China’s reputation as the “world's factory” is well-established. But what happens to everything the world throws away? Since 2002, the Shanghai-based journalist Adam Minter has sought to find out. The son and grandson of scrap metalists, Minter traveled throughout the world to investigate how what we discard—and reuse—helps drive the global economy.
Minter, who has written for a variety of publications (including both the print and digital versions of The Atlantic), now writes a weekly column on China for Bloomberg. In this excerpt from his forthcoming book Junkyard Planet, which will be published by Bloomsbury Press on November 12, Minter travels to the epicenter of the global scrape trade: southern China.
I remember the first time I reported in Foshan, China, population 7 million.
I flew into Guangzhou Airport, where I was met by a scrap dealer, his sleek BMW, and a fresh-from-the-countryside driver. It was 2002, and Foshan wasn’t much more than a spread-out set of underdeveloped villages somewhere west of a Chinese wherever. I’d only been in-country a couple of weeks at that point, and I’d had trouble finding Foshan on a map. This all seemed like a bad idea.The drive from the airport traversed newly built highways and not so newly built country roads lined with high-voltage power lines that sagged to a few feet off the ground. Overloaded delivery trucks were the dominant means of transportation, jamming up the roads and—when there were shoulders—the shoulders, too. Back then it took almost two hours to reach the faux-rococo Fontainebleau Hotel, a yellowed porcelain doily in the heart of Foshan’s Nanhai District.
Cigar-chomping scrap dealers from around the world sat in baroque chairs and discussed where they’d get a decent hamburger when they made it up to Shanghai on the weekend.
By then, Nanhai was already one of the world’s biggest processors of scrap metal, and you only needed to walk into the lobby to know it. Set amid lush, manicured landscapes that would make Louis XIV blush, cigar-chomping scrap dealers from around the world sat in baroque chairs and discussed where they’d get a decent hamburger when they made it up to Shanghai on the weekend. But that wasn’t all: at any hour of the day, you could walk into the lobby of that hotel and find at least a couple of Caucasian scrap exporters having tea, coffee, or whiskey with a couple of Chinese scrap importers while some of Guangdong Province’s finest prostitutes sashayed by, on the way to visit clients upstairs. If you needed to know the price of insulated copper wire—well, the global market was being made right there, all day and all night long.
Jet lag defined much of what happened in the Fontainebleau in those
days. I remember seeing scrap guys consuming breakfast at midnight,
steaks at 7:30 a.m., and poorly mixed cocktails any time at all. But that
was just as well, because scrap processing was (and often still is) a 24-
hour-a-day activity in southern China. It had to be: Two decades into the country’s modern development, everything was starting to accelerate: airports, highways, apartments, cars. And everything, needless to say, needs metal.
Take, for example, subways: On the day I moved to Shanghai, it had precisely three subway lines. Ten years later it’s the world’s largest system, with 11 lines and 270 miles of tracks. However, China lacks ready access to sufficient raw materials of its own to build all those subways, so in very short order it’s become a net importer of scrap copper, aluminum, steel, and the other metals needed in the infrastructure of a modernizing society.
Back then, if you were jet-lagged and had an amenable scrap-metal host (and they were all amenable if it meant access to American scrap metal), you could head out to the scrapyards in the dead of night. You’d arrive in the processing zones via expensive cars that zigzagged down a narrow brick-lined alley, out into a boulevard with murky, poorly lit signs, back into an alley, finally pulling up at some metal gate indistinguishable from other metal gates. The driver would honk, the owner would roll down his window so the guard could see him, and a worker would push aside the gate. Then you’d drive into a wide lamplit space, the headlights bouncing off piles of metal fragments, giant bales of wire, and, off to the side, a shed where two or three men—it was mostly men—fed scrap cables into machines that ran an incision along the insulation. Nearby, another team—often female—used that incision to pull away the insulation and expose the copper wire.
What I saw was so alien—except for all of that scrap. I knew what that was. It looked like what we used to send to China, only now it was in China.
Meanwhile, over in the farthest corner of the yard, the flicker of flames might send black smoke into the not-quite-as-dark night. The smell would be noxious (and, depending on the wire, dioxin-laced), but the goal would be anything but: profit. Wires too small to run through the stripping machines were a favorite item to burn, but anything would do if copper demand was strong; in the morning, the copper could be swept out of the ashes. One night, I recall clearly, I saw a row of a halfdozen electrical transformers—the big cylinders that hang on power lines and regulate the power—smoking into the night. When I realized what they were, I backed off: older transformers contain highly toxic PCBs. But nobody seemed to mention that to the workers who, through the evening, poked at the flames. I didn’t like it, but there’s not much to be said when you’re standing in the middle of a scrapyard in a village you’ve never heard of in a province you’ve just barely heard of, as the guest of somebody you’ve just met. I wasn’t sure that I was in much position to be complaining, anyway: I’m a child of the industry too.
To be honest, I was shocked by the number of people who worked in these scrapyards, and by their low pay. But I was not shocked by the menial jobs, and I was not surprised by the pollution. After all, my grandmother and her siblings cleaned metal into adulthood, and her younger brother, Leonard, told me that he knew how to “break” a motor—that is, take it apart with hammers and pliers, and extract the copper—as well as anybody in the Twin Cities. That’s what you do when you’ve got nothing else— and their generation didn’t have much else.
That wasn’t the only thing the Chinese and my family had in common.
For example, I’m not ashamed to admit that my family often paid contractors to burn our wire in farm fields outside Minneapolis (we also ran an aluminum smelter with an open smokestack—arguably a worse off ense). If it couldn’t be burned, it would’ve been landfilled, and so we were doing what countless other scrapyards were doing in those days: using the cheapest means available to clean up other people’s messes.Those days are over (for my family, at least) but I know of people who still do it in North Dakota— and there isn’t an impoverished Chinese farmer among them.