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Recycling’s Seedy Side

Adam Minter unveils the nitty-gritty details of scrapyards By Kyle Mullin

Photos: courtesy of ADAM MINTER

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hristmas tree lights may dazzle us year after year, winking on and off like beacons of glad tidings. But one of our festive season’s most familiar symbols is also a key example of rampant consumption - before it morphed into one of China’s biggest green successes. “Shijiao, a southern Chinese town, recycles 20 million pounds of Christmas tree lights from America every year,” says Adam Minter of one of the many cities in his new book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (which hit bookshelves in November). Minter’s first book comes after more than a decade of reporting on the Chinese recycling industry. “China recycles more material than any country on the planet, and recyclables are the number one US and EU export to China by volume,” Minter says, adding that Shijiao’s recycled Christmas lights are an especially telling facet of this hulking, multi-billion dollar industry. “Before, workers would put those tree lights in a pile, douse them in gas, and burn all the insulation off to recover the valuable copper inside,” he says, adding that the ensuing air pollution would no doubt rattle most Westerners, who believed they were helping the environment by tossing those strands of lights in their recycling bins. But Minter says all that changed in 2007. A hike in oil prices made virgin plastics more valuable, which in turn compelled scrap workers to recycle them as well. During a visit to one such workshop, Minter was impressed by the means workers used to separate that plastic from the wire it encased. “They put the Christmas tree lights though what essentially was a glorified wood chipper,” he says of the makeshift sorting device, adding that water was poured inside to turn the plastic to mush. “It worked a lot like a natural water bed, with a current running over it. But instead of small pebbles being lifted away from boul-

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ders, we had lighter plastic being washed off the heavier copper.” The result was far cleaner than the earlier tree light fires. But Minter says we would be naïve to put too much stock into those positive results. “ That market developed not out of someone’s good intentions, but for economic reasons,” he says, adding that most people miss other broad truths about the recycling industry. “Recycling is often seen as a green, sustainable, niche thing. But it’s a much bigger industry than that. China is the world’s biggest copper manufacturer, for instance, and half of that comes from recycled resources.”

December 2013

the Beijinger December 2013  
the Beijinger December 2013  

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