History

Junkyard Blight No More

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Like oil-slicked seagulls and smokestacks spewing black fumes, piles of rusting cars were standard symbols of environmental blight in the 1960s and early '70s. "Few of America's eyesores are so unsightly as its millions of junked automobiles," President Richard Nixon declared in a 1970 speech.

Although Americans had been dumping cars since the 1920s, replacing worn-out models with new wheels, the problem was a relatively late-breaking one. Up through the 1950s, junkyard workers would rip apart the cars and recycle their components. During World War II, U.S. Marshals even seized scrapped cars from a Maryland junkyard whose owner "had refused to sell the much-needed materials at established prices."

By the '60s, however, wages had risen, making it too expensive to pull old cars apart by hand, and steel mills were getting pickier about what they would accept. "The problem was copper: even a small amount—1 percent or so—when melted in a steel furnace will weaken the properties of steel," writes Adam Minter in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (Bloomsbury). Once steel mills stopped buying the old scrap, junk cars started piling up. Making the problem worse were new bans on the incinerators that had previously burned away everything but a car's recyclable metal, producing choking black smoke in the process.

City, state, and federal officials all tinkered with regulations designed to hide or eliminate the blight of junked cars, without much success. "Abandoned cars are the biggest pollution problem this country has," a Pittsburgh official told The New York Times in 1972. By then, however, the solution was on its way.

It had started on an airplane in 1955, as businessman Sam Proler was throwing back screwdrivers and mulling a problem. Sam was one of four Houston brothers who owned Proler Steel Corp., a company that had found itself stuck with 40,000 tons of recycled-car bundles that steel mills would no longer accept. "They had too many contaminants, like copper and rubber," he told Recycling Today in 2007.

But Proler had an idea. What if instead of burning away the impurities and smashing cars into blocks, you could put a whole automobile into a hammermill like the industrial shredders used to break up rocks, chop animal feed, or chip wood? He asked the flight attendant for some paper and began sketching.

Turning the sketch into a working machine took several years—Proler received a patent in 1960—but the Prolerizer, as it came to be known, did the job. It reduced a car to what contemporary journalists described as "corn flakes" and used magnets to separate the iron and steel from other components. The machine was a monster: 1,000 feet long, with motors "taken from naval destroyer escort vessels," it "had 12-foot flywheels and 6,000 horsepower," brother Hymie Proler said in 2002.

Rumors of the new invention inspired another Texas innovator's more compact solution. Alton Newell owned a scrap yard in San Antonio, where he was already shredding car parts, if not full automobiles. "As soon as we saw that that could be done," his son Scott told Minter, Newell decided to build a shredder big enough to take a whole car. He also realized he could make it smaller and cheaper, with lower power requirements, than the Prolerizer.

The trick was to feed the car in little by little, rather than all at once. He dubbed his side-feed roller The Insight.

That move, concludes Minter, whose own family ran a scrap business, is what "made the shredder affordable to smaller scrapyards and cleaned up the mess of cars polluting the American countryside." It took decades to work through the built-up supply, but the two shredder models eventually solved the problem regulation couldn't, making piles of junked cars as obsolete as tail fins.

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  1. One of the most frustrating aspects of being anti-government is getting people to see the evidence right before their eyes, daily, of how incompetent government is. I’ve never been a businessman, I have no leadership aspirations and have always been the guy on the ground or in the back room, but I know that businesses can fail and government can’t. I recognize the signs of a broken business that will be cured by either bankruptcy or the fear of bankruptcy, and see it in everything government touches. Why are others so blind to this, why do they always want to fix broken government by making more of it?

    But the flip side is getting people to recognize the success of the market, where businesses may go bankrupt but business people and workers are recycled all the time. It’s so common that no one notices it. This car recycling business — it’s absolutely typical of how markets solve problems, by recycling business people and workers, by noticing opportunities. Government never does this because governments never go bankrupt, and government bureaucrats never have to recycle their attitudes and occupations, and there is no fear of bankruptcy. The only new opportunities are expanding their bureaucracy, not new endeavors.

    It’s so frustrating trying to point out the obvious to the willfully blind.

    1. All you can do is talk about the free market doing it better than government to as many people as you can and hope your comments influence as many people as possible.

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    3. But in this case, the market only succeeded once the government said “No, you can’t just burn stuff and throw it out into everyone else’s air because it’s cheaper than having to deal with your waste products properly.”

      1. Imagine a voluntary non-governmental redress system where loses pay all costs.

        Imagine a polluting factory can be proven a polluter who caused $10 in damage, but proving that and prosecuting that costs $1M.

        Imagine the first few cases lose because it’s a tough row to hoe. But each case learns from the mistakes of prior cases. Eventually one wins. From that point on, wins are the norm, and the company will be flat broke within weeks as new cases come pouring in.

        The assets would have to be sold for pennies on the dollar. They will be bought by investors who know the history and will invest in cleaner production methods; their products will not cost more because no one would be dumb enough to pay more for them because they want to remain in business, not be sued into oblivion.

        In fact, the original owners will have learned from prior cases elsewhere and won’t make the initial mistake. That’s how free markets work.

        Your example is only possible if government shields the polluters from the market, and then a change in administration comes along and pivots from shielding crony to backstabber with new cronies to get money and votes from.

        You should read up on Love Canal to see how competent and caring government is.

        1. Imagine a voluntary non-governmental redress system where loses pay all costs.

          If it is voluntary, why would the polluter ever agree to participate to begin with?

          1. Because shunning. Easy to build into redress: you can’t file for redress for anything less than what you owe in redress. And of course you have to have perjury: laying under oath, corrupting evidence, etc, which further makes you ineligible for redress.

            This stuff isn’t hard. You just got to think a little.

        2. Imagine that the legal basis for class-action lawsuits wasn’t continually being undermined by corporations that don’t like losing court cases.

          1. Corporations are government created and licensed legal fictions. They are just one of the many problems governments created. Abolish nation-states and their governments.

      2. But in this case, the market only succeeded once the government said “No, you can’t just burn stuff and throw it out into everyone else’s air because it’s cheaper than having to deal with your waste products properly.”

        Are you stupid or illiterate?

        1. My real propblem is that I only speak Esperanto. All of my comments here are just little speeches I’ve memorized phonetically. I don’t actually know what any of them mean.

        2. Are you stupid or illiterate?

          Stormy is describing the tragedy of the commons. I doubt seriously he understands it because the solution is well-defined property rights and less regulation, to remove friction and let the market deal with negative externalities such as pollution.

          But I do wonder what happens to the tons and tons of “corn flakes” that are not recyclable.

          1. Rubber and stuff is mostly recyclable, as is most everything else. I know in other situations they use water to sort things by weight, etc. So like rubber gets skimmed off, non ferrous metal gets sorted somehow etc. They have their ways, although I’m sure some stuff still gets sent to landfills, it’s probably not most.

            1. It gets stored in landfills, as it should, if it is not economically feasible to recycle. Like the plastic and foam all these new cars are filled with, I’m sure. At some point in the future, it will be economically feasible to recycle these items, and these landfills will be reopened and mined as an extremely convenient source of raw materials.

              In the land of $150/bbl oil, all this plastic will be microwaved and broken down into liquid goo to be used as fresh feedstock to make various plastic. Until then, trying to mandate it be recycled wastes everyone’s time and money.

              [Alternatively, we’ll come up with CO2 condensers that mine the atmosphere and make organics directly, and will never need to mine the landfill, because technology has come up with something even better than recycling. Yay!]

      3. If only government would let American sue polluters rather than having a EPA.

        1. There were “sniffers” in Brooklyn in the 1880s, I think; I couldn’t find the book which mention them, so dates and stuff are off.

          These were professionals who found the sources of pollution. They were successful, put at least some polluters out of business. Memory says they were successful enough that the usual cronies bought the usual legislators and put them out of business by the usual practice of reserving to the government the right to crack down on polluters.

      4. The solution was designed in the 50’s and working in the 60’s government didn’t get involved until the 70’s

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  2. It’s ironic that leftists claim to be such visionaries (“alternative energy sources are our only hope!”) yet have so little imagination when it comes to solving real problems. The crises they warn us about, e.g. overpopulation, non-biodegradable waste, depletion of the ozone layer, etc. seem to never quite wipe out human civilization. They an write countless books on how we need to make fundamental changes to save ourselves, but it’s the creative guys in stories such as these that prove, every day, that we need the freedom to innovate in order to solve our problems.

    1. The Chicken Littles can’t predict what is going to happen five years from now, but they are so sure they have answers that we need to adopt NOW (see Al Gore, et al) and make plans that will lock us in to certain paths decades into the future.

    2. depletion of the ozone layer

      Ozone depletion didn’t wipe out humanity because they did something about it and the ozone layer is now returning to normal.

      1. Again you stupid fuck, you’re quite behind on your science.

        1. Unfortunately, I only have time to study real science, which has left me quite behind and whatever Fox News is making up this week.

          1. FOX is making as much stuff as CNN, NBC, CBS, New Yorker are making up.

            Its all fake news.

            1. But, we are only forced to pay for PBS to produce fake news. That makes it special.

          2. Stormy Dragon|1.14.18 @ 1:40PM|#
            “Unfortunately, I only have time to study real science,”

            So you failed?

        2. And you claim that the truth is…? Not sarcasm, genuinely curious to hear the counter-argument.

      2. The “ozone hole” has indeed been closing. It is unclear if any of the actions taken to protect it actually had anything to do with it. Although use of CFC’s in the developed world has gone to nearly nothing, use of CFC’s in the developing world has risen dramatically. (China for example) This has raised the question if the actions taken in making CFC’s illegal in the developed world and the rebounding of the ozone layer are causation or coincidence.

        The processes involved in natural phenomena like the maintenance of the ozone layer are seldom completely understood and it is easier to determine that CFC’s have an effect, than it is to determine that CFC’s are the cause of the problem.

        Kinda like people who have a virus infection taking antibiotics. The got better so they believe the antibiotics cured them, even though the antibiotics had no effect on the virus at all.

        1. I gather this was not meant as a reply to my question, but it will serve as one nonetheless. Spasibo.

      3. Who, exactly, is “they”, and what, exactly, did “they” do about it? Are attributing the change solely to the banishment of Freon from hair spray cans?

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