The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Houston Bench Mark

CLUI Bench Mark Program Established: First in a Nationwide Series of Overlooks

bench overlooking scrapyard

CLUI photo
The Center’s first Bench Mark landscape observation site, overlooking a scrapyard on the Buffalo Bayou. CLUI photo

THE CENTER ESTABLISHED THE FIRST in a nationwide series of Bench Mark overlooks near the edge of the CLUI Houston field office and logistics yard. Bench Marks are viewing areas that have been selected to encourage the observation of geotransformative terrestrial activities. Each site in the series consists of a park bench, put in place by the CLUI, to encourage passers-by, or destination-seekers, to sit, for a spell, and to watch what is happening in front of them.

This first Bench Mark is on a newly paved walking trail that runs along the banks of the Buffalo Bayou, at a spot with a panoramic view of the Proler Southwest metal scrap operation laid out like a diorama on the opposite bank of the Bayou.

Sitting here, on the bench atop the bluff, is like having a front row balcony seat at a deconstructivist industrial ballet pulling apart the used up metal parts of the nation. Trucks, cranes, conveyors, loaders and grabbers move literal mountains of scrap metal around the site on a nearly continuous basis at this, one of the largest scrap-handling operations in the South, and a source for recycled metals that find their way back into products distributed all over the nation, and the world.

Sparks fly dozens of feet into the air from torching operations, where really thick metals are cut down to size with industrial gas torches, producing HMS (heavy melting scrap). A prolerizer car shredder reduces vehicles to steel shred which is used as a feedstock for steel mills, often mixed with the chunkier HMS. Piles of compressed and cubed White Goods, composed of appliances such as washing machines, fridges, and air conditioners (so-called as they are often white enameled), are kept separate, though their fate is usually the same, ground up and fed into steel-producing minimills around the country.

Higher value non-ferrous metals are separated from the steel and iron, and are sorted into piles based on specific type and texture. Though the vernacular varies regionally, terms for specific types of non-ferrous scrap are descriptive: zorba is an unsorted pile of aluminum and copper that comes out of the shredder; barley is heavy braided electrical wire used for electrical transmission; honey is copper mixed with brass; and candy is copper plumbing tubing. A meatball is a rare and highly prized copper wire clump of electric motor windings.

This buffet of flowing textures is visible from the Bench Mark, along with the symphony of sounds that handling these different materials makes, from low thumps of initial dumpings, to the shrieks of shredding, and the cascading glissando of steel plate tumbling into an empty barge.

This site, known as Proler Southwest, was started in the 1940s by the Proler family. Proler is a big name in American scrap, starting in Houston in the early 1920’s, and growing to operate yards from coast to coast (the prolerizer, a machine for shredding cars, was developed here, and is in use all over the land). This, and many other Proler yards, was purchased recently by SIMS Metal Management, which has bought up just about all the mom and pop scrap companies across the nation, and is now the largest scrap metal company in the world, with over 230 locations, and 6,000 employees.

Loaded barges full of sorted scrap move up and down the inland waterways of the nation. From here, the barges head to steel mills around the south via the Intracoastal Waterway and rivers, or are off-loaded at port sites and reloaded onto larger vessels for the ocean crossing. Other CLUI Bench Marks to follow.