The Metal Sorters of Shanghai

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by Adam Minter

SHANGHAI, China -- This is the fourth of seven posts I'm calling Wasted 7/7. Previous entries in the series, here: 1/7, 2/7 and 3/7.

Below, a photo of women sorting a pile of shredded American automobiles at the world's largest aluminum recycling plant, in Shanghai.

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This is what happens when automobile-loving societies reach living standards so high that they can't afford to take apart their old cars by hand anymore in order to recycle them. So they shred them (see yesterday's "The Metal Shredders of Toyota") and then, after using magnets to remove the steel from everything else, they a) develop complicated, multi-million dollar technologies to separate the aluminum from the zinc from the copper from the glass and so forth; or, b) they send the shredded bits 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, in the art of, say, distinguishing a fist-sized piece of zinc from a fist-sized piece of aluminum.

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And that's no small trick: I've seen millionaire scrap magnates lose informal sorting competitions with experienced hand-sorters -- 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 (U.S. $500/month is the new floor for this highly-sought semi-skilled labor force). As China's living standards improve, and its demand for aluminum goes up (in part, to be used in automobiles that are increasingly being junked in China), that income will soar until, or if, somebody figures out a cheaper, more precise way to sort the parts of a junked automobile.

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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