Minter sets scene of turning trash into cash in Junkyard Planet

By Tom Hague, Contributing Writer ||

Ever stop to wonder what happens to those quarters lost in the cresses of your car? According to Adam Minter, recent guest speaker at F&M and author of Junkyard Planet, they are most likely in China.

Minter explained in his guest lecture last Monday, that recycling plants shake out, on average, $1.65 in change for each of the eleven million US cars recycled annually, generating $18,150,000 in
revenue.

Roughly two thirds of the waste generated in the United States is recycled in-house, but the rest of America’s cars and the lost change they carry are exported overseas to countries like China and India because of cheap transportation costs and bulging consumer demand.

Minter’s lecture focused primarily on China, as it is the world’s top importer of recycled materials, as well as the world’s largest recycler.

The country has been fueling its economic growth with the global garbage supply for years, repurposing trash into cars, textiles, and electronics, many of which are promptly sold right back to American consumers. Minter describes large auctions held in Chinese warehouses where buyers and sellers haggle over the price of a bushel of scrap metal. However, the actual recycling and dismantling process is where things get interesting. Minter showed several videos and photos of Chinese workers (primarily women) dismantling car motors and picking through piles of electronics and scrap metal at breakneck speeds.

While it sounds simple enough, the process requires a highly skilled picker who can actually tell what type of metal they are sorting and be able to do it precisely and quickly.

The Chinese have gone so far as recycling the copper out of old Christmas tree lights, melting the plastic away from the copper on industrial conveyor belts and taking the copper.

Looking around the room, the audience response to the videos and photos ranged from intrigued to visibly upset. It seemed hard not to feel some form of guilt, knowing that workers in developing countries are painstakingly going through American trash in what all assume are harsh and unsafe working conditions.

However, Minter explains that, while its no one’s first career choice is to work in this industry, thousands of people rely on America’s scrap metal to provide for themselves and their families. Also the stereotype most Americans have of huge piles of hazardous waste accumulating in Chinese landfills being picked through by child labor is not accurate, and much of the trash is safety managed by trained
professionals.

While the industry is not perfect, according to Minter, it is one of the higher paying careers many Chinese will have, and, as long as Americans keep producing’s waste, the Chinese will continue turning it into cash.

Senior Tom Hague is a contributing writer. His email is thague@fandm.edu.

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