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.
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!”