Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: The Sample Wall

During the run-up to the November 12 release of my first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, every weekday I’m posting a new photo taken during my decade of reporting on the global waste, recycling, refurbishment, and repair trade. Today’s scene shows samples of wire and cable displayed for identification purposes at a large scrap metal company in the American Midwest. Click to enlarge


This week I’ve been posting images of workers in India and China recycling wire. It’s labor-intensive work, sometimes done with knives, sometimes done with machines. But – and this is important – it’s also work done in the United States with giant wire chopping machines (I’ll post some scenes later in this series). One key to making money from wire recycling is knowing precisely how much copper or aluminum is in a type of wire before you purchase it. After all, with copper now worth well over $3 per pound, you wouldn’t want to pay for a strand of wire that you think is 80% copper when really it’s just 28% copper. And that’s why scrap yards around the world have sample walls: they allow recyclers to match an incoming piece of wire with a sample that’s been cut apart and weighed to know precisely what’s in it. Some of these walls – like this one – are near-comprehensive museums of how people have transmitted power and information over the last fifty years. Others are just good guidelines to turning profits in one of the world’s most important, and sustainable, industries.

Previous ‘Scenes from a Junkyard Planet’ can be found here.