Shanghai scrap workerA worker at a motor scrap recycling plantPhoto: Adam Minter

Cheap, un-unionized, un-regulated labor helps the environment in the U.S. and China, argues Adam Minter, a journalist who has been chronicling the “engine breakers” of Shanghai. China’s human-powered recycling plants break down and sift through junked cars and other scrap metal, searching for valuable reusable materials. It’s a greener option than just letting them rust, Minter says, and pretty much the only workable method for recycling it.

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What [the worker pictured is] 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.

Shanghai scrap workerWorkers sort through scrap metal in ShanghaiPhoto: Adam Minter

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Some of Minter’s images may look bleak — that’s industrial employment for you — but he points out that, when it comes to labor practices, harvesting usable metal from trash beats the hell out of mining it:

It’s not an easy job, but it’s not so bad, either, as manual-labor goes: to prevent fatigue most [scrap] 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).

Read Adam Minter’s stories:

The Motor Breakers of China, The Atlantic
The Metal Shredders of Toyota, The Atlantic
The Metal Sorters of Shanghai, The Atlantic