Upper Cumberland Visionary Cleans Up-Never Gives Up
Like many young boys full of vitality and big ideas back in 1989, Steve Cooper’s quest for extra money began with recycling aluminum cans. Lots of them. He collected bags full and crushed them one-by-one with his foot until he had a truckload. That was fun. Until it wasn’t. But once he learned he could sell his flattened aluminum bounty for more than he could make by flipping burgers, he was hooked.
He read that recycling one aluminum can could save the amount of energy to power a 60-watt light bulb for more than twenty-four hours. Recycling centers were paying good money per can upon delivery. That was huge for the planet and his future. That was the wave Steve wanted to ride.
He talked his new father-in-law into helping him. They bought a two-ton truck; collected cans all day and crushed them under the truck tires at night, hauling their compact cargo to Knoxville by the weekend and re-investing their $400-a-week profit in the business as they went along. Yes. Business. They decided they would create a business out of this. It worked.
“What we were getting for our work was far better than minimum wage back then,” Steve recalls, now sitting in the executive office at one of his busy Upper Cumberland area recycling/shredding locations. He points out the window to a massive claw on the end of a crane. We watch as the claw reaches down to grab a mouthful of rusty conduit, plops the tangled web on a conveyor belt and sends the mess to its gritty demise. That was quick. Done and done.
Getting rid of stuff nobody wants has built quite an empire for Steve. But he had to want it. Steve wanted it badly enough to go after it.
“We would try to get 3,000 pounds of cans a week at least - however, we could get them - going way out in the country and picking up loads of cans if people had collected large quantities.”
Each trip to the scrapyard was a chance for Steve to think about his future.
“I would watch what they did with the large scrap metal; the automobiles, the appliances, the huge metal reinforcement beams from buildings, and I would envision myself doing that kind of recycling someday too!”
Steve worked his aluminum can-plan and then considered what the future might bring.
“We saved our money and re-invested until we got a down payment and moved into a bigger area on Airport Road that could handle the bigger scrap metal and the machines to shred it,” Steve says. “This is where Upper Cumberland Electric helped us tremendously. We had to have three-phase electricity to recycle big pieces, and I contacted UCEMC to make sure we had the right voltage coming in to take care of the load and, if we grew quickly, I had to find out how easy it would be to make those transitions.”
Steve and his father-in-law now had a business called Cooper Recycling. They invested in car crushers, signed up industrial accounts and paid a quarter of a million dollars for a portable bailer which they took to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. There, they processed thousands of tons of scrap metal; appliances, cars, mobile homes, and hauled it to landfills in that area.
To stay ahead of the competitive curve, Steve embraced solid partnerships early in his career.
“When we started getting our data together with UCEMC in 2008 about electricity for the shredder here in Monroe, I asked if we could hook up to the line behind us and UCEMC told us, ‘Well, it will put the lights out in Byrdstown, Steve, we can’t do that, but we have this new substation coming on, and it’ll be ready about the time that you are in 2009’, and, it was ready. Right on time. A success for UCEMC and a victory for me. I would have had to go to natural gas or diesel if not for that, and I would not have have been as efficient as I am now. UCEMC has been a great partner for us!”
Steve quickly turned recycling in this area into big business, but he’s never forgotten his humble beginnings. The photo of the driveway where he stomped his first soda can is framed and hanging near his office. He’s always thinking about what’s next in the industry; he’ll tell you all about a machine in the works that will someday sort plastic into different grades; which, if developed, might solve one of the most complicated recycling challenges in recent history.
He’s bursting with energy, and you get the impression that he’s ready at a moment’s notice to pull out a pen and paper and jot down ideas or show you around the sprawling facility where the business is always, well, boom-boom-booming.
Today, he wears a big, almost permanent, smile. And why not? He’s doing what all boys love to do; tearing down “stuff” and turning big piles into little piles.
Moms out there know what we mean.
The bright, young boy who once spent afternoons crushing 7Up cans under his feet, is now a happy, successful, businessman who can turn a school bus - into a tiny piece of metal the size of a cell phone - in a minute and a half.