For anyone who’s fascinated by destructive equipment — like the kind that can shred a car in 30 seconds, for example — Crow Wing Recycling has a story for you. Those who drive past Crow Wing Recycling on Industrial Park Road in south Brainerd the past three years may have noticed the large 50-foot tower next to a massive pile of debris. That tower is home to a giant shredder that can reduce a full-size car to a pile of fist-size chunks of metal within 30-45 seconds. More on that later.
The shredder, a $5.5 million addition to Crow Wing Recycling’s operation, was the focal point of the company’s expansion in 2009-10. The expansion opened the door to new markets, accounted for dozens of new jobs and led to the purchase of two existing facilities: the neighboring 16,000-square-foot building formerly owned by L&M Steel and the 250,000-square-foot facility on 440 acres in Ironton that was formerly owned by Weyerhaeuser Trus Joist.
At the helm of the Crow Wing Recycling’s success is the Dutch VanWyngeeren family, which purchased the 50-year-old business in 1996. Vice President Grant VanWyngeeren oversees the daily operations and has played a major part in the company’s growth. Back in 1996, annual sales were $400,000; last year’s sales were $50 million.
“Back then, the company had six or seven employees and strictly sold scrap metal to other scrap yards,” Grant VanWyngeeren said. “They had one or two outbound trucks a week with crushed cars. Now, we have 53 employees and send 20 to 25 trucks a day.”
The primary difference in Crow Wing Recycling’s operation now is that the company used to buy scrap metal from individuals or scrap dealers and then turn around and sell it to scrap yards. Scrap yards process the metal and resell it to steel mills that melt it down for re-use. Now, the company is able to cut out the scrap yards by processing the metal itself and selling direct to steel mills.
That’s where the giant shredder plays a critical role. A crew of 12 employees runs the shredding operation, which chunks up cars, trucks, appliances and sheet iron such as bikes, barn trim, rebar and old farm machinery. Vehicles account for about 25 percent of the material shredded, with appliances and sheet iron making up the balance.
Everything is heaped in a pile next to the shredder before a crane picks it up and drops it onto an industrial-strength conveyor belt that rides on the same kind of tracks used by bulldozers for strength and durability. After the material goes through the shredder, it’s separated into three bins: metal, non-ferrous metal (aluminum, stainless steel, copper, etc.) and junk (plastic, paper, rubber, etc.). The junk is taken to the landfill while the rest is shipped to mills.
Crow Wing Recycling continues to truck some of its metal to barges in the Twin Cities while most is shipped by rail. The company used to lease a railroad spur near Brainerd but that changed last December when the company purchased the Weyerhaeuser Trus Joist facility in Ironton, which is on a rail line. The company was primarily interested in getting access to the rail line, but the 250,000-square-foot building came with all the equipment that Weyerhaeuser Trus Joist used to produce engineered strand lumber before shutting down its operation in the mid 2000s.
VanWyngeeren said he’s slowly selling off the equipment and has been working with agencies like the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation (BLAEDC) to explore future uses for the facility. BLAEDC was also involved in helping Crow Wing Recycling with financial projections for adding the shredder. “(BLAEDC) has been great to work with and offered a lot of expertise when we were looking at expanding.”
In addition to the Ironton location, Crow Wing Recycling has satellite operations in Pine River and Milaca, each of which has four employees. They buy scrap metal and then haul it to the Brainerd facility for processing. The two satellite operations expand the company’s geographical market to 45 miles for “peddlers” (individuals who sell scrap metal) and 100 miles for scrap dealers. A fair amount of crushed cars come from North Dakota because there are no car shredders there. The only other car shredders in Minnesota are in Duluth and the Twin Cities, so Crow Wing Recycling has access to markets north and west.
VanWyngeeren said business has been good but it’s really driven by global scrap metal markets, which have tightened up a little recently. “We really need the European and Chinese markets to stabilize. Steel mills are running at about 78 percent capacity, but we need them running around 85 percent. It’s cyclical, so you take the good with the bad.”
And lately, business has been good for Crow Wing Recycling and its car-eating shredder.