By Lee Chottiner
There’s nothing all that interesting about a smelter, unless it happens to be Scott Ludolph’s smelter.
The rusted, steel-plated, brick-lined furnace with a warped latch lid (a byproduct from years of melting everything from scrap metal to car engines at temperatures reaching 1,300 degrees) has sat unused at Ludolph’s Peninsula recycling yard hard on the banks of Wheeling Creek for three years. He once used it to make his own aluminum for Hubco Bronze.
What makes this smelter so interesting is Ludolph’s plan for it: The scrap dealer-turned full-service recycler intends to use it to melt down hard drives from discarded computers.
It will be a low-tech way to provide high-tech security.
“We’re going to use that for our electronics,” the 42-year-old Wheeling native said of the smelter. “There is information destroying that people want. We’ll take the hard drives that have all your information—your hard drives are made of [cast] aluminum—and melt them down, and there will be no more information. That’s something we want to get into in the future.”
Melting hard dives is just one of many ventures Ludolph plans for Scrappy Pappy’s, the 30-year-old recycling center which his father, Paul Ludolph, founded, and which the son is positioning to become the leading intake center in Wheeling for just about anything that can be reused.
Already, Scrappy Pappy’s, which only handled nonferrous metals at its start, now accepts cardboard, paper, glass bottles and jars of all colors, all plastics, tin and aluminum cans, electronics, batteries, appliances, lead, air conditioners, all metals and other miscellaneous items such as lawnmowers, cars, golf clubs—just about anything made of metal.
He’s developing a diverse base of commercial customers, and he has plans to expand into residential pickup as well.
“We still have a long journey,” Ludolph said. “We have composting we want to get into; we want get into carpet recycling; we want to get into wood recycling. We want to get it to where we’re completely self-sufficient.”
He may be in the right business. Nationwide, recycling is on the rise. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that the recycling rate has increased from less than 10 percent of municipal solid waste generated in 1980 to over 34 percent in 2012. That year, Americans recovered 65 million tons of solid waste through recycling and 21 million tons through composting.
In fact, the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the nation now recycles 81 million tons a year.
“Experts say that continuing to increase our recycling rates will help pull us out of the garbage heap and reduce global warming emissions,” the NRDC says on its website, “and that a necessary counterpart to that strategy is to cut down on the waste we produce in the first place.”
That kind of waste reduction is finally under way in Wheeling.
Learning the business
Ludolph began his own odyssey with recycling when he dropped out of college and went into business with his father, whom he credits for teaching him the business.
“My dad taught me everything I needed to know about scrap recycling, he recalled. “I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know wood from copper. He taught me so much that I could look at something and I could tell you exactly what it is, where to sell it, the amount and how to ship it—things like that.”
The business, however, had its ups and downs. It actually closed a couple times. It was during one of those shutdowns that Ludolph, who had gone to work for Fed Ex, decided to dive into full-service recycling, going well beyond scrap metal.
“Everywhere I delivered [for Fed Ex] I noticed all the waste that we had, so I started doing my due diligence and studied—learning, asking questions.”
He learned that Wheeling lacked a significant recycling infrastructure or even much public interest in one. Still, he saw a need, which he said has become more acute as waste generated by the gas & oil industry takes up more space in landfills.
So he reopened Scrappy Pappy’s.
“I had done research on it and I knew the city needed it,” Ludolph said. “So that’s what got me started. I had done my research for over a year. I’ve been to Morgantown; I’ve been to Allentown; I’ve been to Philadelphia. So I’ve learned from very important, knowledgeable recyclers … and they have taught me a lot.”
Starting slow, Ludolph taught himself to make bails of plastic, paper and cardboard using a mechanical bailer from the 1950s. It stands in the middle of his scrap yard, the bottom half buried deep in the ground and its sides looking like bulkheads from a submarine.
It may not be state-of-the-art equipment, but it does the job, and Scappy Pappy’s volume is ticking up.
Since becoming a full-service recycler on Aug. 27, 2014, Ludolph has processed more than 150,000 pounds of material, including 15,000 pounds of cans, 8,000 pounds of plastics, 70,000 pounds of glass, 20,000 pounds of tin and other metals, 15,000 pounds of electronics and 200 TVs.
Less than 100 customers produced all that material, he said.
He also has lined up distributors in Pennsylvania and Ohio who make bi-weekly pickups at his yard. Soon, they’ll increase their visits to once a week.
“They’re very happy because they haven’t seen a town our size move material that quickly, so as a business, that means we’re doing what we need to do.”
Ludolph’s customer list reads like a who’s who of the Wheeling business, NPO and education communities: The Linsly School, Catholic Charities, Avenue Eats, The Wheeling Coffee Shop, Market Vines, Wheeling Brewing Co., Wheeling Coffee Shoppe, Chris Miller Furniture, McDonalds of Moundsville, Eastern States Packaging and TA (Travel Centers of America).
“And we’re in talks with a lot more,” Ludolph said. “I actually have not been out to sell because I’ve been so busy. [But] it literally only takes us 5 or 10 minutes and we’ll sell. The stats are there: It saves them money; it gives them publicity; and it’s the right thing to do—and it’s easy.”
The savings, he said, comes in the payments businesses make each time they have their dumpsters emptied—the fewer the number of pickups, the greater the savings.
Catholic Charities was Scrappy Pappy’s first commercial customers, according to Liz Paulhus, its northern regional director. Pauhus preferred not to quantify the savings her organization has realized, but she said it has cut down the number of times its dumpsters are emptied each week.
“When we started a few months ago, we were paying for our two dumpsters to be emptied three times a week; they were overflowing,” Paulhus said, responding to written questions from Dateline: Wheeling. “Now, we are down to two dumpsters being emptied twice a week, and I think we will be able to keep reducing that amount as we get even better at recycling. Our cost savings as a business greatly outweighs the $50 a month that we pay Scrappy Pappy’s.”
She acknowledged that conversion to recycling requires some effort.
“It took some adjusting for everyone to get in the habit of recycling all plastics, cardboard, paper, glass, and aluminum,” she said, “although I give my staff, volunteers and clients credit for being open to change and for really getting into the spirit of things. We set up large and small containers throughout the Neighborhood Center [in East Wheeling] to make it as easy as possible for people to recycle.”
Linsly, which also made the conversion to recycling, has processed more than five tons of material in the three months since Scrappy Pappy’s began pickups there, according to Ellie Haizlett, the school’s Spanish instructor and an advisor to the Linsly Recycling Club.
“The school wanted to do this,” Haizlett said. “There hasn’t been recycling here for many years, so it’s been a process getting all the kids on board [and] the faculty on board, but so far so good.”
For Phil Kendell, co-owner of Avenue Eats on Washington Avenue, the decision to recycle through Scrappy Pappy’s was an easy one.
“Our customers are more environmentally conscious and stay with us for doing the right thing,” he said. “It’s a little more work of course.”
Ludolph has made proposals to the city to take over all or part of its recycling program. Meanwhile, he’s picked up recyclables at city cleanup days. He also also collected 390 pounds of electronics at this year’s West Liberty Earth Day celebration and 1,000 pounds of electronics and 10 TVs at the Oglebay Ecofest.
His customers seem prepared to do even more recycling.
“We would like to start composting as well,” Paulhus said, “either on site or off.”
And Linsly would like to expand recycling campus-wide, according to Haizlett.
“We would like to make sure we can recycle in the dorms, and we have on-campus faculty as well,” she said. “We want to get it to the lower campus [residential buildings] so it’s more accessible to people.”
Clearly, her students are interested in recycling. The recycling club recently visited the Scrappy Pappy’s yard to videotape an interview with Ludolph.
“We do want to be more conscious of the environment,” Haizlett said, “and I use it as a teaching tool personally.”
For now, Ludolph prefers not to discuss how profitable his venture is in a city where just a small percentage of the community recycles.
“We’re staying open,” he said. “We’re staying patient.”
But he’s optimistic. A tour of his yard will find it littered with bags of plastics, skids of computers and bails of cardboard waiting to be shipped.
He also likes to discuss his plans to paint a mural on the corrugated tin fence lining his yard. He’s already selected an artist.
And if his little half-acre yard runs out of space for recyclables…well, it won’t.
“I actually have five lots,” Ludolph said. “Where our business is, we have four times that amount.”
He said he could have chucked the recycling business and gone to work in the mines. He doesn’t want to.
“That’s just not what my passion is,” Ludolph said. “My passion is to own my own business, to make it successful. I love the idea; I love the struggles. I love to make something live and breathe; its gets me going. I love it.”