by Adam Minter
Below, a photo of test cars being deposited into a 2000-horsepower metal shredder at the Toyota Metal facility outside of Nagoya, Japan.
This is how automobiles are recycled in the developed world--a place where labor is too expensive to pay for more careful, deliberate manual disassembly, and there are just too many cars and too few hands to take them apart, anyway. Take, for example, Toyota Metal: its two shredders have been responsible for reducing more than two million automobiles (it recycles local junkers as well as company test vehicles) into fist-sized chunks of metal in its 40-year history. And that's actually quite modest by metal shredder standards. Indeed, there are roughly 850 of these machines, worldwide, with many equipped to tear apart much bigger volumes, and much more stubborn varieties of steel, than Toyota's relatively light-weight test vehicles.
For another example: China, recently the world's top automobile market will soon be the world's biggest source of the mixed stream of fist-sized and smaller chunks of metal, plastic, foam and whatever people lost beneath the seats, produced when cars are shredded.
It works like this: magnets capture and segregate the steel that comes out of a shredder--steel much favored by steel mills who, among other clients, count automobile manufacturers as important destinations for their goods. Shredder, to steel mill, to car manufacturer, to consumer and then back again--it's a profitable, usually efficient cycle, developed and perfected by--no surprise--Americans in the midst of their mid-twentieth century automobile love affair (the metal shredder was developed in mid-century Texas). And you can be sure that China's economic planners, steel mills and recycling industry leaders have studied this cycle intently, as they promote a growth model partially driven by an expanding automobile industry. Already, China is home to one of the world's biggest metal shredders, and more are on order, tracking perfectly the displacement of the U.S. as the world's biggest automobile consumer.