PHOTOS: About those abandoned cars…

One of the many vignettes about garbage we discussed Friday with journalist and Minneapolis native Adam Minter was one about abandoned cars.

This photo of an auto dump is from the EPA’s Documerica project, which documented the nation’s environmental problems during the early 1970s. (from National Archives, Bill Shrout, photographer)

We were discussing garbage, recycling, trash and scrap (listen to it here), the themes of Minter’s new book “Junkyard Planet.”

It’s not a problem in the U.S. today, Minter says, because of the huge demand for metals to feed China’s growing economy and because there exist amazing machines that shred whole cars at once into little pieces. But Minter notes (or reminds those of us old enough to remember) in Chapter 10 that this nation’s pollution problems during the 20th century included years when Americans abandoned their cars, well, just about anywhere. We abandoned fewer cars during World War II, for example, because we needed the scrap for the war effort. But soon after the war, abandonment returned.

Then in the late ’60s and ’70s, the problem blossomed again.  Minter writes about how the postwar boom of abandoned cars created an industry of burning cars to get rid of unsalvageable components. “BUT smoke is black,” Minter writes. “And in the mid-1960s the National Air Pollution Control Administration collected and published data suggesting that 5 percent of all air pollution in the United States was caused by automobile incineration.”

When those incinerators were shut down, scrapyards no longer found scrapping a car profitable, so by 1970, at least 20 million abandoned cars were scattered around the U.S., according to the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel.

Fortunately for us, there are some amazing photographs that document this era of car abandonment.  The photos are as gritty as the scenes they depict.

These photos were part of an extraordinary effort by the then-new EPA to document the nation’s environmental issues, called Documerica. From 1971 to 1978, more than 20,000 photos were collected – not just of abandoned cars, but of all kinds of environmental problems. This photo of an oil slick around the Statue of Liberty by Charles Higgins is considered one of the collection’s most powerful and seminal images:

An oil slick surrounding the Statue of Liberty in New York City (photo from National Archives, Charles Higgins, photographer)

There were also plenty of shots of just life in America at the time, and it’s easy to spend hours looking through this collection.

See more photos from the Documerica project here. Read more articles about the project here and here. You can also search for Documerica photos here on the National Archives website (search term: Documerica), but be ready to spend hours going down the Internet rabbit hole.

- Tom Weber, Daily Circuit