The Chinese Sample Room

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by Adam Minter

SHANGHAI, China -- This is the last of seven posts that I'm calling Wasted 7/7. Previous in the series: 1/7, 2/7, 3/7, 4/7, 5/7 and 6/7.

Below, a photo of a storage room containing samples of everything of value that a Chinese scrap yard can import from the United States and Europe, located in Foshan, China.

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The owner of this collection of (what appears to be) old junk acquired it over more than a decade, saving for himself two small sections of old power cable imported from an electric utility in Minneapolis, or two of the thousands of scrapped water meters he once bought and imported in Los Angeles. With his staff, he'd pull apart one cable sample, one single water meter, weigh all of the pieces, and then carefully note the percentage of copper, plastic, steel and whatever else made the cable, a cable, and a water meter, a water meter, on a sticker that he fixed to the samples that he didn't break apart. In that way, he could then precisely determine the value of the scrap, based upon current commodity prices.

The result is that, today, he has one of the world's best scrap metal sample rooms - and a deeper library for understanding the value of what Americans throw away, than (quite likely) anyone in the United States.

Take, for example, below, a small fraction of shelf space in the sample room, heavy with sections of communication and power cable used in the United States, and frequently shipped to China for recycling. Note the stickers and the percentages written across them.

sample_cable.JPG



Or, on another shelf, water meters, with their own stickers:

water_meters.JPG

Should it matter to anyone but the American scrap industry? As I noted in the first of this week-long series of posts, recycled metal currently accounts for 25% of Chinese aluminum production, 40% of copper production, and 15% of steel production. Much of that production is exported to the US in new products that, eventually, make their way back to China for recycling by laborers who - in recent years - make more money than recent Chinese college grads. It's possible, I suppose, to look at that cycle and think of the laborers as the ones being exploited. But from China - home to a manufacturing behemoth built in part on scrap metal - and the sample room, I simply can't escape the feeling that the people being exploited are the Americans sending all that value to China.

Adam Minter is an American writer in China. He blogs at Shanghai Scrap.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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