The Plastics Shredders of China

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By Adam Minter

SHANGHAI, China -- This is the second of seven posts that I'm writing this week, and calling -- informally, for organizational purposes -- Wasted 7/7. Prior posts: 1/7.

Below, a photo of a married couple shredding and washing imported plastic fruit baskets at a plastics recycling plant in northeast China.

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Of the many truisms that China has overturned in the last thirty years, one of the most interesting is the idea that poor (or relatively poor) developing countries are inclined to re-use goods, and that wealthy (or relatively wealthy) developed countries throw things away without fully utilizing their value. That is to say: developed countries waste, and developing countries practice thrift. But consider, then, those baskets, imported from Thailand (originally, with fruit in them). They are perfectly re-usable, and likely would have been thirty years ago. But China, now the world's second largest plastics consumer, is home of the world's largest recycled plastics industry -- an industry that (according to imprecise industry officials) includes 40,000 and 60,000 small, family-owned companies.

Those small companies are responsible for fulfilling the near endless demand for plastics from Chinese manufacturers of phones, computers, cars, and other products exported to developed countries and, increasingly, purchased in China. Demand is so high, in fact, that China must import large volumes of scrap plastics from abroad (900,000 tons from the U.S. in 2009) to keep the businesses running, and the plastics flowing into all those iPhones, car tail lights, and flat-screen monitors.

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And that's why, in part, this couple, once farmers, were shredding a small mountain of plastic fruit baskets: a consumer electronics company (you'd know the name) guaranteed (with money) that destroying the fruit baskets (destruction is the first step in recycling anything) would be more economically rewarding than re-using them. That's an odd, new way of thinking among China's peasants, and increasingly, across the developing world.

Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai, 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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