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In 2007, China imported in excess of 4 million metric tons of copper-bearing scrap metals, including the wire and cable being processed in this southern Chinese workshop in November 2007. The plastic insulation is stripped from the wire, and both products are then sold for re-melting.

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November 2006: Workers strip copper from imported, used, electrical motors (from washing machines to industrial equipment) at a thirty-five acre processing plant two hours south of Shanghai. China’s low-cost labor and high-demand for copper allows it to recycle motors far more completely and efficiently than can be accomplished in the developed world. This factory, likely the largest motor processor in the world, imported in excess of 12,000 shipping containers of motors in 2006, alone.

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A worker breaks a valuable copper winding from an imported electric motor at a factory two hours south of Shanghai. The remainder of the motor will also be broken up, and sorted into its constituent metals, before being shipped to local re-melters. The copper, as well as the other metals, will find its way into new electrical products for the domestic and export market.

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The world’s largest inventory of steel scrap is located 2.5 hours north of Shanghai, on the banks of the Yangtze. In December 2007, company officials confidently assured me that they had 200,000 mt of material on the ground, of which 40% was imported. From July to early November 2008, that inventory lost more than 50% of its value, with most of the decline occurring in the month of October 2008.

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In this 2002 image, workers – all women – sort the mixed non-magnetic metals left over after American and European automobiles have been run through massive shredders. Automated processes for accomplishing the same task exist in the developed world, but they can cost as much as U.S.$25 million, and often achieve sorting accuracy in the range of 90% - 95%. By contrast, well-trained and experienced hand-sorters in China typically achieve 99%+ accuracy, at salaries that rarely exceed U.S.$200/month. It is the difference in accuracy, more than the low labor cost, that has accounted for the extraordinary profit margins enjoyed by Chinese processors of mixed metals over the last decade.

The company – Shanghai Sigma Metals – is one of only a small handful of scrap importers that hasn’t broken its contracts

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Six years later, the processing plant shown in the previous photo is now the world’s largest single-site aluminum recycling facility, with advanced melting technology found nowhere else. It is responsible for roughly 10% of the total aluminum scrap imported into China, and is the largest supplier of recycled aluminum to the Japanese automobile industry.

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A closer look at the sorting process at Shanghai Sigma Metals.

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