The Reincarnation Machine

From Cars to Skyscrapers, Indiana to Shandong

Old cars are pictured at a junkyard near Frankfurt, Germany, September 2, 2009.
Old cars are pictured at a junkyard near Frankfurt, Germany, September 2, 2009. (Kai Pfaffenbach / Courtesy Reuters)

That scrapyard smell is strong, even when you’re driving in an air-conditioned pickup. I’m seated next to Dave Stage, the affable manager of OmniSource’s immense scrapyard in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and he’s giving me a brief driving tour of the facility, along with my soon-to-be wife, Christine, in the jump seat. This is a first for me: I don’t usually take anyone on reporting trips. But if we’re going to marry, then Christine needs to know why I like all this scrap so much.

Dave slows to point out stacks of junked Coke and Pepsi vending machines. There must be hundreds. “Most of them still have fluorescent bulbs and refrigerator compressors that we have to pull out,” he says. Both items contain hazardous materials that need to be recycled elsewhere. “After that, we shred them.”

I look back at Christine. “In the automobile shredder.”

She flashes me an annoyed look meant to convey that, yes, she knows.

But I know she doesn’t: until you’ve seen your first auto shredder, you can’t.

Dave parks the truck at the office, and we step into a hot, yellow brass sun. All around me I hear the groan and crunch of scrap-processing equipment at work, turning ordinary objects into raw materials. “You’ll need these.” Dave hands us hard hats, safety glasses, and orange vests.

There are two piles of scrap steel in front of us, both roughly two stories tall. The one on the left is rusty in color, made up mostly of unrecognizable pieces of metal cut into short lengths that can be managed -- and melted -- by a steel mill. In industry parlance, that’s “prepared steel.”

The pile to the right, meanwhile, is a multicolored crush of everything from fences to old machine tools, scaffolding, pipes, a few bicycles, at least one swing set, and lots of shelving. This is known as “unprepared steel,” meaning that it needs to be cut down to size and cleaned of anything that isn’t steel before it can be sent off to a mill. Some of that work is done by hand and tool, and some of that work is done by dinosaur-like cranes outfitted with giant beaklike pincers that cut thick pieces of pipe like it’s pasta.

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