The Chinese Sample Room

By James Fallows

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.

sample_room.JPG

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/03/the-chinese-sample-room/72071/