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Inextricably linked: US consumption and Chinese recycling

Junkyard Planet explores the fascinating global world of waste. Robin Latchem reviews the book and speaks to author Adam Minter

When Leonard Fritz, the former president of Huron Valley Steel Corporation, started his career in the Detroit scrap trade in 1922 at the tender age of nine, he could not have imagined how China would become a key customer and dominate the global waste business.

Nor would Shi Tong Qui, much younger but born while Mao Zedong still ruled a closed, Communist, China, have imagined as a nine-year-old that he would routinely be paying $400,000 in cash for loads of metal from Japan.

Shi and Fritz are just two of the many fascinating characters we meet in Adam Minter’ Junkyard Planet – sub-titled Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.

Minter grew up in a family of scrap metal dealers in Minneapolis and is now Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View. There cannot be many people better qualified to make sense of the global waste industry which – in a huge simplification – is largely Chinese processing of US consumption.

Minter may no longer live and breathe scrap metal, plastic or paper but his heart has never really left behind those adolescent years watching his businesslike grandmother make sure the family wasted nothing.

“I always knew I was going to write a book about the industry. If I did it when I was 16 it would have been about the people I grew up around,” says Minter. “But it wasn’t until I got to China in 2002 that I started seeing the scale of the recycling yards. I suddenly realised how global this business had become.”

If Minter has a mission, as well as bringing the trade to life, it is to emphasise its importance.

“The world is a better, cleaner and more interesting place for its junkyards,” he writes.

Talking to MRW, Minter charts a growing frustration at the grim way the industry was being depicted, particularly by NGOs, environmental groups and charities.

“There are issues around the environment  - I acknowledge it - but I think there is something far more complicated and dignified about the industry. I have a privileged perspective, I’ve been there a long time and I’ve developed relationships in the industry that very few people have.”

Minter says the book is intended for a general readership but maintains that those within the business will also benefit from following his travels across China and to India.

“About two weeks after starting the book I threw away the outline. One of the things I was going to do was follow some products through the recycling chain. I was very interested in what happened to an automobile. You see these giant shredders. But after doing all the research I started thinking differently about it.

“I was thinking about the industry in terms of consumption and being driven by consumption. I sort-of knew it: you don’t recycle unless somebody wants to buy it to turn it into something else.”

Minter argues that the green activity people think of when throwing a drinks can into a recycling bin is part of that consumption cycle: “an expurgation for original consumer sin.”

“I started thinking about how closely this industry is to consumption and, in many ways, it’s not very green. It’s comparable to mining or drilling. But the worst recycling is still better than the best mining.

“Recycling is a morally complicated act because it enables this consumption pattern and enables resource and material extraction.”

The need for greater reuse and reduction of waste is a key message from the later pages of the book, underlining Minter’s pragmatic approach to the global trade in secondary materials. Even so, waste needs to be dealt with and, for him, recycling is globalisation’s “great, green success story”.

He accepts that the industry has to be regulated. There is the growing market for WEEE and a growing problem in China is that countless small processors pay scant regard to health and safety. A visit to plastic recyclers in Wen’an was a chastening experience – “the absolute pit of pits” - and so frightful the Chinese authorities closed them down. He also notes that half of the material processed in Wen’an was arriving from within China itself.

“This is where things get complicated. NGOs say it is ‘the West dumping on China’ or ‘the West dumping on India’. Oftentimes, increasingly you could say it is China dumping on China.”

Then we turn to China’s Green Fence crackdown on poor quality recyclates during much of 2013, which had a strong impact on UK waste exports.

“Green Fence was interesting because it was directed at plastics. Wen’an was gone by the time they implemented it but Green Fence had two components. One was they were blocking [imported] shipments of low-grade mixed plastics that could only be processed in the sort of nasty places I saw in Wen’an. That caused a lot of pain in the UK and US.

“But the other side that has been overlooked is what it meant in China. In China, to import any type of waste materials you need an import licence which are limited in number and are very, very difficult to get.”

Minter explains that the authorities insisted that only Chinese importers of secondary material – ie those with licences – could process it. At a stroke, it killed off the role of brokers who sent out the processing work to smaller, and harder to regulate, workshops, such as he saw in Wen’an.

“The net effect was that all of a sudden you have less incentive to import and it choked off all the tiny plastics recyclers. The more important audience [for Green Fence] was the domestic one. They wanted to scare the recyclers.“

But will Green Fence have a lasting effect?

Minter says the official line is that demands for higher standards will continue but the political leadeership is no longer on the authorities’ case.

“These agencies are very different and in some ports they even hate each other, it is very personal. They have all resolved to keep some of the programme but I talk to a lot of metal recyclers and they say they are now getting in stuff they couldn’t get in for the last nine months. It’s a little too early to know what the net effect is going to be.

“Green Fence really scared people and there is a sense things have charged. I don’t think we are ever going to return to the situation we had in, say, January 2013. Things are going to be tighter.”

  • MRW readers are able to buy Junkyard Planet (RRP £18.99) at a special rate. Visit the publisher’s website, www.bloomsbury.com, and quote GLR 9UU at the checkout to save 25% and secure free postage and packaging.

The sights at Sigma

Scattered around the outdoor aluminum piles are slight figures in teal jumpsuits and surgical caps and masks, shoveling fist-size hunks of crumpled scrap into yellow wheelbarrows—and then wandering off with the loads. Despite the baggy uniforms and masks, it‘s obvious to me that I‘m looking at women: they’re too slight, especially their shoulders, to be men. We followed several toward a four-story warehouse capped by a gentle peaked roof and draped in windows. Even fifty feet away, the sound that issues from it is audible and distinct: like a powerful typhoon rain—a rain, in fact, more powerful than the one in which we’re walking. It’s sharp and metallic, an airier version of the static between analog television stations. We stop at a loading bay door, and what I see shakes me.

Hundreds of slight teal figures crouch on a floor covered in shredded scrap, silently sorting the various metals into plastic bins, each frag- ment the equivalent of a raindrop in creating the sound of a metallic downpour. As I step tentatively into the space, I’m dumbfounded by the scale of it. The room stretches hundreds of feet, with both sides covered in dark shredded scrap metal that flows from the floor, up onto tables, back onto the floor, over and over. A narrow aisle runs through the middle of the room, dividing one river of metal from the other, and teal-colored workers walk down it with wheelbarrows full of metal that they either dump for sorting or take away, fully sorted.

CREDIT: The top photo of the Sigma plant was taken by Minter. The photo of Minter himself was raken by Steve Tan.

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