Scrap Made In China

Of China’s many critical environmental issues, I believe the one that receives the least attention is the one most tangible to the average Chinese: namely, how to throw away and/or recycle all the worn out and broken stuff that Chinese businesses and consumers have been acquiring for the last thirty years.

For much of the last six months I’ve been trying to put together an answer to this question, and, with a little luck and some good sources, I’ve been able to put together a general outline of the plan. Over the coming months I’m going to be publishing aspects of this story. But the first part – by necessity [see the addendum at end of this post] and tradition – is being published in Scrap, the venerable journal of the US recycling industry (other aspects of this story will appear in mainstream, general interest publications later this year).

Scrap Made in China, Pt. 1, focuses on China’s efforts to consolidate and green the neighborhood street-corner scrap trade, with a particular focus on Huadong Nonferrous Metals City, the largest domestic recycling center in North China, located in Linyi, and a model for what China’s recycling trade might look like in a decade. Part 2 of the series will focus on various efforts to create an e-scrap recycling system for the roughly 120 million computers and appliances that China throws away every year. But first, an excerpt from Part 1:

Just before daybreak the small blue trucks begin to arrive at the gates of Huadong Nonferrous Metals City near Linyi, in the northern Chinese province of Shandong. They carry loads of radiators, motors, and other combinations of scrap metal and plastic that can’t be distinguished so easily in the near darkness. The guards don’t care about the contents of the load, they just check to make sure that the trucks are licensed to be there, and wave them into a wide open area divided by a crossroad and surrounded on two distant sides by two-story warehouses that extend in all visible directions. The arriving trucks take their places beside trucks which arrived earlier – some as early as midnight, I’m told, and shadowy figures emerge from warehouses, some on foot, some riding motorized three-wheel carts with hoppers on the backs. Here and there, a few slower figures push scales that rattle along the concrete.

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By the light of dusty headlamps, the scene is empty. But when the first hint of sun turns the Shandong sky to a dusky orange, the trickle of arriving trucks becomes a rush, and within ten minutes the wide boulevards of Huadong Nonferrous Metal City are jammed with motorcycles, three-wheelers, and piles of non-ferrous scrap of every conceivable variety.

As sellers unload to the pavement, buyers weave through the material, making offers and taking notes. Last year, more than 1 million mt of non-ferrous metal was sold and processed at Huadong, and this year the numbers should be even bigger. According to the burly manager of the market, Mr. Liu, there are thirty to forty thousand vendors qualified to sell here, and they come from all over northern and western China to sell to the roughly eight-hundred scrap processors and dismantlers who rent 968-square-foot processing stalls at the facility, all of whom operate according to a strict set of rule that include rigid environmental guidelines. Founded in 2005 with the support of the local government, and operated by privately-held Jinsheng Copper, it is, by far, China’s largest and most important market for domestically-generated scrap recyclables, and – by virtue of its careful organization, regulation, and scale – a model for how China’s national leaders hope that the growing domestic recycling trade will operate.

… [T]he first large wave of modern Chinese consumer acquisition took place in the mid-to-late 1980s, and many of those products – particularly appliances – are at the end of their reasonable, useful lifespans, and are ready to be recycled. At the same time, China’s middle class, particularly on its affluent east coast, has achieved levels of disposable income that allow it to purchase and upgrade consumer goods – especially electronic ones – before they wear out, on the basis of desire more than need. Finally, consumers, business and government together are spurring a Chinese construction industry that – in its pursuit of newer and better buildings – is, in turn, spurring a building demolition business and, by extension, a massive new source of ferrous structural scrap.

… [A]t the November 2007 edition of the annual Recycling Metals International Forum, organized by the Chinese Nonferrous Metals Industry Association Recycling Metal Branch [CMRA], the CMRA distributed figures indicating that collections had increased significantly from 2002 – 2006. Specifically, aluminum collections grew from 1.3 mmt to 2.35 mmt; copper grew from 290,000 mt to 680,000 mt; and scrap lead grew from 170,000 mt to 390,000 mt [no surprise, the CMRA’s logo is everywhere at Huadong]. Ferrous scrap growth has been equally strong, with overall scrap collections reaching 38.1 mmt in 2006, up 3.4% from 2005, according to a March 2007 speech given by Yan Qiping of the China Association of Metalscrap Utilization.

In fact, domestic collections of aluminum and ferrous scrap far exceeded the import volumes during the same period (notably, copper did not). Yet as impressive as this growth might seem, the future growth will assuredly be much, much greater. After all, China’s economic development is still relatively young, and mass consumption of goods that might eventually be recycled – everything from washing machines to automobiles – is young, too. Similarly, as a developing country, China still has higher rates of maintenance and re-use of worn-down equipment than fully developed countries.

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[note to my recycling industry readers: those are Chinese motors]

If you want to read the rest – and really, who isn’t interested in China’s trash? – you’ll need to get yourself a copy of Scrap [tell ’em Shanghai Scrap sent ya] … or wait for the article to be moved over to the free archives in a few months.

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[*Trade publication addendum. Recently several people have asked me why I’m “still” working for trade publications. As if trade publications are somehow beneath the more widely circulated “national” publications to which many journalists aspire (and where I also publish). There are several answers to that question, but this story – Scrap Made in China – is probably the best.

A brief explanation.

As many of my colleagues in China are aware, access is among the biggest challenge that a reporter faces on a day-to-day basis. Quite simply, most sites and people of interest are off-limits to foreign reporters; if we are able to obtain access, it’s often limited, and certainly not the extended, trusting kind that produces quality feature-length journalism. Trade work is one way – in my experience, the best way – to circumvent the mistrust and get to the heart of an organization and its operations. Rightly or wrongly, Chinese businesses with little to no interest in scrutiny from a foreign correspondent with a major news organization will happily open their doors to a reporter from a small publication covering their specific industry. The most important reason for this phenomenon is the often incorrect perception that, because the trade publication is devoted to a specific industry (and supported by industry subscriptions and advertising), it will not cover that industry in a critical manner (a very wrong perception). A second reason is that trade journalists often have deep connections within industries that can be leveraged to obtain access to Chinese organizations and individuals. Generally, correspondents can’t spend enough time on a specific industry to develop those connections (guanxi, if you will).

Anyway, trade journalists often trade where correspondents cannot go. In fact, not so long ago I had lunch with a China correspondent from a well-known international business publication who was complaining that he couldn’t get into a Chinese-owned manufacturing operation in Suzhou when, just two days earlier, I had spoken to a twenty-five-year-old freelancer from a trade publication who had spent the better part of a day touring it, and interviewing company officials. It happens all of the time.

Though I don’t want to go into the details of how I obtained access to Huadong Nonferrous Metals City and the other facilities mentioned in Scrap Made in China, I will say that my affiliation with a recycling industry publication was key to establishing the trust necessary to spend significant time there (there were other factors, too).

Of course, one problem with trade publications is that they are often – but not always – unwilling to report critically on the industries which advertise in them. Often, but not always – I report on the international waste trade for two publications that cover the field, and I’ve never been muzzled for my often critical remarks on the industry’s often unsavory environmental practices.

For some insight into the world’s greatest trade journalist – a man the mighty Mark Bowden has called “one of the greatest reporters at work in the world today” – start reading half-way down (the online) page two of Bowden’s 2006 Point of No Return at the Atlantic.]

2 comments

  1. So, too, some journalists – a certain one occasionally reporting on China for The New York Times immediately comes to mind – are helped along by their affiliation with major news organizations and not by any means of their meager talent.

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