The Motor Breakers of China

By Adam Minter

SHANGHAI, China -- I thought long and hard about how to do justice to Jim's generous invitation to guest blog, and finally settled on doing what I occasionally do at my own blog: throw some trash around and try to convince my readers that I haven't. My hope is that, by the end of the week, this will sound a little less mad than it does at the beginning.

Below, a photo of a woman recycling a piece of imported American scrap metal inside of an industrial-scale motor scrap recycling (and copper smelting) operation south of Shanghai.

When I show this photo to American and European audiences, it often generates -- initially, at least -- feelings of pity on behalf of the presumably exploited woman, and (for lack of a better term) the "white guilt" of the audience on behalf of itself. So what I want to get straight via this post and the remaining six posts that I intend to do this week, is that guilt and pity are the wrong responses to this photo and others like it.

First, workers, like this woman, skilled in efficiently breaking apart complicated pieces of American throwaways into their recyclable components, are highly sought by China's vast and thriving scrap metal industry (which accounts for roughly 25% of Chinese aluminum production, 40% of copper production, and 15% of steel). On China's East coast, she can expect to earn roughly RMB 3500 - or nearly US$500/month, and choose her place of employment. That's better pay than the average Chinese university graduate (for example, I'm acquainted with a 28-year-old Shanghainese mechanical engineer with a Canadian master's degree who earns "under RMB 4000/month"). He doesn't have the job security of the motor breaker's co-workers.

Second point. What she's doing is good for the environments of both China (where she's doing it) and the United States (where that armature was tossed into a recycling bin). The only profitable way to recycle a motor armature into its constituent parts is to "break it" manually; in the US, with its expensive labor, that's just not possible as a business proposition. As a result, US scrap motors either sit idle (prior to China's commodities boom, you could find whole piles of the things in farm fields on the outskirts of any US city), or are too expensive to recycle (minimum wage won't cut it for this kind of work) ... or they get shipped to China where they're recycled completely, providing a relatively clean alternative to mined, virgin materials.

In general, this is how things work when American recycling gets shipped abroad, and how they'll work in forthcoming editions of 24/7 Wasted.