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.

Junkyard Planet: the Video.

On November 12, Bloomsbury Press will publish my first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade (pre-order the book; pre-order the e-book). In advance of the release, I’ve been posting images from the book (and many that aren’t in the book). Today, I’m excited to post the first video from my reporting for the book, in the form of a short video “trailer” that I put together with Bloomsbury. It’s a brief but hopefully tantalizing peak inside of a fascinating industry that touches all of us. I hope the images fascinate you as much as they’ve fascinated me.

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: Your Car, Reduced to Bite-sized Chunks

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 the remains of a Toyota test vehicle – possibly several – just run through a metal shredder (in fact, the one in yesterday’s Scene from a Junkyard Planet) at the Toyota Metal facility in Nagoya, Japan. As always, click to enlarge.

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How was an automobile transformed into this? Simply, the car was fed to a couple of dozen super-hardened 300 lb spinning hammers that pulverized it in seconds. Once reduced to chunks, the car was run past magnets and the steel was pulled out. Everything that’s not steel was sent elsewhere. The workers standing over the line are responsible for grabbing any stray pieces of copper, aluminum, plastic, or whatever else might have leaked into the steel. From here, the steel is delivered to a steel mill where it’s melted down into a form suitable for making new Toyotas. This is not a niche activity: in the US, at least, shredded cars account for around 1/3 of the raw materials that go into making steel. In some countries, including Japan, the ratio is even higher.

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: Shredded in Texas, Shredded in Japan.

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 test cars being fed into a giant auto shredder at Toyota Metal (yes, that Toyota) in Nagoya, Japan.

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Taken in 2009, this image shows arguably the most important technological development in the history of metal recycling: the automobile shredder. Developed and perfected in Texas in the late 1950s and 1960s, the auto shredder was responsible for cleaning up the tens of millions of cars that Americans had abandoned to fields and alleys dating back to the 1920s. The idea is simple: instead of using hand labor to disassemble a car, shred it into tiny pieces and then use a magnet to separate out the steel. Execution, however, was another matter. Shredding paper is easy. A car? It took some engineering (so much clever engineering, in fact, that the American Society of Mechanical Engineers named the second automobile shredder a National Engineering Landmark). Today there are more than 600 metal shredders around the world, with the developing world – and its growing armies of automobile owners – the region where the machines are proliferating most quickly. The world is a cleaner, greener place for them. Up next – a look at how they work.

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:

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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: Hunks of Scrap, Day 4

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. This week, at the strong suggestion of my wife, I’m running a series we’re calling Hunks of Scrap (for more info, see Monday’s Scene). Regular readers may have noted that the series was terminated on Wednesday, due to a lack of quality material (despite an appeal to readers!). Today, thanks to a loyal reader, I terminate that termination, and finish up the week right. As always, click to enlarge:

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Meet Michael Cordoba, 22-years-old, originally from Colombia, and now an employee of Retroworks de Mexico, an innovative electronics repair and recycling business in Fronteras, Mexico (here’s a great 2 minute youtube video that explains what they do, and here’s a nice 2008 AP story that does the same). The photo was provided to me by Robin Ingenthron, American Retroworks’ founder, who explained that Cordoba spent two years training in Vermont, before moving to Fronteras to help “process CRT tubes into cullet for a local coppers smelter.” In layman’s language: the leaded glass is used in place of mined lead in the copper smelting process (that is, instead of digging a hole to get lead, they use an old tv). It’s essential work that provides good wages, environmental benefits – and one hell of a workout (as evidence by those arms). Many thanks to Robin and Michael for the photo and a fine ending to the Hunks of Scrap series. Next week, it’s back to the scrap – and just the scrap.

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: The Car Plague

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 in 1974 by Bruce McAlister, as part of the Documerica project commissioned by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Click to enlarge.

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At the time this public domain image was shot, abandoned cars were among the most serious environmental crises facing the United States. Estimates vary, but in 1970 General Motors – theoretically, a knowledgeable source – estimated that there were at least 40 million cars abandoned in public places across the United States. In 1967, New York City reported 70,000 cars were abandoned on its streets, alone. By scale, and seriousness, abandoned cars exceeded any waste disposal problem before or since (including the so-called “e-waste” crisis). And then, suddenly, the problem went away (in effect, the photo above is a scene from a lost junkyard planet). Over the next few days I’m going to offer up some images that explain, in part, how.

[A note from Shanghai Scrap's author: Regular readers of Scenes from a Junkyard Planet will note that this image most definitely does not fit into the 'Hunks of Scrap' theme that we'd established earlier in the week, and intended to carry through to Friday. However, due to concerns (in part, from my spouse) that the quality of the hunks could not meet the high standards typically upheld here, we're shifting into a new theme.]

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