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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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Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter. Copyright ©2013 by Adam Minter. Published by Bloomsbury Press. Reprinted with permission.

A single strand of burned-out Christmas tree lights weighs almost nothing in the hand. But a hay-bale-sized block? That weighs around 2,200 pounds, according to Raymond Li, the fresh-faced but steely general manager of Yong Chang Processing, a scrap-metal processor in the southern Chinese town of Shijiao.

He would know.

I am standing between him and three such bales, or 6,600 pounds of Christmas tree lights that Americans tossed into recycling bins, or dropped off at the Salvation Army, or sold to someone in a "We Buy Junk" truck. Eventually they found their way to a scrapyard that pressed them into a cube and shipped them off to Raymond Li's Christmas tree light recycling factory. Raymond is anxious to show me how it works.

But first off, he needs to tell me that, though 6,600 pounds might seem like a large volume of American Christmas tree lights to find in a small Chinese village, it isn't. Mid-November is actually low season for buying imported old Christmas tree lights. High-season starts after the New Year and reaches its peak in the spring, when Americans in the northern states start to empty their homes and garages of the pesky tangles. Those who take them to the local recycling center or sell them to the local scrapyard most likely have no idea where they're going next. But I do: right here, to Shijiao, China, population maybe 20,000. Raymond Li tells me that his company recycles around 2.2 million pounds of imported Christmas tree lights per year, and he estimates that Shijiao is home to at least nine other factories that import and process similar volumes. That's 20 million pounds annually, conservatively estimated.

How did an anonymous village in southern China become the Christmas Tree Light Recycling Capital of the World? Here's one answer: Shijiao is within driving distance of thousands of factories that need copper to make things like wires, power cords, and smartphones. Those factories have a choice: they can use copper mined in far-off, environmentally-sensitive places like the Brazilian Amazon. Or, alternatively, they can use copper mined from imported Christmas tree lights in Shijiao.

But Raymond's answer as to how Shijiao achieved its odd status is much simpler: "People wanted to make money," he says softly, his distant gaze pointed away from me. "That's all." Raymond knows the history as well as anyone, and he tells it quickly, with no adornment. In the early 1990s economic opportunities were limited in Shijiao: you either farmed, or you left. The area lacked decent roads, an educated workforce, or raw materials. All it really had was space--vast, remote space. And as it happens, remote space, a box of matches, and some fuel are all you need to extract copper from a pile of old Christmas tree lights. Just douse the wire, set it on fire, and try not to breathe the fumes as the insulation burns off.

Raymond leads me into a cramped office where cloudy windows face Yong Chang Processing's factory floor. I'm offered a seat on a dusty leather sofa. Taking the seat to my right is Cousin Yao, brother to Raymond's wife, Yao Yei, who is seated across from me. Low-key Raymond, native of Shijiao, takes a seat beside his wife. It's a family business, they tell me, and everyone helps out.

I glance out the window at the factory floor, but from the sofa's low vantage point I can't see past additional piles of scrap wire (not Christmas tree lights) worth tens of thousands of dollars that Raymond imported a few days ago. If Raymond feels like it, he's flush enough to buy millions of dollars' worth of U.S. scrap metal per month. That may seem like a large number. But really, it's not. The global recycling industry turns over as much as $500 billion annually--roughly equal to the GDP of Norway-- and employs more people than any other industry on the planet except agriculture. Raymond Li is big in Shijiao, but here in Guangdong Province, the de facto headquarters of China's recycling industry, he has many peers.

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.

Recycling. A generation of Americans defines it as: the act of sorting cans from bottles from cardboard from newspapers and setting them out on the curbside, or down in the trash room, for somebody to pick up. It's an act of faith, a bet that the local recycling company or trash collector is as committed to doing the environmentally sound thing as the person who sorted the recyclables in the first place. But what is that right thing? And is it really recycling if your carefully sorted newspapers, cans, and bottles are shipped off to Asia?

Definitions are important, and from the standpoint of the recycling industry, what most Americans think of as "recycling" is actually more akin to harvesting. That is, a home recycler harvests cardboard from trash and other recyclables, and a paper mill recycles that used cardboard into new cardboard. Recycling is what happens after the recycling bin leaves your curb. Home recycling--what you most likely do--is just the first step. Nonetheless, it's the key step: no machine can harvest recyclables from your trash as cheaply and efficiently as you can. In fact, compared to harvesting, the actual recycling is often the easy part. After all, the process by which old paper is transformed into new paper is centuries old; turning old computers into new ones is more dif- ficult, but only because the machines are complicated to pull apart. But harvesting enough paper to make a paper mill run? That's difficult. Finding enough computers to justify opening a computer reuse or recycling business? That might even be harder.

This book aims to explain why the hidden world of globalized recycling and reclamation is the most logical (and greenest) endpoint in a long chain that begins with the harvest in your home recycling bin, or down at the local junkyard. There are few moral certainties here, but there is a guarantee: if what you toss into your recycling bin can be used in some way, the international scrap recycling business will manage to deliver it to the person or company who can do so most profitably. Usually, but not always, that profitable option is going to be the most sustainable one. To be sure, not every recycler is an environmentalist, and not every recycling facility is the sort of place you'd want to take kindergartners for a field trip. But in an age of conspicuous consumption, the global recycling business has taken on the burden of cleaning up what you don't want, and turning it into something you can't wait to buy. In the pages to follow I'll tell the story of how the very simplest of human activities--reusing an object--evolved into an international business that has played a key role in the globalization of the world economy over the last three decades. It's a murky story, obscure even to those who care very much about what happens to what they toss in their recycling bins. Like most stories that are at least partly hidden from view, the story of globalized recycling reveals uncomfortable truths and the singular, sometimes brilliant, characters who grapple with them on our behalf.

Most of those characters, like Raymond Li, share a talent for spotting value in what others throw away. In colonial-era America, Paul Revere demonstrated that talent, smartly buying scrap metal from his neighbors for remelting in his blacksmith shop. In late 1950s America, that talent was applied to finding a way to make a living by recycling the tens of millions of automobiles abandoned across the American country-side. Today, it's a talent being applied to recycling the rare and valuable elements buried inside the smartphones, computers, and other high-tech devices that middle-class people throw away like candy wrappers. More often than not, though, the genius is commercial, not technical. Today recycling is as risky and rewarding as any global business, if not more so. Huge, mind-bending, Silicon Valley-scale fortunes have been built by figuring out how to move the scrap newspapers in your recycling bin to the country where they're most in demand.

Of course, for most Americans and other people living in wealthy developed countries, recycling is an environmental imperative, not a business. From that perspective, recycling consumes fewer trees, digs fewer holes, and consumes less energy than manufacturing from virgin mate- rials (a recycled beer can requires 92 percent less energy to manufacture than one made from virgin ore). But without financial incentives, no ethical system is going to transform an old beer can into a new one.

The global recycling business, no matter how sustainable or green, is 100 percent dependent upon consumers consuming goods made from other goods. This unbreakable bond--between raw material demand, consumption, and recycling--is one of the dominant themes of the pages to follow. The calculus is simple: the only reason you can recycle is because you've consumed, and the only reason you can consume certain products is because somebody else recycled. Around the world, we recycle what we buy, and we buy a lot. Nonetheless, despite what some recycling companies will tell you, many goods--such as smartphones--are only partially recyclable, and some--like paper--can only be recycled a finite number of times. In that sense, recycling is just a means to stave off the trash man for a little longer. If your first priority is the environment, recycling is merely the third-best option in the well-known pyramid that every American schoolchild learns: reduce, reuse, recycle. Alas, most people have very little interest in reducing their consumption or reusing their goods. So recycling, all things considered, is the worst best solution.

But what a solution! According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a Washington, DC-based trade group, in 2012 the 46.35 million tons of paper and cardboard recycled in the United States saved 1.53 billion cubic yards of landfill space; the 75.19 million tons of recycled iron and steel saved 188 billion pounds of iron ore and 105 billion pounds of coal (roughly 60 percent of American steel comes from scrap metal); the 5.45 million tons of recycled aluminum saved more than 76 million megawatt hours of electricity. In China, where industry is far more polluting than in the United States, the numbers are even more astonishing, and arguably more important. According to the China Nonferrous Metals Industry Association, recycling of metals (not in- cluding iron and steel) between 2001 and 2011 saved China 110 million tons of coal and the need to excavate 9 billion tons of ore. During that same decade, China's devotion to recycled aluminum prevented 552 million tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the country's notoriously polluted skies. Today, China is the world's biggest consumer of copper, and fully 50 percent of its copper needs come from recycling. Wherever there's a recycling industry--and it's everywhere--there are examples like these covering every type of recyclable good, clothing to car batteries.

If this book succeeds, it won't necessarily convince you to embrace the oft-gritty reality of the recycling industry, but it will certainly help you understand why junkyards look like they look, and why that's not such a bad thing. In my experience, the worst, dirtiest recycling is still better than the very best clear-cut forest or the most up-to-date open-pit mine. Notably, there are no blue or green recycling bins at Raymond Li's Yong Chang Processing, no posters encouraging people to "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," no cardboard boxes filled with used office paper next to the copy machine. It's a tough factory in a tough industrial town cut from ancient farm fields and staffed by migrant laborers looking for a better life. Superficially, at least, it doesn't seem to have much to do with the neatly sorted cans, bottles, and newspapers that so many Americans set onto curbsides, or carefully sort in the trash rooms of their apartments, co-ops, and condos.

It's important to keep in mind that Raymond Li's success isn't about exploitation, any more than an American junkyard exploits its employees. Rather, Raymond Li is an opportunist who long ago recognized a simple fact: China's development into what will soon be the world's largest economy created an appetite that can only be filled by importing scrap metal, paper, and plastic. If China didn't import those resources, it'd have to dig and drill for them.

As I stand in Raymond Li's factory, watching his employees mine copper from Christmas tree lights, the question that immediately comes to mind is: Why can't somebody recycle Christmas tree lights in the United States?

The reason, as I've learned over a decade visiting recycling facilities all over the world, isn't technology (Raymond Li's water table is just a fancier version of the pan that gold prospectors once used to separate gold nuggets from gravel). Rather, the issue is business: as of 2012, fast-growing China accounted for 43.1 percent of total global copper demand. Meanwhile, the slow-growth United States accounted for only 8.5 percent. That's the difference between a country (China) that has a growing middle class and lots of buildings and infrastructure yet to build, and one (the United States) where incomes have stagnated and infrastructure spending peaked decades ago. If you're building a copper factory somewhere in the world these days, it's likely in China. If you're building a recycling plant to feed that copper factory, it might as well be in Shijiao.

But that doesn't mean there's no hope for recycling in the United States. In fact, U.S. manufacturers (second only to China in total out- put) still use roughly two-thirds of the recycled materials that are generated within U.S. borders. The problem, if you care to view it as a problem, is that Americans don't just buy U.S.-made products; they also import vast amounts of manufactured merchandise. The result is an American economy that consumes--and throws away--much more than what is manufactured at home. That excess recyclable waste has to go some- where. Export is one option, the landfill another. Thus it should come as no surprise to anyone that China is both the largest exporter of new goods to the United States and the largest importer of American recycling.

The story told here explains how China became America's recycling export destination of choice, and why that's mostly a good thing for the environment. After all, China and other developing countries are willing and able to recycle what the American recycling industry won't--or can't--recycle on its own (Christmas tree lights are just one minor example). When China stops buying American recyclables, those recyclables start to flow to landfills; it happened on a large scale in 2008, when Chinese factories shut down in the wake of the global financial crisis.

As a result, much of this book takes place in the United States and China. But not exclusively so: the global recycling industry is truly global, and so the narrative to follow touches on many countries, especially in the developing world.

The recycling and reclamation industry pre-dates globalization; indeed, it's as old as the first time somebody beat a sword into a plowshare--and then tried to sell the plowshare. One reason is that recycling is easy, a business that anyone can do. In the developing world, recycling a bottle or can from a waste bin is one of the few entrepreneurial opportunities available to people without capital. The negative consequences of that industry--pollution, threats to health and safety--are real, but compared to the alternatives--a return to subsistence farming, an inability to pay school fees--are often accepted as fair if unpleasant trade-offs. For recyclers in the wealthy developed world, these kinds of trade-offs are unimaginable; but in India, in southern China, in the lower-income parts of Los Angeles, they're far less important than the pursuit of good nutrition, safe food, clean air, and clean water. Under such circumstances, recycling someone else's garbage isn't always the worst thing. In the pages to follow, I'll explore those trade-offs.

 
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