What Does San Diego Have Against Recycling, Free Enterprise, and the American Way?

For more than a decade, Gary Ries of Mission Hills, California, has spent his spare time earning money by picking recyclable cans and bottles from trash cans owned by the city of San Diego. Under most definitions, this is laudable entrepreneurship and everyone wins: Ries makes a few extra bucks, San Diego trucks a few less pounds of trash to the landfill, and, well, recycling!


However, according to a report by ABC 10 in San Diego, the city of San Diego doesn’t quite see it that way: “The city of San Diego says that once an item enters a trash can on city property, it becomes property of the city.”

So, rather than laud Ries – or, better yet, just leave him the @#$% alone – the city of San Diego has decided to make him miserable. Last weekend, they twice issued $150 citations against him. And if he doesn’t stop recycling the city’s landfill-bound cans and bottles? The police officer who harassed him the first time around will “arrest him, take him to jail and have his bail set at $5,000.”


But it gets worse. San Diego isn’t merely concerned that Ries is stealing their garbage. They’re worried about liability if “someone gets hurt digging through the trash,” as well as identity theft (ie, the city is protecting people who might leave bank statements in San Diego’s beach-side garbage cans). Or, in the words of Jose Ysea, spokesman for the city of San Diego Environmental Services Department: “it’s more to protect the residents and the community at large.” Continue reading

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: What Ultimately Happens to that New Car Smell.

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 was photographed at an Indiana scrap yard in 2011 by my wife (we were dating then, and that was my idea of a fun date). Click to enlarge:


These cars are a small percentage of the roughly 11 million cars that Americans decided they didn’t want, anymore, in 2011. And that was a down year, in terms of unloading old cars, mostly due to the recession (when people are more likely to repair than buy new). In a strong economy, when Americans are more likely to buy cars, they’ll get rid of as many as 14 million old sets of wheels per year. Yet, despite this unbelievable volume, most Americans – and most reporters – don’t give more than a second thought to what happens to all that metal, plastic, oil, rubber and other materials when it all hits the junkyard. But here’s the thing: by weight, all of those American automobiles are the most recycled products in the United States today. How? The answer solved one of the most intractable environmental problems facing twentieth-century North America (and, later, the world), and this week’s scenes will provide some insights into the process.

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: Viva American Scrap

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 is the classic American scrap yard, from above. Click to enlarge:


A 2011 image taken atop a metal shredder in Fort Wayne, Indiana, looking out at a small percentage of the 74 million metric tons of scrap iron and steel that Americans handed off to recyclers that year. These piles include everything from swing sets to car bodies to the steel siding peeled off the shed in somebody’s backyard. Sixty percent of the steel manufactured in the United States comes from recycled resources, and almost all of those recycled resources come from places like this. Your home recycling bin provides less than 1 percent. This is not the sort of place that most environmentalists would describe as the vanguard of sustainability, but without it – and places like it – the world be a dirtier, and far less interesting place.

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

Don’t Trust the UN with Your Recycling (rates).

Every week I receive at least one query asking me for pointers on finding statistics regarding how much China recycles on an annual basis. And, for the most part, my answer is the same: check Google, or check the trade publications. For example, a simple google search will reveal that China generated and recycled around 90 million metric tons of iron and steel scrap in 2010a volume greater than the steel produced in all but two countries (China and Japan). And if you’re lucky enough to have a subscription to Scrap Magazine, or Recycling International, you would’ve learned, in the Jan/Feb issues of both magazines, respectively, that China generated and recycled 2.32 million metric tons of its own – not imported! – aluminum in 2009 – a volume greater than the total steel manufactured in all but two countries (China and Russia). Below, an image taken at a large-scale, highly efficient aluminum scrap processing operation in South China (by me).

So one would reason, I think, that if an organization – say, the United Nations Environmental Programme – were interested in conducting a study to determine the worldwide recycling rates of all of the metals on the periodic table, that organization would want to get some Chinese experts – industry, government, trade associations – in on the preparation. And that’s precisely what the United Nations Environment Programme claimed to do when, two weeks ago, it released a study claiming to show global rates of recycling for metals. The report is downloadable, and it includes this very simple explanation of its methodology: Continue reading

Recycle Rare Earths at Home, with a Screwdriver.

Let’s call this a lesson in avoiding absolutes.

Below, two versions of a component in every hard disk drive. The circled components – the valuable, important components – are magnets of the (capital R, capital E) Rare Earth variety. That is to say, they are magnets manufactured, in part, by adding a dash of the mysterious elements that my colleagues in the media have rendered quasi-mystical, and the Chinese have rendered more valuable via (reportedly, export bans). I show them, in part, to clear up the mystery. So here, dear readers, circled in red, are examples of the rare earth actuator magnets present in pretty much every hard drive on the planet (stay in your seats, please).

I bring them up, also, because, based upon some of the things that have been written about rare earths over the last few months, one might have the impression that the recycling and recovery of rare earths – in part to deal with Chinese export restrictions – is something that requires high-tech. But, of course, based upon the above photo, you can pretty much judge for yourself: the only technology necessary to recover the rare earth magnets in a hard drive (how many hundreds of millions?) is a screw-driver. And that’s precisely how it’s done in one part of Malaysia, where this photo was taken: workers disassemble hard drives, pull out the magnets, and return them to the manufacturers. And the workers do this for roughly US$300/month – a more than sufficient living wage in that region (but not, I’ll admit, for someone who eats organic in San Francisco). Continue reading

The best scrap blogger in the world.

Tonight the staff of Shanghai Scrap is taking a break from writing over-heated posts about wikileaks to pause and appreciate what we now consider the greatest scrap recycling blog of all time: the Good Point Ideas Blog, authored by Robin Ingenthron – founder of the World Reuse Repair and Recycling Association, and owner of Good Point Recycling/American Retroworks, a US-based e-waste recycling company that proudly engages in legal electronic “waste” exports to the developed world (read the blog to learn about how he does that).

I bring Robin and his blog up for several reasons. First, Shanghai Scrap was, in part, established as a platform to promote some of my writing on the global waste and recycling trade that’s typically not available to those who don’t subscribe to trade journals, but who might take an interest in the subject. The truth is, my scrap posting has become more and more rare over the years, but I still like to do it and, logically, I take an interest in other scrap bloggers (of which there are two, now – me, and Robin). Second, Robin’s blog is a tour de force if you’re at all interested if and how the planet has any chance to process and handle the massive amounts of waste being generated on it, daily – especially electronic waste like Norelco shavers and Dell computers. How are we supposed to throw those things away when we’re done with them? What are the ethics? Third, Robin has been on a bit of a tear lately, posting some 259 blogs in 2010, most quite lengthy, and all on the recycling and re-use trade. That, in itself, deserves notice. And fourth, despite the fact that Robin’s blog has existed for half of a decade, I’ve only recently become aware of it. I need to make up for that. Continue reading

Where [some of] Hong Kong’s old computers go to die.

Below, a stack of old PCs, monitors, and printers that, at one time, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, new. Yesterday, at the time that I took this photo, they had just arrived in bulk at a Hong Kong warehouse where they were to be sorted and – for the most part – disassembled and recycled.

The warehouse is owned and operated by the Li Tong Group, the company designated to operate Hong Kong’s municipal computer recycling program (they also handle electronics recycling for private clients – including Apple, and its entire Asia Pacific recycling program). And yesterday Li Tong walked me through their EcoPark warehouse, home to the municipal program (client confidentiality prevented them from showing locations that handle waste generated by private clients), and allowed me to photograph most of it (understandably, proprietary processes were off-limits to the camera – but not my eyes).

I’m going to post a few of those images, for two reasons: 1) searches for “waste electronics” and “Hong Kong” typically generate horrific images of polluted, unsafe workshops where workers risk their health to extract gold from circuit boards. No doubt, that’s how electronics are usually recycled in Asia, but the situation is beginning to shift a bit, and Li Tong is at the head of the Asia Pacific pack. So, hopefully these images reveal another side; and 2) Just as many American hunters believe that meat eaters should, at some point in their lives, should kill and dress their steak, I – a non-hunter – believe that every techie should have to face up to what happens to that old monitor/PC/printer/scanner/iPod after it gets tossed to the curb. Continue reading