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.
To be sure, Foshan in the early 2000s was far more polluted than anything I saw in the United States while growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, and surely more polluted than what my great-grandfather knew in his early years. But from my perspective, that difference was a matter of scale, concentration, and history. For better or worse, they weren’t doing anything in 2002 that we didn’t (or wouldn’t) do in 1962. They were just doing much, much more of it. And as dirty as it might have looked at times, I didn’t get the sense that the people around Foshan felt that scrap was “dumped” on them. Instead, they actively imported it, or they migrated from other provinces to work on it.
The pay, after all, couldn’t be beat, especially if you were uneducated and illiterate. Depending on the scrapyard, salaries might be anywhere from 10 to 20 percent higher than what the local high-tech factory might pay. By U.S. standards, though, it wasn’t much: maybe $100 per month plus room and board. Still, if your prospects were limited to a life of subsistence farming, that was more than enough money to send home to pay school fees. The next generation would have a better life, and the negative health consequences of scrapyard conditions could be worried about later.
In 2011 I fly into Guangzhou on one of my twice-yearly trips to its scrapyards,
and lo, there’s a subway that will take me to Foshan in less than an hour. Nanhai, which had once felt to me like a Wild West outpost divorced from all non-scrap-metal reality, is now another suburb of yet another Chinese megalopolis (Guangzhou: population 20 million plus). As I climb out of the station, I glance around me: I’m at the intersection of two busy, newly paved roads and four pieces of entirely empty farmland. Two blocks away, however, is the incoming wave of wealth: dozens of construction cranes hovering over dozens of high-rises, some as tall as 30 stories, each taking a bite out of open space recently home to farms. I roll my suitcase in their direction, through crabgrass and dirt littered with paper instant noodle bowls, to the front door of a new five-star Intercontinental Hotel, next to a new three-block-long shopping mall.
When people ask me why China needs all the scrap metal Americans send to them, I wish I could show them the view from my hotel room that day. 20 stories below is that shopping mall, as big as anything I grew up visiting in suburban Minneapolis. It required steel for the structure, copper and aluminum for the wiring, brass for bathroom fixtures, and stainless steel for all of the sinks and railings. And that’s just the start.
Then there’s this: On the other side of the mall, in all directions, are dozens of new high-rises—all under construction—that weren’t visible from the subway and my walk. Those new towers reach 20 and 30 stories, and they’re covered in windows that require aluminum frames, filled with bathrooms accessorized with brass and zinc fixtures, stocked with stainless steel appliances, and—for the tech- savvy households—outfitted with iPhones and iPads assembled with aluminum backs. No surprise, China leads the world in the consumption of steel, copper, aluminum, lead, stainless steel, gold, silver, palladium, zinc, platinum, rare earth compounds, and pretty much anything else labeled “metal.” But China is desperately short of metal resources of its own. For example, in 2012 China produced 5.6 million tons of copper, of which
2.75 million tons was made from scrap. Of that scrap copper, 70 percent was imported, with most coming from the United States. In other words, just under half of China’s copper supply is imported as scrap metal. That’s not a trivial matter: Copper, more than any other metal, is essential to modern life. It is the means by which we transmit power and information.
So what would happen if that supply of copper were cut off ? What if Europe and the United States decided to embargo all recycling to China, India, and other developing countries? What if, instead of importing scrap paper, plastic, and metal, China had to find it somewhere else? Some Chinese industries would substitute other metals for the ones that it couldn’t obtain via recycling—that’s technically doable in many cases—but for some applications (like the copper used in sensitive electronics) substitutions are not possible. That leaves mining. To make up the loss of imported scrap metal, there’d need to be a lot of holes in the ground: even the best copper ore deposits require one hundred tons of ore to obtain one ton of the red metal. What would the environmental cost of all that digging be? Would it exceed the environmental cost of recycling the developed world’s throwaways? What’s worse?
In October 2012 I drive north on Minnesota’s Highway 53 into the so called Iron Range, which once supplied the American steel industry with some of the world’s purest ore. As I approach Virginia, Minnesota, I begin to see the high, looming walls of dirt excavated from pits as deep as 450 feet, and as wide as 3.5 miles. They look like crater walls from the highway, left by meteor impacts and defining the landscape for miles. If you climb one (I did), you’ll look out at a lifeless gray moonscape. This is what’s left behind when steel is made from iron ore, and not scrap metal. I continue north for nearly an hour and then take a right turn just outside the town of Ely, onto Highway 1. It’s beautiful out here, green, lush, and uninterrupted. I see only two other cars on the road for the first 10 miles; I stop my car on bridges over the shimmering blue Kawishiwa River without fear of being hit; I close my eyes down by the water, the only thing cutting the heavy blanket of silence the individual
Foshan, China, is the living, breathing alternative to the mine that will one day be dug somewhere near Spruce Road. It’s not the cleanest industrial town I’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t leave me with a feeling of intense personal loss.
I follow directions given to me earlier that morning and take a sharp left on to Spruce Road. There, at the intersection, is a bumper-sticker festooned minivan that belongs to Ian Kimmer, staff member with Friends of the Boundary Waters, a group that aims to protect, preserve, and restore the federally designated million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), one of the largest unspoiled regions in the United States.
Ian has a big job. From the time the BWCAW was established in 1978 until now, the communities that surround it have expressed considerable hostility to the idea of an unexploitable wilderness in their midst. From their perspective, wilderness inhibits growth and the resource extraction industries that their towns and families were built upon. So far, they haven’t made much progress in turning back or damaging the mostly pristine status of those million acres. But that’s likely to change, and the single factor responsible for the shift is one that scrap-metal men know well: the price of copper.
For decades, geologists, mining companies, and miners have known that the land around the BWCAW contains deposits of copper ore. But those ore deposits are of such low quality that nobody could figure out how to mine them profitably. Then, in the 2000s, China entered the market for copper. What had once been worth 60 cents per pound became an occasionally $4-per-pound commodity, and a low-grade, unprofitable ore deposit became a mother lode that mining executives speculate might be the largest untapped extractable copper reserve in the world, worth around $100 billion.
Ian shakes my hand, takes a seat in the front seat of my Saturn, and sends me down the rutted dirt lane that is Spruce Road. On the left side, he notes, is the BWCAW. On the right, he says, pointing, is where the mining companies are doing test drilling.
“It’s that cut-and-dried?” I ask.
“Yep.” He asks me to stop, and we walk up a hill. Near the top, we reach a crumbling gray and red rock outcropping. It contains copper ore, he explains, as well as something called sulfides. When rain or snow comes into contact with sulfide ore like this, Ian explains, it produces caustic sulfuric acid. “That’s why the rock is so crumbly.”
Ian points at the base of the outcropping, where a several-foot-long streak of dirt is completely devoid of vegetation. “That’s where the acid leaches out and down the hill,” he explains, killing the vegetation. The phenomenon is not unique to northern Minnesota. Sulfide ores are mined around the world, and the left over rock—the tailings—have become a long-standing environmental problem, contaminating rivers and lakes, and killing vegetation and the wildlife that depends on a clean environment.
According to Twin Metals, the mining company that controls the rights to the ore on this side of Spruce Road, Ian and I are standing atop 13.7 billion pounds of copper, 4.4 billion pounds of nickel (used to make stainless steel), and some of the world’s richest untapped precious metal reserves outside of South Africa. Twin Metals hasn’t received the permits to mine, yet, but if and when they do, each ton of copper will require the processing of as much as 100 tons of ore. Multiply 100 tons of sulfur-bearing ore by the 13.7 billion tons of copper beneath my feet, and the scale of the problem becomes epic.
What will happen to the 99 tons of sulfite rock once the copper has been extracted from it? Some will go back into the ground, Twin Metals claims, but an unknown percentage of those billions of tons will need to remain on the surface, exposed to rain and snow.
But that’s not the only surface impact of this proposed project. Twin Metals is promising an underground mine—an “underground city”—using a method called “block caving.” Superficially, at least, block caving sounds like a great compromise: the miners get the ore, and the wilderness remains untouched. But that’s not how things work in reality. At some point, the surface will subside into all of the space left behind by the excavated ore, leaving a landscape substantially different from the one that was there before the mine. Rivers and creeks might be redirected; new lakes might be created. But that’s the thing: nobody knows for sure. The one thing everyone knows, though, is that the unique character of this natural landscape will forever be altered.
Ian and I get back into the car, and he directs me down Spruce Road and an in-progress logging operation just off the BWCAW boundary. Trucks are loading freshly cut logs onto flatbeds, leaving behind little more than scrub. But Ian wants me to look past the logging, to two chest-high pipes painted red and sticking out of the ground like pins. “That’s a test drilling site,” he tells me. “There’s hundreds of them all over the place. They’re looking for the richest places to run the mine.”
No Chinese company is involved in the Twin Metals project (the company is a joint venture between Canadian and Chilean firms), but Chinese demand is what makes the mine a virtual certainty. While Twin Metals investigates northern Minnesota, the Chinese are already digging some of the biggest and most controversial copper mines in the world today. In Afghanistan, the Aynak mine threatens ancient Buddhist sculptures. In Burma, a copper mine run by the Chinese military is destroying ancient farmland and causing mass protests.
Let me be clear: a doubling of U.S. copper scrap exports to China wouldn’t halt this destructive trend. But it might just reduce some of the demand for that virgin copper.
In any event, when it comes out of the ground, all of that Chinese mined virgin copper will have competition—from imported scrap metal, as well as from the scrap metal that the Chinese are generating in greater volumes at home. But cut off access to imported scrap copper, and the demand for mined copper will only grow— including the demand to allow mining in more places like Spruce Road.
Foshan, China, is the living, breathing alternative to the mine that will one day be dug somewhere near Spruce Road. It’s not the cleanest industrial town I’ve ever seen, but unlike Spruce Road and its test drilling sites, it doesn’t leave me with a feeling of intense personal loss. If anything, I always leave Foshan energized.
For the last two decades, much of the U.S.-and European-generated scrap metal exported to China flowed into Foshan, home of the Fontainebleau Hotel. But these days, if you’re riding on the elevated highway that cuts through and above most of Foshan, you won’t see any piles of metal, much less the smoke of burning wire and unvented furnaces. The people who live in Foshan’s expensive new high-rises won’t tolerate it. Instead, you’ll just see under-construction buildings and long strip malls filled with restaurants and small workshops that sell construction-related supplies.
These days you need to turn off the highway, down the narrow city streets, and then into the even narrower lanes and alleys of Nanhai. The buildings are one and two stories high, and every one sits behind a high brick wall. But if you’re lucky or—even better—invited, a gate will open here or there, and you’ll see piles of baseball-and golf ball-sized metal chunks; neat stacks of baled-up wire; machinery that takes fistsized chunks of shredded automobiles and sorts them by size; and workers slowly combing through those same chunks, sorting them by metal type. It’s a cleaner and wealthier Foshan, where worker salaries have quadrupled in a decade and many of the earliest and biggest recyclers sit
on fortunes worth hundreds of millions.
I saw workers in little more than T-shirts, cotton slacks, and sandals working around open furnaces; I saw other workers using cutting machines and acetylene torches with their bare hands; and even today I’m not surprised to see scrapyard employees going about their work in flip-flops.
For all of the cosmetic improvement, one thing in Foshan won’t soon change: the hand labor of Chinese workers is essential to recycling the wasted luxuries of American and other developed world consumers. In 2011 I visited a yard where men dismantled old aluminum deck chairs imported from somewhere warm and vacation-like. Over to one side was a pile of the blue and white nylon stripping that once hung between the metal frames (later to be sold to a plastics recycler), and a woman who spent the evening cutting it away from the chairs. On the opposite side of the pile were men with chisels and pliers, busy breaking away the steel screws, fasteners, and hinges that “contaminated” the more expensive aluminum. Nearby, a similar process was under way, with aluminum screen doors hung with steel mesh that needed to be removed. The act might look mindless, relentless, and even dehumanizing, but from a business standpoint it’s pure profit: aluminum contaminated with steel is all but worthless, a mixed metal that can’t be sent to any furnace for remelting. But separated? Depending on the market, the aluminum might be worth $2 per pound.
Back at the Foshan Intercontinental, Joe Chen, a diminutive and gracious Taiwanese-American scrap man in his early seventies, picks me up in his chauffeured Mercedes. I’ve been invited to join him at a dinner he’s hosting for several Mexican scrap exporters, and we glide through Foshan on the way to meet them. Living standards and wages in Mexico aren’t much better than China’s, but China has an advantage over Mexico: it’s growing. So Mexico, poor as dirt, sends its scrap to the factories of China.
Joe understands the dynamics of this trade as well as anyone in the world. In 1971 he started traveling the United States, cold calling for scrap to send to scrapyards owned by relatives in Taiwan. “I flew, I drove. I went to yards without an appointment, and a lot of times I got thrown out. Today we are here, and tomorrow we are in the next state.” He specialized in low-grade scrap: insulated wire that needed to be stripped or burned, scrap radiators that had to be separated into aluminum and copper components, and loads of motors, water meters, and other metal-rich devices that had to be busted apart by hand to free up the constituent metals for sorting. It was the sort of scrap that used to be processed in the United States (and on my great-grandparents’ basement stairs) until rising labor prices made the practice unaff ordable, and environmental crackdowns shuttered the refineries and smelters that could do it chemically. By the time Joe started scrapping, much of that scrap had nowhere to go in the United States—except the landfill.
Joe’s export business was so good that in the early 1980s he had the means to establish his own scrapyard in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, under the name Tung Tai. But Taiwan too was evolving, and as incomes rose, the public and its government became increasingly intolerant of the burning and dumping associated with the scrap industry. Meanwhile, as Taiwan’s economy developed in the 1980s, $100-per-month workers became $500-per-month workers who were ready to join the middle class. “You couldn’t find the workers anymore,” Joe tells me. “They didn’t want to do it!”
Joe realized that if he didn’t find new markets, he’d own a business rich with suppliers of low-grade scrap across the United States, but—once again—nowhere but an American landfill to ship it. So he started thinking about China. It wasn’t such a stretch: other Taiwanese industries that couldn’t afford to operate in a more expensive Taiwan were starting to move there.
For two years, Joe searched fruitlessly for a Chinese local government partner or patron. Then in 1987, just as he was close to giving up, a delegation from Zhuhai, a port city in Guangdong, turned up in the United States and needed some help getting around. Joe was based in California, and he was more than happy to help. As it happened, one of the delegation’s members was the “owner” of a large, government-owned scrapyard in Zhuhai. He’d heard Joe was in search of a place to import and process scrap, and after a week of being shown around the United States by Joe, he made Joe an offer. “You can have—you can rent my yard. Receive material there.” Joe shrugs as he recounts the offer to me. “Zhuhai was my first yard.”
It was 1987, and though China allowed private investment in the economy,
outsiders were well advised to find somebody who could help ease the passage. “You need[ed] a relationship with the government at that time,” Joe explains. “Without that you could not come.” It wasn’t just a matter of not being able to set up a yard, either. At the time, China didn’t have any environmental regulations related to the import of scrap metal, nor did it have customs officials trained in the art of assessing a duty on scrap metal. In the absence of regulation, you needed somebody who could say, I am the regulation, and here’s your approval. “Twenty years ago, nothing—no regulation, no customs tariff. I bring it in, they decide how to charge me. It’s metal, copper—they don’t know. They don’t know how to charge me.” The government was interested in jobs, presumably; the owner valued “rent”; and Joe wanted somewhere to process all that U.S. scrap he was collecting. If any one of the three links in this chain failed, then all that scrap was bound for a U.S. landfill.
At its peak Tung Tai’s government-leased yard employed a breathtaking three thousand workers and imported five hundred containers per month of low-grade copper-bearing scrap like motors and insulated wire. The motors, Joe tells me, were purchased for two cents per pound, and contained copper worth thirty times that amount. Labor was just as cheap—less than a dollar per day. All the while, the market for scrap—and especially copper scrap—did nothing but grow. Between 1985 and 1990, China doubled its production of copper from scrap metal, to 215,000 metric tons per year, accounting for 38 percent of all copper produced in China, according to data compiled by the China Nonferrous Metals Industry Association. If Joe Chen was really bringing in 500 containers per month, he might very well have been responsible for close to 10 percent of that supply in the late 1980s.
Joe was proud of Tung Tai’s Zhuhai yard. As he saw it, the yard solved two important problems: it provided a place for Americans to recycle things that couldn’t be recycled in the United States, and it employed thousands of Chinese. So in 1990 he invited international media to visit. “It’s thousands of tons of scrap every year in the United States,” he told Dan Noyes of the progressive Mother Jones magazine. “And the United States has got to find a place to dispose of it.”
Noyes didn’t disagree. His article described “discarded batteries, electrical motors, copper wire, even used IBM computers” scattered over Joe’s yard. But unlike Joe, Noyes didn’t see anything commendable about how Joe was handling the scrap. Rather, he saw wire fires, burning transformers, and a giant Tung Tai trash trench. Rather than expressing gratitude and admiration to Joe for taking all of these troublesome items off the hands of wasteful Americans, Noyes was indignant at the negative health, safety, and polluting effects of Chinese recycling methods. “From atop the factory’s administration building,” he wrote, “the scene was reminiscent of a prison chain gang.”
Joe Chen, too, was bothered by the pollution (and he was quoted as saying so in Mother Jones), but he resolutely declined to blame himself. Instead, he pointed his finger at wasteful Americans and—perhaps unwisely—the people who allowed him to operate in Zhuhai in the first place: “Right now I’ve got the feeling the government [in China] only cares about the money. I don’t think they realize the problem yet.”
Predictably, the relevant authorities quickly recognized that their problem was Joe, and shut down Tung Tai’s Zhuhai yard.
It was a rough period for Joe. “I think I talked too much,” he tells me in the midst of a 2009 visit during which he decides it’s time to talk about his moment of media notoriety (later, he offers a second assessment of the period: “Oh my god oh my god oh my god”). But in the long run it didn’t matter: Joe now has several China-based yards and as many tons of U.S.-based scrap as he can handle. The “stuff,” as Joe characterizes it, has to go somewhere, and he believes China is the best place.
When he invites me to visit his Guangdong scrapyards, Joe makes a point of showing me things easy to hold against him—like the worker dorms. “If I show you the best, then I must show you the worst. But if I show you the worst, then I must show you the best.” So I walked through steamy dorms where the only personal space allotted to workers is the space inside their bunks. Those bunks, it must be noted, are in rooms that lack air-conditioning in the tropical Guangdong summer. Joe realizes this, but makes no apologies: “The conditions I give them are ten times better than what they’d have back home. In Hunan [Province] they’d be sleeping 12 to a room, sometimes to a bed. And they wouldn’t be having eight-course meals.” Later he makes me an offer: “You don’t believe me? You can take my car, and I’ll have my driver show you!”
I don’t take him up on the offer, but I know what he means. The life of a rural Chinese villager is hardly bucolic. Homes are cramped, lacking in privacy, and often without plumbing. Depending on circumstances, meals are simple, and surely not as varied as those served in Tung Tai’s kitchens (and yes, I’ve seen the eight-course meals). Rather than spending days sorting scrap for wages, villagers spend days in fields, picking crops for subsistence. Is one better than the other? I’ve never lived in either circumstance, so I’m not about to guess. But one thing I know is this: in the 2000s there was no shortage of laborers available to China’s scrapyards. They lined up in the mornings, hoping for work, fresh from farming villages in the provinces. They could have stayed home; they could have gone to work in traditional factories; instead, they chose to work in scrapyards.
Why? The money. A chance for a future. Most of the money earned by those laborers was sent home, often to pay school fees for kids left behind.
Is the work safe? Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not. Breathing the smoke that rises off a pile of burning wire is not safe; neither, for that matter, is it safe to breathe the leaded fumes that come off a computer circuit board when it’s exposed to flame. But most of what happens in a Chinese scrapyard is breaking and sorting. Burning, despite two decades’ worth of exposés by environmentalists and journalists, is a very small and declining part of what happens in China (Africa, and to a far lesser extent, India, still burns).
In the early 2000s, I saw workers in little more than T-shirts, cotton slacks, and sandals working around open furnaces; I saw other workers using cutting machines and acetylene torches with their bare hands; and even today I’m not surprised to see scrapyard employees going about their work in flip-flops. Hard hats and safety glasses, respirators and work gloves, are as uncommon in most Chinese scrapyards as kosher hot dogs. Anecdotally, at least, injuries are common. Unfortunately, China’s employers aren’t under any requirement to report workplace accidents, so we really don’t know how common they are.
Will China’s scrap industry become more safe over time? Probably. But even in the United States, where workplace safety regulations are among the most advanced and best-enforced in the world, the scrap industry is still a leading source of workplace accidents. That’s not for lack of trying: the industry’s leading trade associations expend an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money on safety-related training. But one simple fact remains: Cleaning up someone else’s garbage is an inherently dangerous business. The best solution—really, the only solution—is to stop throwing away so much stuff. Every old piece of plumbing, every used computer, is just another opportunity for someone to be injured.
But for all of the risks, there are still opportunities, and in my travels I have yet to come across a country, a region, where recycling is in decline. As resources become more scarce, the demand for people to extract those resources becomes ever greater. It’s an entrepreneurial opportunity for the small-time grubber, but in some ways it’s an even bigger opportunity for the entrepreneur who figures out how to do business with that grubber. Nowhere on earth has the scale of that opportunity been appreciated, and seized, more readily than in southern China.