09 March 2011

Recycling shredded automobiles in China

The Atlantic has an eye-opening set of articles by Adam Minter detailing how other countries recycle scrap material, including much of the "waste" from the U.S.  Pictured above are the "metal sorters of Shanghai," who are sorting shredded automobiles:
[Shredded automobiles go] to a place where raw material demand is high, labor is low-cost and well-trained human hands can sort the parts of a shredded automobile with precision that no technology can come close to matching. People outside of the scrap industry tend to assume that cheap labor is the more important factor in this process, but the reality is that there are plenty of countries with cheaper labor than China, but nowhere that needs as much as aluminum as China. It goes to Shanghai because that's where the demand is...

Shredded automobiles go to China in greater numbers -- millions of tons per year -- than anywhere else, where they're sorted by teams of women (conventional scrap industry wisdom says that women are more precise) who are practiced, and highly trained... hand-sorters who can and must prove that they can accurately sort several tons of this stuff -- the industry term for this particular grade is 'zorba' -- in a day. It's not an easy job, but it's not so bad, either, as manual-labor goes: to prevent fatigue most zorba sorters work eight-hour days, five-day weeks, and enjoy income far in excess of recent Chinese university grads...
Companion articles discuss the metal sorters in Mumbai -
- and the plastic shredders of China:
...consider, then, those baskets, imported from Thailand (originally, with fruit in them). They are perfectly re-usable, and likely would have been thirty years ago. But China, now the world's second largest plastics consumer, is home of the world's largest recycled plastics industry... fulfilling the near endless demand for plastics from Chinese manufacturers of phones, computers, cars, and other products exported to developed countries and, increasingly, purchased in China. Demand is so high, in fact, that China must import large volumes of scrap plastics from abroad (900,000 tons from the U.S. in 2009) to keep the businesses running, and the plastics flowing into all those iPhones, car tail lights, and flat-screen monitors.

And that's why, in part, this couple, once farmers, were shredding a small mountain of plastic fruit baskets: a consumer electronics company (you'd know the name) guaranteed (with money) that destroying the fruit baskets (destruction is the first step in recycling anything) would be more economically rewarding than re-using them. That's an odd, new way of thinking among China's peasants, and increasingly, across the developing world.
There are seven articles in the series.

BTW, if you're curious about industrial-grade shredders that can chew up a car, watch this video of a shredder being fed automobile engine blocks.


  1. I wonder if they will send flotillas to gather all the plastic floating in the ocean's dead zones, that would be fabulous!!

  2. Anon, you beat me to it. My first thought as well.

  3. Our country is so behind on recycling.
    Talk about a job creator.

  4. This reminds me of nothing so much as a documentary I watched years ago about shipbreaking on the coast of India - and what a dangerous and environmentally nightmarish way to make a living it is.

    It reminds one of just how easy we really do have it here in "the West".


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