrap yard workers, and brokers—transformed trash into raw materials, small-scale family businesses into global corporations, and immigrants into Americans.  This is their story.”

The exhibit home page links to different sections examining the history of scrap yard processes and tools and the generations of people who built up the industry, how it impacted popular culture and where the industry is headed today.

“In the Yard”  

This portion of the exhibit includes a handy glossary of scrap metal recycling terms and scrap code names.  It provides an illustrated history of how scrap yards have evolved, and discusses the introduction of technology such as scales, magnates, torches and shearers.  Advances in safety equipment and sorting methods are also explored.

“Trash to Treasure”

This section examines a variety of recyclables, including ferrous and non-ferrous metal and electronic scrap, with links to information on each individual material.  For each category, the exhibit looks at what each material is, how it is used and what is its value.  The section also includes a look at “Scrap in War,” and examines the impact of scrap metal recycling in wartime, starting with the Revolutionary War and moving through history all the way up to the Iraq War and War in Afghanistan. 

“All Around Us”

The evolution of the scrap metal recycling industry in the context of what was going on in our country during various points in history is the focus of the section “All Around Us.”  The section opens with a discussion of how scrap metal recyclers were depicted in popular culture before World War II.  It goes on to explore World War II and how patriotism fueled the recycling movement at that time.  The rise of automobile ownership and subsequently the increase in automobile graveyards are examined in giving rise to the recycling movement.  A budding environmental movement propelled the motto forward:  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. 

“Scrap Stories”

Individuals working in the scrap metal recycling industry today recount their tales in the section “Scrap Stories.”  Entrepreneurs who founded a scrap metal business decades ago and younger recyclers taking the helm of a family business today share their insights about running a recycling operation.  They discuss, among other things, how they came to work in the industry and the day-in and day-out challenges and rewards of running a scrap metal recycling business. 

The JMM plans to leave the online exhibit up for the foreseeable future.  The physical exhibit will be on the road starting this fall.  The Jewish Museum of Milwaukee will host Scrap Yard starting in October 2021.  Other museums may host the exhibit after it closes in Milwaukee.

For environmental and economic reasons, scrap metal recycling remains a vital industry today.  To help foster industry recognition and growth, an understanding of its role in our nation’s history is important.  The Jewish Museum of Maryland was awarded grants from both The Institute for Museum and Library Services and The National Endowment for the Humanities to make the exhibit possible.  Additional contributors include companies and individuals in the scrap metal recycling industry, many from Maryland or with ties to the state.  ScrapWare Corporation, which provides software to the scrap metal recycling industry, was proud to contribute to this educational effort as an exhibit sponsor.  ScrapWare’s software plays an important role in helping scrap metal recycling companies improve efficiency and profitability.

To view the online exhibit, visit its website, ScrapYardExhibit.org.

ScrapWare Corp., of Rockville, MD, has been providing software to the scrap metal recycling industry for over 30 years.  ScrapWare uses an Oracle database to provide a cloud-based software solution to manage all aspects of a recycling business.  With numerous modules, extensive technical support, remote installation and online training, ScrapWare helps recycling companies with compliance, efficiency and profitability. Check out ScrapWare’s website, read the user testimonials, and see its offerings for your recycling software solution.

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