Why Junkyards Fascinate and Repel Us

What's junk to some, like these old cars in the Old Car City junkyard in White, Georgia, can still be profitable. Tom Driggers/flickr

Junkyards hold memories, but they can also be a reminder that items do not magically disappear after people finish with them.

An eyesore to some, these wastelands hold a sense of fascination that comes from seeing so many discarded items in one place. They can provide economic benefit for savvy salvagers but this inevitably comes with pollution-related drawbacks — whether that be ancient auto fluids or modern e-waste.

Here are some of the most fascinating places that accept the things that we throw out.

Rusty wasteland or auto wonderland?

Old abandoned cars at a junkyard in Kaufdorf, Switzerland.
The old auto junkyard at Kaufdorf has been shut down by the Swiss government. Norbert Aepli/Wikimedia Commons

Some junkyards have a romantic side. A 32-acre property in Georgia known as Old Car City is popular with classic car enthusiasts and photographers. In fact, the owner, Walter Dean Lewis, stopped selling salvaged parts several years ago and began charging visitors an entrance fee to see these rusty classics. The yard reportedly has 4,000 vehicles, and many have not been moved in decades (the business opened in 1931), so plants have grown right next to — sometimes right through — the cars.

This kind of unfiltered look at automotive history can be attractive. Most of the cars are from 1975 or before, and photographers come from as far away as Europe to wander the property snapping pictures of the relics.

But these historic scrapyards are not without controversy. A classic car junkyard in Kaufdorf, a town near Bern in western Switzerland, was well known for its collection of vehicles from the 1930 through the 1960s. Originally a scrap yard, the property became a kind of car museum when the original owner’s offspring inherited it and decided not to remove the old cars. The Swiss government did not see the allure of the historic vehicles, worried that solvents from the cars would seep into the ground and contaminate the groundwater. A court ordered the property closed and the cars sold off.

Big junk (and a big bankroll)

Discarded aircraft at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucscon, Arizona.
Nearly 5,000 old aircraft are parked at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base boneyard in Tucson, Arizona. Travelview/Shutterstock

Even the largest items need to be thrown away eventually. The Boneyard, or Aerospace Maintenance And Regeneration Center (AMARC), in Tucson, Arizona is overseen by the US Air Force. It contains roughly 3,700 old aircraft on a property that stretches for 2,600 acres. Unlike other junkyards, the items here are kept in relatively good condition by a staff of several hundred people (aided by the arid Sonoran Desert climate).

Some of the aircraft are kept in a condition that will allow them to potentially take to the skies again. Others are broken down and their parts salvaged and reused. The planes and helicopters are treated with anti-corrosives when they arrive at the Boneyard so that they, and their parts, do not decay over time.

Obviously, AMARC has the budget to manage its “junk” in a way that is just not possible with privately owned waste processors.

Economic opportunity and health hazards

A worker dismantles a toner cartridge at a junkyard in Guiyu, China.
A worker dismantles a toner cartridge at a junkyard in Guiyu, China. baselactionnetwork/flickr

Hazardous waste comes with the territory at junkyards. So, too, does economic opportunity. Agbogbloshie, Ghana is home to one of the world’s largest electronic waste dumps. Computers, cell phones and televisions from all over the world end up here. According to a report from Vice News, salvagers come from poorer regions in northern Ghana and throughout West Africa to work in Agbogbloshie. They extract copper and other salable materials from the waste. This is often done by burning off plastic casings, which creates toxic smoke. Other dangerous materials, including lead, mercury and dioxin, seep into the ground.

Even so, migrants keep coming to Agbogbloshie because they can make more than they could working at home.

The Chinese city of Guiyu serves a similar purpose, albeit with a slightly more organized (but equally unregulated) economy. More than 5,000 businesses, mostly small “mom-and-pop” operations, are involved in breaking down electronics and scavenging valuable materials from them. The industry reportedly earns the city $75 million per year, and the businesses process more than 1.5 million pounds of old computers, cell phones and other electronics each year. Pollution problems related to lead poisoning and carcinogenic dioxins are compounded by the fact that the city relies on coal power.

Why have these e-waste processing businesses thrived in places like China and Ghana and many places in the developing world? Unlike Switzerland and other countries that have more stringent rules, a lack of regulation makes it cheaper to process waste in these places. This is why it's worthwhile for the US and EU countries to ship their discarded electronics to China or Africa instead of disposing of them on home soil.