train. We pass beneath its shadow on Kensington Avenue. A pothole rustles the scrap in the cargo bed. Back in the sun, heading for Broad Street, Little reconsiders. Tax refund season is coming. Refunds bring cars into the shops, and bumpers, rotors and catalytic converters will appear on the asphalt. What’s more, he has his eye on the presidential election. “Once Donald Trump gets in there,” Little says, “he’s gonna start a war, and scrap metal will go way up.” The slowdown in China has had a major impact on Little’s life. But at the core of the price drop lies a dirtier, more intractable problem: mines.
The mines In the years of the boom, mining companies made huge capital investments, opening mines to meet the demand. Mining, however, is a slow industry. “The time between the idea of increasing capacity and actually getting going is a few years,” Reck says. “Some of these mines are just coming online now. Essentially, our capacity is tailored to demand by China five to 10 years ago.” In a scramble to recoup the investment, mining companies have flooded the market with “virgin” metal, driving prices to historic lows. Outliers aside, cheap, virgin metal will continue to shape the market, in part because many of the new mines opened in countries where labor and regulatory costs are low. Think Guinea, South Africa, Ukraine, India and China itself. Furthermore, just as a mine is hard to open, it’s tough to close. “Once you’ve started your new mine,” Reck says, “then you need to run it for one to three decades to get your money back.” That virgin metal may be cheap in dollars, but it’s costly in CO2 and pollution. In some places, mine workers bear an even greater cost in injury and loss of freedom. In every metal studied, recycling presents a huge savings in energy, so says a massive 2013 report released by the United Nations Environment Programme. The UNEP report details the obvious; collecting and melting down metal waste is leagues more efficient than opening the earth and processing rocky ore. With an open pit mine, huge machinery and energy-dense explosives cut and blast
the earth’s surface for trucks to haul away. Underground shaft mines, which appear surgical in comparison, require even greater energy. Consider drilling, blasting and clearing a mile-long corridor beneath the earth to convey tons of ore back to the light of day. Whether by pit or shaft, once the rocky chunks of ore are out, they’re trucked to a grinder that can beat boulders into a grain of “liberation size” particles. To liberate pure metal from the grain, mines apply either heat or chemicals. To melt the metal from the ore requires huge amounts of fossil fuels. To “leach” the metal out, mines may douse the ore in cyanide or sulfuric acid. Whether heated or leached, ore results in leftovers, an often toxic mix called “tailings.” But that’s not all. There remains the cost of damage to the landscape, the destruction of ecosystems, and the occasionally radioactive and often poisonous metal dust that may have churned into the local soil and contaminated the water. Mining is an ordeal. Then there’s the human toll. The abuse of mine workers across the world is a long-standing target of the U.N. International Labour Organization. The ILO has detailed the lives of the more than one million children across the world who spend long hours crawling into pits and tunnels to dig and blast, to hammer in the dark, to set explosives. They handle sulfur, cyanide and mercury as they mine for tin in Indonesia, copper in Mongolia, zinc in Zambia or tungsten in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where mining
profits fuel the warring factions of a civil war. Some of these workers are born into slavery, others are forced into these inhuman conditions later in life. Still others are conned into working and will never be able to leave. From the mouth of the mine, the injustice spreads as young women and girls are pressed into a sex trade that flourishes in and around the camps. To be sure, global recycling has witnessed abuses. Electronics recycling in India and other countries often poisons workers, many of whom are children, but unlike the ore that’s found in remote areas, away from the presence of law, schools and social services, the source of this scrap lies in our homes, stores and offices. These materials can be recycled here, and American workers who transform it back into a raw material have a far better shot at fairness and safety. For all of its benefits, though, scrapping is not carbon neutral. Waste metal moves by way of trucks. Yards run excavators and cranes for sorting. Consumer goods such as refrigerators get broken down with power tools. The stripped remains run through shredders, chambers of grinding shafts, blades and hammers that spit out tatters of metal. Electrical currents sort out the shreds. From there, the material is smelted; some items require more work before being smelted, others, such as I-beams, go directly in. As complex as the task may be, it hardly compares to a mine. UNEP’s report found that recycled aluminum presents a 90 to 97 percent energy savings over its mined
“Some of these mines are just coming online now... our capacity is tailored to demand by China five to 10 years ago.” — Barbara Reck, metals research scientist, Yale University
M A RCH 2016
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