Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: The Platters.

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 image reveals a low-tech means of recycling the platters that store the data inside of your hard drives. Click to enlarge.


This 2011 image shows a south China factory devoted to the recycling of hard drive platters – those small, spinning discs inside of your drives that contain everything from your taxes to your family photos. The discs in this photo are aluminum, though they can also be manufactured from ceramic materials. Whatever the platter material, all discs are coated in a magnetic medium with significant monetary value. In the US, EU, and other developed countries, hard drives are shredded, rendering the platter and its valuable magnetic medium worth less than the value of the aluminum itself. But if a drive is sent to a developing  where hand labor can be utilized to remove the platter, the disc and the medium can then be recycled. The problem, as this photo reveals, is that the means of removing the magnetic medium from the platter is a simple chemical process that – alas – is typically performed in low-tech and environmentally unsound workshops. In this image, note the arrays on the right from which the platters are hanging. Those arrays will be dipped into a chemical bath which will remove the coating and render the platters into pure aluminum. Later, the coating will be refined and sold. It’s a dirty and dangerous process, and it raises a tough question: what’s better for the environment, this dangerous south China factory, or a US-style recycling plant that shreds discs into pieces that can’t be recycled nearly as well?

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