Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: Loose Change Edition

Today’s Scene from a Junkyard Planet – actually two scenes – takes its cue from a story circulating in the French press (thanks to Wee Ling Soh, who tweeted the story in my direction). There are a couple of versions floating around, but here’s a concise edit of the Local’s version of events:

Two Chinese tourists in Paris found themselves in hot water recently with anti-fraud authorities. After paying their €70 hotel bill in €1 coins, police found €3,700 in change in their possession, and arrested them on suspicion of forgery …

For their part, the two told a representative from the Paris Mint that they had acquired the coins from an unusual source back home.

“They said they had bought all the coins from scrapyard dealers in China,” the Paris Mint official told Le Parisien.

“When cars owned by Europeans, and destined for scrap metal, get sent to China to be recycled, the junkyard owners often collect dozens of euro coins from each vehicle,” the source added.

So here’s the deal. In Europe, the US, Japan, and other developed countries, automobile recycling is typically accomplished via giant metal shredders (for a delightfully entertaining take on metal shredders, see Foreign Affairs’ excerpt from my upcoming book on the subject – or just pre-order the book). Once the pieces are reduced to fist-sized chunks, magnets separate out of the steel from everything else – and everything else goes overseas to giant workshops where it’s hand-sorted into component metals before recycling (there are a couple of notable exceptions – one of which is found in my book). In any case, all of that shredded metal contains an often overlooked but nonetheless valuable commodity: all that change which fell out of your pockets and became lodged in the seats.

According to one US-based recycler who would know (his name is Jack, and he’s also in my book), the average US automobile contains $1.65 in change when it arrives at the shredder. And that means, generally, that there’s a LOT of change in the shredded metal that arrives in China every year by the millions of tons. Below, a metal sorting facility in Foshan, Guangdong Province. Metal has just been unloaded onto a conveyor and the women in the photo are employed to pick out the coins from it. And that’s all they’re employed to do. Note, in the below photo, the plastic buckets circled in red: those contain coins.

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And, below, those are the coins. Gnarled and chopped up, but coins nonetheless. Needless to say, there are enough of them in that shredded metal to pay the salaries of these workers (at the time the photo was taken in 2009, the going rate was around $400/month).

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Clearly, some of those coins are re-usable and – predictably – the Chinese scrap processors who collect them are not averse to selling them to people who have their own uses for gnarled up money … like Chinese tourists who don’t mind schlepping them to Europe in suitcases. At Chinese scrap yards, the price of the coins is set at a serious discount to their actual value (and takes into account currency fluctuations – of course). The tourists probably figured they were getting a killer deal. Which, I suppose, they were.

As for the coins that can’t be re-sold for re-use because they’re too gnarled? They’re sent to smelters who recycle them into new metal. Viva la scrap.

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: The Chinese Metal Sorters

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 Chinese workers sorting the same kinds of shredded metal shown in yesterday’s scene, which featured Indian workers. Click to enlarge:

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This 2005 image, taken at a Shanghai-area scrap yard, shows hundreds of workers diligently sorting the various metals that emerge from US and European automobile shredders. Like the Indian sorters featured yesterday, the workers at these tables are all women. However, unlike the Indian sorters, the Chinese workers are afforded basic safety gear – face masks, gloves – and given extensive training for the work of sorting copper from aluminum from zinc etc. In the foreground of the above image, the table to the left is a training table where workers spend several weeks learning the trade (and being tested) before they are placed on one of the actual working tables. The result is better recycling – cleaner metal that can be used in all kinds of products (much of what is sorted in this factory is recycled into the automotive industry). Though not all Chinese metal sorting facilities are not as nice as this one – it’s one of the best – they are, generally, superior to the conditions at Indian facilities, and thus so is the metal that they produce.

Junkyard Planet Excerpted at Foreign Affairs!

I’m extremely pleased to point readers to a new excerpt from Junkyard Planet posted today at Foreign Affairs. This particular passage, renamed ‘The Reincarnation Machine,” comes from one of my favorite chapters from the book, and concerns what amounts to the single most important device in this history of the recycling industry: the metal shredder. On paper (and on-screen), I realize that doesn’t sound so exciting. But in the presence of one – well, you’ll just have to take my word for it and then read the passage. Metal shredders are awesome – in the biblical sense – and I’ve done my best to convey that in the excerpt.

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Meanwhile, over the last week I’ve been posting some images of what metal shredders look like, and what they can do, to the ongoing Scenes from a Junkyard Planet series. An even richer history of these crazy machines, and the Texans who invented them, is included in Junkyard Planet:Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, to be published on November 12. Pre-order now!

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: the Indian Metal Sorters

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 an Indian factory where shredded automobiles from the US and EU are sorted into their individual metals.

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This 2006 image, taken north of Mumbai, was taken in a warehouse next to an aluminum smelter where some of the metal sorted here would be melted. What’s shipped to India and other developing countries is metal that couldn’t be sorted using magnets and other simple means of sortation. In other words: aluminum, copper, zinc, and other metals that don’t stick to magnets. The technology exists to sort copper from aluminum from zinc etc  mechanically, but the low cost of labor in India and other developing countries, plus the extreme demand for raw materials from those same countries, makes export for hand-sorting the more efficient and economical means of recycling. In India, as in China, women are employed almost exclusively for this kind of work, on the belief – repeated to me many times over the years – that they’re more precise than men.

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

 

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: This Wheel’s Not On Fire.

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 boxes of car steering wheels and electrical harnesses hand-plucked from Chinese automobiles.

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This July 2013 image was taken at a Shanghai-area automobile recycling facility where every last salvageable part – even steering wheels – are recovered from unwanted cars and segregated for re-use or recycling. The most recognizable parts in this image are, obviously, the steering wheels. In the United States and other countries where salaries run high, no automobile recycling plant would bother ripping out the wheels. But in China, where labor is cheap and – equally important – there’s a strong and thriving market for used automobile parts, pulling steering wheels makes sense. At least some of these will find their way into used cars (though, to be honest, I can’t quite fathom why someone would need to replace a steering wheel). Those that don’t will be further broken down into metal and plastic parts for recycling. It’s an efficient and green means of re-using and recycling old cars – and as China’s price of labor goes up, it’s likely to disappear into one of the shredders pictured in last weeks’ Scenes from a Junkyard Planet.

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: the Destruction Factory

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 a Chinese factory where metal shredders that eat cars are manufactured.

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This June 2013 photo was taken at one of the world’s busiest factories devoted to making equipment for the scrap metal industry, located in Hubei province, China. The two large blue machines in the background are multi-million dollar metal shredders; the round devices in the foreground are metal shredder parts. To see a metal shredder in action, see this weeks’ four earlier Scenes from a Junkyard Planet. To see one being built, increasingly one must go to China. That’s a big change: the shredder was invented in Texas in the 1950s and 1960s because the cost of recycling a car by hand was simply too expensive and inefficient for American laborers. That wasn’t a problem faced by China and other developing countries until quite recently. Now, with a growing middle class, rising labor rates, and huge supplies of automobiles, China, too, is starting to shred automobiles into fist-sized chunks. And so, a mid-century Texas invention is now an expensive device that the Chinese build for themselves. American influence, in a sense, persists right to the recycling bin..

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: Hammer Time

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 a Toyota official standing next to the means of automobile destruction.

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Taken in 2009, this image shows two automobile shredder hammers (and this image shows what those hammers can accomplish). The one on the right weighs 120 kg (264 lb), and hasn’t been used yet. Soon, though, it’ll be installed in one of Toyota Metal’s two automobile shredders (here’s one from Tuesday’s Scene), where it’ll join probably two dozen others in spinning around several times per second as cars are fed to it. Those cars, no surprise, are reduced to fist-sized hunks. According to one shredder manufacturer, every ton of car that runs through a shredder chews away one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of shredder. Thus, we have the hammer on the left, reduced and retired from a career spent destroying test vehicles. In effect, the machine destroys itself, constantly, while destroying cars that nobody wants, anymore. It’s a bleak thought – but so long as we want new cars rather than used ones, it’s a bleak thought that’s made the planet a cleaner, greener place.