The Glitz and Glamour of the Scrap-Metal Trade

For a journalist and his wife, the garbage and recycling business brings them close to a world of fortunes made and lost.

The scrap-metal business, despite its unglamorous connotation, has minted no small number of very rich people. (Adam Minter)

The Saudi Arabian scrap-metal tycoon I met 30 minutes ago is explaining why his brother’s camel cost a million dollars. “The face,” says Mr. M with a happy smile. “It has the perfect face.” He pulls out an iPhone and scrolls through photos of humpy ungulates yawning against blue skies and white sands. I pretend I can tell them apart.

It’s been like this our entire stay at the Pudong Shangri-La in Shanghai, home of the 2013 Bureau of International Recycling convention. Dinner with an American scrap-metal processor whose brother bought a castle in France. Drinks with a Taiwanese scrap broker who’s gotten fabulously wealthy importing American scrap into China. Sightings of so-and-so recycling magnate who splurged on a hill and snowmakers in Southern California so his kid could have a ski party for his birthday.

One night, a group in the hotel lobby catches my eye: dapper men in crisp suits; lithe, lovely women draped in silk and jewels. “Who are they?” I ask my husband Adam Minter, a scrap journalist. There is an aura of elegance, of celebrity around them that tells me these aren’t corrupt Chinese officials with their two-bit mistresses. Adam whispers a name in my ear. “Very rich, very influential Chinese scrap family,” he says. “They’re very nice people, too.”

It’s mindboggling, these fortunes built on what people throw away. Adam, son of a Minneapolis junkman, “weighed cans from hobos in my dad’s scrapyard as a kid”—a business that paid for country clubs, huge homes, expensive art, and two private college degrees. “It was a comfortable childhood,” he admits, at least until his father free-fell toward women and booze. Adam grew up, chose a writing career, and tried to move on, “but somehow, the scrap just never leaves your blood.”

Four years ago, I’d barely heard of the scrap trade. To me, recyclables were just garbage you disposed of with a clean conscience, and I sorted all my Amazon packaging, plastic bottles and Sprite cans into special bins that would be sent to green heaven and reincarnated into new stuff. I didn’t question why those bins filled up in the first place; didn’t think twice about the irony of spending a lot of money to buy a lot of stuff that I could feel good about throwing away. I certainly never imagined a secretive, lucrative world populated by people like Mr. M—or his camels.

I wasn’t supposed to enter this world. The plan was to finish my master’s, go back to Malaysia, marry a nice doctor or lawyer or engineer, and lead a stable middle-class existence (producing more recyclables, of course). Instead, I landed in Shanghai in 2009 and met a scrap reporter with a life more peripatetic than mine. He bought me shrimp or pork dumplings when I was upset, even as he wrinkled his nose at my non-kosher delights. Two years later, I knew I would marry him as I stood by his side atop a vibrating car shredder in Fort Wayne, Indiana, strangely aroused by the steaming piles of pulverized metal on a massive conveyor belt below me.

“He writes about garbage,” my mother tells people with equal amounts of sheepishness and pride. “Sounds horrible, but it’s actually quite glamorous, you know.”

It does feel glamorous when we’re on the road, put up in luxury hotels while Adam attends a conference, or gives a talk, or profiles another nuclear-physicist-slash-scrap-bureaucrat or barber-turned-scrap-titan for a magazine. Days like these—dinners in the fanciest restaurants; private parties in the fanciest bars; being chauffeured around in scrap friends’ cars—I truly feel part of this world.

But then the convention is over. We say goodbye to our friends and ride across town to our real home—a small apartment in a local building where neighbors burn ghost money to dead ancestors in the hallway and the jackhammering often starts before 7 A.M. The stench of sewage from perpetually clogged pipes hits us when we open the door. We walk in and sit on the saggy couch in silence.

“I’m sorry you’re not a real scrap wife,” he finally says. “I’ve got all these great contacts in the industry, but all I do is write about the people with the castles and ski slopes and private planes and million-dollar camels …”

I take in the peeling paint, the flickering light bulb, the broken stove the landlord won’t pay to fix. Lord, I miss the Shangri-La, but what the hell—“I’m a scrap writer’s wife,” I say with a shrug. “What do we need a camel for?” I lean into him, scrap the last thing on my mind.