Miller Scrap Metal and Iron: Recycling on a global scale

Although Wm. Miller Scrap Iron & Metal Co.’s local customers — individuals and businesses within 100 miles of Winona, MN — may think of Miller Scrap as the local company that leaves no stone unturned in finding ways to assist them with their recycling and disposal needs, some of them would be quite surprised if they understood the extent of the company’s national and global reach.

‘Miller Scrap,’ as the company is generally called, is run by 3rd generation Jerry Miller, the former affable mayor of Winona for 16 years, who was legendary for his ability to work with others to serve the community’s needs; and two of his sons, Willie, COO and Jeremy, CFO. Jeremy is also currently serving his 8th year in the Minnesota State Senate. Although much of the responsibility for running the company now rests on Jerry’s sons, “Jerry is still an important part of every major decision that is made,” explained Jeremy.

The company, originally founded by a Russian immigrant who settled in Winona, MN on the bank of the Mississippi in the early 1900’s, has carefully built, over four generations, its reputation for honesty and fair dealing. Unlike many successful family recycling businesses, which are being gobbled up by large corporations, Miller Scrap remains family owned and operated, with the help of its 19 loyal employees.

Each successive generation has found new business opportunities to add to the mix, so that today, Miller Scrap is a highly diversified company. It continues to handle obsolete items, as well as new industrial scrap opportunities and to develop new ones. Willie Miller stated, “What is unique about us is that we do so many different things here: paper, roll-offs, C&D waste, electronics, along with regular scrap iron and metal recycling. We try to be a ‘one-call shop.’ Make one call to us, and we will do our best to find solutions for all your recycling and disposal needs.” This attitude has built many long-term relationships for the company over its four generations.

Miller Scrap’s newest division is exporting scrap. This portion of the business was started in 2010 by Jeremy, who among his many responsibilities is in charge of buying and selling non-ferrous metals, eScrap, and plastic domestically and globally. Each year since 2010, this division has grown larger and now makes up a significant portion of the overall sales for the company.

“We started accumulating full container-loads [averaging 20 tons] of certain types of material that had strong export markets,” Jeremy explained. “I did a lot of research and communication with multiple companies in Asia. Over the years, we have built long-term relationships with buyers in Asia and other countries that we came to trust, and in some cases, we now have international partnerships with some of these companies.

Insulated copper wire and other copper bearing-materials were such metals for which Jeremy successfully found a niche beginning in 2010. They typically focus on lower grade insulated copper wire, harness wire from automobiles, sealed units, electric motors and lead. Miller Scrap also buys a significant amount of aluminum material that is shipped to both domestic and international consumers.

“In addition to the metals, we also developed relationships with plastics processors.” As Chinese import restrictions became more strict, culminating in China’s latest outright ban on the importing of many recyclable materials, Jeremy successfully found other markets domestically and internationally for certain types of plastic.

“Our services are unique in some ways. We have found a niche in the export market and we really try to focus on what we are good at. In some cases we act as a broker and in other cases we are shipping direct to our partners. As a result, we can provide the best prices and services for our customers and suppliers.

“When exporting material, there’s a lot of trust involved and this has been 7 plus years in the making. We’re confident in the folks we’re dealing with now. This trust was built through personal visits to Asia and a significant amount of communication by email, telephone, text message, WhatsApp and WeChat. It can take a lot of time to develop these relationships, and to find the right markets for our customers and suppliers.”

Although Jeremy has been fast on his feet in locating new markets in other countries as information leaked out about possible import restrictions by China, he commented, “I do anticipate that with the changes in China, our export business will take a hit.”

In his estimation, “The import ban by China could potentially be devastating to the entire recycling industry. China has really cut back on the import of fibers, plastics and metals, including insulated copper wire.”

In taking care of their customers near home, Miller Scrap has a well-deserved reputation for working hard to find the best solutions for all their customers’ recycling needs in the day-to-day operations of their full-service recycling facility and beyond. Their customers’ convenience has led them far from just focusing on scrap iron and metal as their name implies. For example, for the convenience of their customers, they buy skids, sort, store, and sell them, and send broken ones to a local company for recycling into animal bedding. As Willie, who runs day-to-day operations in Winona, said, “We try to make recycling as convenient as possible, whatever the customer’s size, from individuals on up to large corporations.” While their main business continues to be ferrous and non-ferrous scrap, they offer a variety of recycling solutions to meet the needs of their customers.

Another example is the transfer station. Although Miller Scrap’s mixed solid waste (MSW) transfer station was established for customer convenience years ago, simply to save customers the additional 6-mile drive to the Winona landfill, today this service is much more essential. The local municipal dump is long-closed because of its high cost to taxpayers. Today, MSW from Winona must be trucked from Miller Scrap to Lake Mills, Iowa! As a result, “Companies like Waste Management and J&J Rubbish stop in to dump off waste from their routes 5, 6, even 7 times a day,” commented Willie. Their construction and demolition (C&D) transfer station saves area contractors and homeowners a drive to the demolition landfill in Austin, MN, the nearest drop-off for that material. Miller Scrap also operates roll-off dumpsters throughout the area for residential, commercial, and industrial use.

Miller Scrap pulls a variety of recyclable items from the transfer station. “We sometimes spot a canoe, a bike, or a trailer, for example, that is still usable. We’ve had some success in advertising these items on Craigslist.”

Miller Scrap also provided Cardboard, office paper, and other fiber recycling services for customers. This material is sorted and baled on site. Some of the office paper comes from businesses through ‘cage exchanges.’ “When a company calls, we exchange several empty wire containers while picking up several full ones. We truck the OCC and baled paper to mills in the Twin Cities and Wisconsin who recycle them into new consumer products.” Fortunately, China’s recent ban on OCC and paper has not affected their sales of these items. “We also pull clean wood and all metals from the transfer station waste stream for recycling,” added Willie.

Other metals, including scrap from local industrial manufacturers, obsolete scrap, and new industrial scrap that is a by-product of manufacturing operations such as stamping, are separated and trucked to foundries locally, and mills throughout the Midwest. Obsolete cars are crushed on site, after fluids and other hazards have been removed.

“We also accumulate broken-up concrete for recycling purposes. The material is piled up until we have enough to bring in a crusher to crush it into usable road base. The goal is to minimize the amount of material that is sent to the landfill,” noted Willie.

“The strength of our company lies in our team members,” stated Jeremy. To keep their valuable employees — 19 at present — Miller Scrap offers competitive wages and exceptional benefits, including fully company-paid health and dental insurance and a matching 401k program. Because the health and safety of their employees and customers is a priority, Jeremy, as head of quality, environmental health & safety went through the audit process to make Miller Scrap one of the areas only Recycling Industry Operating Standard (RIOS) certified companies. “RIOS is the industry standard when it comes to a quality, environmental, health & safety management system, explained Jeremy. Becoming certified requires a lengthy audit process, but in the end, it was well worth it because it made us safer and more efficient.”

The company was already in compliance with many of the RIOS practices. “However, they were known and followed mentally,” explained Jeremy, “A big change was in making sure our procedures were written and everything was documented.”

Their Responsible Recycler (R2) certification assures customers and suppliers that electronics equipment dropped off for recycling will be handled in a safe and environmentally responsible manner. Miller Scrap is registered with the state of Minnesota as a collector and ships whole units to registered recyclers.

When we visited, Miller Scrap was planning to break ground on a new office building and truck scale, to open in April of 2018 — still looking to their future as a family business. The truck scale, a 70-foot long in-ground Fairbanks pit scale, has already been installed and the building is under roof.

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