Dubai: The clanging chimes of metal being sorted and cleaned mix intermittently with the crunching sound of a hydraulic machine pressing metal scraps into bales.
Lucky Group's recycling facility in Jebel Ali Free Zone is a collection of mangled metal, cans, pots, AC and car parts, stainless steel, brassware and copper in various states of disrepair, which are grouped according to categories.
The hum of loaders and compacting machines drown out the conversations of over 150 workers. If you're driving a Japanese or Korean car, there's a good chance that some of its components are made from metals from this recycling facility. The link gets less far-fetched the moment you enter the 375,000-square-foot facility.
The Dubai-based company has helped divert tonnes of trash from landfills in the last 38 years, a fact not lost as the firm marks World Environment Month this June.
At 800°C, aluminium melts in two massive pots, which convert used cans, discarded aircraft parts, aluminium car engine castings, pots and pans - and even caskets - back to their raw form to feed the insatiable appetite of automotive, aviation and food packaging industries around the world.
Of its total annual capacity, used beverage cans account for a mere one per cent. From 2009 to 2010, Lucky has recycled around 120 million such cans - the equivalent of 1,590 Burj Khalifas if you put one can on top of another (1,440km) or six round trips between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Never mind if there was a 30 per cent drop in scrap intake due to the recent global financial crunch.
"In theory, 100 per cent of a metal can be recycled," said Salman Shaban, Commercial Manager of Lucky Recycling. "But we're a long way from that point."
Salman, 29, is a third-generation businessman. The seeds of the firm were planted by his grandfather, Shaban Ali, who moved to Dubai in the '70s. Three firms under the group - Lucky Recycling, Lucky Alloys and Fortune Metals - are run by the five Shaban brothers - Dilawar, Rafique, Iqbal, Raza and Saleem - all Canadians who look after a $500 million (Dh1.8 billion) recycling empire.
Lucky Alloys, managed by 40-year-old Irfan, another third-generation Shaban with 20 years of experience in the industry, is one of the Middle East's largest secondary aluminium alloy manufacturing firms. It's the only company in the region with an approved brand name for its alloys - Lucky - recognised by the London Metal Exchange. Over the years, the group has expanded into Toronto, Shanghai and Doha, with a total annual turnover of over 300,000 tonnes.
Fortune Metals is Lucky Group's associate company in Toronto, whose commercial department includes Salman's cousin Zohair, yet another third-generation businessman. It buys scrap metal from different nations in the Americas and the Caribbean to be handled by its Toronto office, which employs over 35 people.
In the UAE, where both Lucky Recycling and Lucky Alloys are based, the annual turnover exceeds 80,000 metric tonnes.
This is a key point as recycling secondary scrap aluminium, Salman explained, simply involves re-melting them back into ingots which needs only five per cent of the energy compared to creating new aluminium from bauxite ore.
The recycling chain starts with small-time scrap dealers scouring industrial areas and workshops for scrap metals. Vishen, 35, an independent scrap dealer, drives around Dubai and Sharjah in a two-tonne pick-up truck buying aluminium for Dh4 to Dh5 per kg, or $1,300 (Dh4,771) per tonne).
Brass is more expensive - Dh15 per kg, while copper sells at a much higher price, between Dh31 and Dh32 per kg. In a day, Vishen collects between 200kg to four tonnes of scrap. "In this business, every kilo counts," Vishen said. Occasionally, he buys discarded refrigerators, ACs or stoves, which his people then break into smaller pieces before selling the parts.
From 8am, scrap collectors like Vishen start rolling their pick-ups onto the 80-tonne weigh bridge in Lucky's Al Ghusais recycling facility with their day's collection. Within hours after unloading, all sorts of metal scrap turn into playthings at the hands of scrapyard workers who sort, machine-press and re-package them neatly, ready to take on another form.
Customers in India, China and over 30 other countries turn scrap metal into household or industrial items. Yet scrap metal recycling in the UAE remains largely unorganised, said Shaban. Organised or not, recyclable items must be diverted from landfills, he stressed. "Scrap collectors cannot go door to door to collect these items separately. Their focus lies primarily in industrial areas. However, used aluminium cans and foil are the easiest to recycle."
Outside their Al Ghusais recycling facility, tonnes of used aluminium foil are neatly packed, ready for melting. "This is nothing compared to how much people simply throw away — trash that never reaches us. Trash is not ‘garbage'. It has value," Shaban added.