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The Fascinating Ways the Global Recycling Industry Really Works

A new book explains why the world of globalized recycling is the most logical (and greenest) endpoint in a long chain that begins with your home recycling bin.

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We chat more about the history of Shijiao, its wire recyclers, and how it's changed the lives of thousands of former farmers. Then, abruptly, Cousin Yao announces that he received a degree in engineering from a top university. Rather than join a traditional manufacturer, he says, he returned to Shijiao to join Raymond's scrap business. He could have gone anywhere, he could have done other things. China, after all, doesn't lack opportunities for engineers. But Cousin Yao knows a better opportunity when he sees one, and scrap metal was that opportunity. As he and Raymond see it, China's economy is expanding quickly, and its government planners and businessmen are desperate to find copper, steel, paper pulp, and other raw materials to feed the factories that drive the growth. Copper mines are great, but Raymond and his family don't have the money or connections to open a copper mine. Then again, why would they want to do that, when there's an endless supply of perfectly recyclable and reusable copper--worth billions!--available in the junk-yards and recycling bins of America?

Raymond lights a cigarette and explains that he didn't have Cousin Yao's choices. Fifteen years ago he was twenty-seven and working as a laborer in a dead-end job at a paint and chemical factory. "I wanted to be rich and successful," he explains softly. "So I joined the scrap business." His wife's family was already engaged in scrapping on a small scale. They knew how and where to get recyclable scrap, and better yet, they knew the potential that foreign throwaways have to make a family rich--much richer than rice farmers, storekeepers, and office workers. Since Raymond's fateful decision, China's raw material needs have only grown, and so has Raymond's business. Take, for example, China's demand for oil. As late as 2009 visitors to Shijiao were confronted with clouds of black smoke churning off giant piles of burning wire (not just Christmas tree wire, either). The rubber insulation was worthless; back then it was the copper that everyone wanted, and burning was the quickest way to liberate it. Then something important happened. Chinese started buying cars, driving up the price of oil and things made from oil--like the plastic used to insulate Christmas tree lights. As the price of plastic rose, Chinese manufacturers started looking for alternatives to "virgin" plastic made from oil. The most obvious solution was the cheapest: instead of burning plastic off copper wire, figure out a way to strip and recover it for reuse. Wire insulation isn't the highest quality plastic, but it's good enough to make simple products like . . . slipper soles! These days, the biggest customers for Raymond's Christmas tree insulation are slipper sole manufacturers.

Of course, getting from Christmas lights to slipper soles isn't easy or obvious. It took Cousin Yao more than a year of tinkering and testing to get Yong Chang's Christmas tree light recycling system right. I look around the room and ask whether I might see it. Raymond nods, and we walk out to the factory floor.

The process begins with workers paid as much as $500 per month to toss handfuls of Christmas tree lights into small shredders (they look like wood chippers). With thunderous groans, the shredders pulverize the tangles into millimeter-sized bits of plastic and metal and then spit them out as a mudlike goop. Next to those shredders are three vibrating ten-foot-long tables. As workers shovel the goopy shredded lights onto their surface, a thin film of water washes over them, bleeding out very distinct green and gold streaks. I step closer: the green streak is plastic, and it washes off the table's edge; the gold streak is copper, and it slowly moves down the length of the table until it falls off the end, into a basket, 95 percent pure and ready for remelting. The principle at work is simple: think of a streambed covered in gravel. A flowing current will pick up the smaller pieces and carry them down- stream quickly, while the bigger piece, the rocks, will stay in place, only occasionally moving. The same physics is at work on Raymond's tables, only it's not gravel that's carried away, it's Christmas tree light insulation.

 
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