At 10 a.m. trucks overflowing with everything from crushed cars to rusty washing machines begin the slow trek onto the industrial scale at Coffman Metals in Birch River, W.Va. Customers from all over central West Virginia come to Coffman’s to cash in on their finds at 50 cents a pound for mixed aluminum. The loud clanging of unsecured scrap is not enough to drown out idling engines and ringing phones.
“Everyday we have 100 to 150 customers,” said Tony Coffman, owner of the recycling center.
Coffman’s career path was already set in stone when he was 14 years old. As a high school sophomore, he began his education in the family recycling and trading business. A common love for the outdoors made a job working in his grandfather’s establishment ideal.
“Then kids mowed lawns. I worked for my grandfather,” Coffman said. “I just liked hanging out with my granddad; he was a pretty cool dude.”
In 1928, Tony’s grandfather, Guy Coffman, started trading fur and natural roots, such as ginseng, with community locals in Nicholas County. It wasn’t until after Guy’s death in 1987 that the recycling aspect of the business took hold. A year after his high school graduation, Tony was the logical choice to carry on his grandfather’s legacy.
“I’m the only guy who showed any interest in my grandfather’s business,” he said. “That was the whole idea I think, from his point of view, someone to carry on. He had nine children, and none of them were in the business. My dad was in insurance, [he] owned an insurance agency, and my brothers they were all in insurance.”
By helping to clean up his hometown, Coffman began his own 30-year tradition. He says it wasn’t long ago that discarded bed frames and tossed beer cans were fixtures of the Birch River landscape.
“I used to walk quite a bit, and it was all over the hills,” he said. “You go for a nature walk, and any where along a gravel road or a wide spot they were throwing garbage over the hill, old refrigerators and washers and dryers.”
In 2007, the state exported approximately 440,359 tons of solid waste according to the West Virginia Solid Waste Management Plan.
“In more rural areas, if people are paid to recycle it really gives them the incentive to clean up their properties,” said Laura Stiller, Recycling Coordinator for the Monongalia County Solid Waste Authority.
According to Stiller, because West Virginia is so rural, recycling can be kind of tricky. The location of recycling centers pose an obstacle for many residents, but the reward of monetary gain is great motivator.
“Recycling really helps the community develop. No one wants to put a business next to a rundown piece of property. If it takes a couple of cents to get people to clean up West Virginia then it is worth it,” said Stiller.
With the invention of the shredder, what was once useless became valuable, creating a market for resourceful customers.
“West Virginians aren’t lazy,” Coffman said. “You take your can and pitch it out along the road – someone is going to pick it up and bring it [here] because it has a value on it.”
Coffman’s pays 70 to 80 cents a pound for aluminum cans, a common sale. Approximately 50,000 pounds of cans come through the recycling center every month.
While recycling is the bulk of the business now, Coffman has not forgotten his roots in trading. Though ginseng digging and fur trading are on the decline because of government regulation, the old practices still bring in business throughout the season.
Coffman’s relationship with ginseng began where his career did, with his grandfather and the surrounding community.
As a child, Coffman was always around ginseng but it wasn’t until he and his friends saw a way to make some extra cash that he became interested in the root.
“I remember the year that [ginseng] went from $20 to $50 a pound and in the ‘70s that was a lot of money,” he said. “It was always just for fun.”
In the recent economic climate, what was once “money for boys” in Coffman’s childhood is now an additional source of income for some. Last year, the recycling center paid out $13 million to West Virginia residents.
“We give a lot of people jobs and we hand a lot money out to the economy,” Coffman said. “And we cleaned the place up and I’m kind of proud of that, I wish my grandfather was there to see it.”
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