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.

The Environmentally Unfriendly, Pre-Mature Afterlife of the iPhone 5s

What’s the lifespan of an iPhone? Is it measured in the lifespan of the handset? Or is it measured in the lifespan of the battery? Most iPhone users will likely answer that the lifespan is determined by the battery, if only because – unlike the Samsung Galaxy S4 – consumers can’t change an iPhone battery without voiding the warranty. As a result, if you own an iPhone, and your battery is dying, you’re left little option beyond relying upon Apple’s $79 battery replacement service – and the one-week, mail-in wait that it requires. Under that circumstance, most consumers will opt for a new phone. After all, who can wait a week for a battery replacement?

Today at Bloomberg View I take issue with this Apple design choice, in an op-ed entitled, “Eco-Friendly Apple’s Dark iPhone Secret.” As I point out in the piece, the new iPhone 5s is more unfriendly than most, due in no small part to the fact that Apple has chosen to glue the new phone’s battery to the case, making it even more difficult to replace. Below, an image courtesy of ifixit, showing a removed battery and the glue strips that secure it.

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Surely Apple – a company that prides itself on reduced packaging – can figure out a way to allow consumers to switch out batteries from its most popular product. At Bloomberg View, I suggest that it might want to start looking for a way sooner rather than later.

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: Hunks of Scrap, Day 3

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). As always, click to enlarge:

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This rakish fellow was photographed at a Ningbo scrapyard in November 2010, as he was taking a cigarette break (fyi: that’s my shadow on him). Unlike his two predecessors in the Hunks of Scrap series, he is not shirtless (the photo was taken in November, and Ningbo was crisp). Then again, I’m not sure that his predecessors – or many men, really – could manage to hold a cigarette at the corner of their mouths with such confident, rugged masculine ease. He is, in a sense, the Steve McQueen of the Ningbo scrap yard set. In any case, this man is also a motor breaker – that is, he spends his days breaking apart motors into steel, copper, and whatever other components are in them. It’s hard, tough work that tends to build strong stout shoulders and backs. I’ll write more about motor breaking in the next couple of weeks (here, at the Atlantic, is a very short piece that I did a few years ago), but suffice it to say that a good motorbreaker is hard to find (the best can make around $750/month in China – very good money), and one who can hold a cigarette like that is even harder.

Anyway, as noted in yesterday’s inaugural edition of Hunks of Scrap, this week only I’m accepting reader-submitted images for the series – to be judged by my wife – at ShanghaiScrap at gmail com. Alas, I haven’t received any yet …

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