How we think about e-waste is in need of repair.

Below, a pic I took a few weeks ago in Hauqiangbei, a commercial district in Shenzhen, China. It’s the beating heart of the global electronics industry, the world’s most important marketplace for everything electronic – phones, computers, playable piano keyboards that roll up like a crepe (~$15, I bought one), you name it. But what makes Huaqiangbei unique is that “everything,” in this case, means parts. If you’re in need of a processor, cable, board, capacitor, screen, screw, or backing plate manufactured in the last twenty years, someone in Huaqiangbei has it – in bulk. Such as these used chips that I photographed at Huaqiangbei’s SEG Plaza in May:


The owner of the stall said that source of the chips was “PCs in internet cafes.” In China, at least, that’s a lot of potential PCs. In 2015, China had 146,000 internet cafes. When those internet cafe PCs aren’t wanted, anymore, somebody goes through the trouble of breaking them down into parts for sale to a willing market which – in China – oftentimes means Huaqiangbei. It’s not just for hobbyists, either. For years, used Chinese parts have found their way into finished products that range from toys to U.S. Navy cargo planes.

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Making Everest Safe Makes it Unsafe.

A couple of days ago I published a Bloomberg View column on ways to reduce deaths – and crowds – on Mount Everest. The two are closely related: too many people on the summit means that climbers are spending too much time in a dangerous, low oxygen environment. Why the crowds? Nepal’s government earns needed fees from climbers, and guides – primarily located out of Nepal – offer high-end, all-inclusive trips to the summit that oftentimes attract unfit climbers.

In any case, a day after the piece ran I received an email from a Dr. Christopher Pizzo who summited Everest in 1981 as part of a medical research mission. I found his points compelling, and so – with his permission – I’m reprinting the email below. So do have a look at my column, and then turn to Dr. Pizzo’s very illuminating thoughts. Continue reading

Recycling is dead. Long live recycling.

How do you illustrate a commodity collapse? If you’re my colleagues at Bloomberg, you take 33 different materials – metals to crops – and you create an index. Lately, it’s a downward plot.


But as much as I like graphs, I’ve been searching for another way. One copper trading friend told me that business is so slow she’s going to yoga more. So – perhaps a pic of a broker doing yoga could represent the bust? Or perhaps I should just go take a picture of an idled Australian iron ore mine.

Anyway, this all came to mind last weekend while I was in Ningbo, China attending something called the Secondary Metals Forum. It’s an annual convention for traders, processors, and regulators of China’s massive non-ferrous metals markets. Since 2003, I’ve been to all but two editions of the event, seeing it in good times, and bad (see chapter 13 of my Junkyard Planet for an account of the very ugly one in 2008). Continue reading

The Junkman is Your Green Future

Most of the talks I give touch on some aspect of my family background. But for plenty of reasons, I’ve skirted opportunities to go deeper (except in Junkyard Planet). But back in June, when I was invited to participate in TEDxBeijing, I decided to dig a little deeper. In part I did so because I’ve had people comment after my talks that I seem genuinely passionate about China’s scrap workers – yet I realized that I hadn’t left many clues about where that passion comes from. So that’s where this talk comes from, in appreciation for my brothers and sisters in all things scrap. I hope you enjoy it.

[For those of you surfing behind China’s Great Firewall, the video is also available on Youku.]

Here’s what John Tierney left out of his anti-recycling screed.

Over the weekend the New York Times’ John Tierney published “The Reign of Recycling,” his attempt to show that recycling is more sentiment than it is good environmental stewardship, much less, good business. I’ll have much more to say about the meat of his work soon, but for now I’d like to make one small point about context, and how Tierney twists it.

Early in his essay, Tierney offers up this:

“Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. If you sit in business- or first-class, where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000.”

Now here’s the additional perspective that Tierney left out: in 2010, Americans consumed 42.6 billion plastic water bottles, alone, according to the Container Recycling Institute. That’s enough plastic water bottle waste to offset the greenhouse gases for 1,065,000 round-trips between London and New York in coach every year. If business or first class is desired, and you use Tierney’s methods, the numbers drop to 426,000 offsets.

And it just gets better. Bottled water sales grew 7.4% in the U.S. last year. Not only that, Americans use many, many other types of recyclable plastic bottles – including detergent bottles, by the millions (or billions?). In other words – many more hundreds of thousands of greenhouse gas offsets between London and New York!

Of course, not all of those bottles are actually collected for recycling. In the U.S., the rate is around 30%, annually (but growing). So we’re probably talking around 340,000 offsets for round-trip flights between New York and London. Which, to put it differently:

Americans recycle enough plastic water bottles every year to offset the carbon emissions generated by the entire population of Anaheim, California flying round-trip between New York and London, annually.

If we collect and recycle more bottles, that’s even more offsets (get to 400,000, and we’ve offset my hometown of Minneapolis). What could be better?

Now, I have no idea why Tierney left out this key context from his piece. Maybe he didn’t think to look it up. Or maybe, as I suspect, he realized it undermined his argument. Whatever the case, I find it representative of “The Reign of Recycling” – sloppy, deceptive, and lacking any kind of context for a reader not familiar with the recycling industry. I’ll have more to say soon.

[Thanks to Patty Moore of Moore Associates for the conversation that inspired this post.]

The More Things Change in China – Hershey’s Chocolate Edition

The other day I was scanning headlines and came across an interesting item: earnings are suffering at Hershey’s chocolate due to a disappointing China performance. That’s not how it was supposed to work out: back in 2013 Hershey, in an expansionist mood, acquired candy maker Shanghai Golden Money for $584 million, in hopes that it could become China’s biggest chocolate player.


What went wrong? Was this just another case of China’s souring economy  dragging down another venerable American company? Or was there something else at play here – something more subtle. In search of an answer, I emailed a gentlemen whose judgment on foreign investments in China I trust, and who asked that – for the purposes of this blog – he be referred to as “Cocoa.” He took a look at Hershey’s attempt at an explanation, and used it to form his own. So, with Cocoa’s permission, I reprint Cocoa’s sound explanation for why Hershey’s is tanking in China.

“I think Hershey’s problems in China – and as judged by China – have nothing to do with Hershey’s chocolates taste which is acceptable, design and packaging which is okay, price which is reasonable and all in all an acceptable value (I pointedly dismiss all other products but the chocolates no matter in what form; peanut butter cups probably make the average Chinese gag). Rather, the company bought a pig in a poke, to wit Shanghai Golden Monkey which Hershey now understands has an “unstable distributor network” (call that distributors disloyal to the brand who can’t be won over to push sales without hefty rebates coming into their pockets) and so the “retail customer reach is not as broad as we (Hershey) believed it to be” (meaning the customer base is much, much smaller than was presented to Hershey) and so the consequence that sales in 2015 are US$90 million less than the US$200 million they expected – well, that’s 45% below projections which to anyone in industry is a sure-fire pink slip to all involved. In short, Hershey’s problems in China have nothing to do with chocolates but everything to do with newbies coming to China and being sold a bill of goods. Yep, it’s that simple.”

I have nothing to add to this except to say that, a) I agree, and b)  it’s remarkable that after three decades, well-heeled, established companies continue to allow their enthusiasm to run past their common sense when seeking growth in China.

Who Will Protest China’s Stock Market Plunge?

Last August several hundred protestors gathered outside the Shanghai sales office of China Greentown Holdings, a real estate developer, holding banners with slogans such as “300,000 yuan worth of assets evaporate within five days — years of work in vain!” That loss – around $48,000 – was the difference between what the protestor had paid for a home, and the current price at which Greentown was now marketing models in the same complex. The protest wasn’t unique. A few weeks earlier, homeowners at the Champs Élysées housing development in Hangzhou gathered to protest a similar developer price cut, holding banners with message such as “Return my blood and sweat money” while police formed barricades. Around the same time in Jinan, a city 500 miles north of Shanghai, a similar protest turned violent after yet another market-desperate developer discounted homes by 25 percent. And those were just the most recent permutations of a phenomenon – homeowners protesting their devalued homes – that goes back to 2011, at least. Continue reading