The Plastics Shredders of China

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.


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.


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.