The Metal Shredders of Toyota

by Adam Minter

This the third of seven posts I'm calling--for organizational purposes--Wasted 7/7. Previous in the series: 1/7, 2/7.

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.

Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai, China. He blogs at Shanghai Scrap.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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