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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.

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.

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