What Really Happens to Your Christmas Tree Lights After You Recycle Them?

As readers of Junkyard Planet know, that’s a question that I’ve been asking since 2011, and my first visit to Shijiao, a small-town in south China that I call the ‘Christmas Tree Light Recycling Capitol of the World.’ The story of Shijiao is about more than just the recycling of Christmas tree lights. In many ways, it tells the story of how and why so much that America recycles goes over seas.

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Today, the day after Christmas, I have a new essay over at Time on the topic of what happens to all of that stuff leftover after Christmas: “Your Christmas Tree Lights Are Headed to China – and Then Back To You.” It’s my first essay for Time, and I’m really pleased with it.

It builds upon what I wrote in Junkyard Planet – and that builds upon a piece that I did for the Atlantic in December 2011, “The Chinese Town That Turns Your Old Christmas Tree Lights Into Slippers.” That story was accompanied by a video I shot of the factory (photographed above), that you can still find here.

On Friday morning, I spoke to Alex Cohen of Take Two on KPCC in Pasadena, California about Christmas light recycling. You can hear that interview here (and an interview about Junkyard Planet that I did with Take Two earlier this month, here).

Finally, and much to my surprise, Walter Nicklin, publisher of the weekly Rappahannock News in Washington, Virginia, published a wonderful Christmas Eve editorial – “O Little Town of … Shijiao?” – that touches on Christmas tree light recycling and some of the themes I explore in Junkyard Planet. I hope you’ll click over and have a look.

Scene from a Junkyard Planet: Foreign Trash

During the run-up to the November 12 release of my first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, I’m posting photos taken during my decade of reporting on the global waste, recycling, refurbishment, and repair trade. Today’s Scene shows what many people in China (including a ranking government official whom I met today) characterize as “foreign trash” and many people outside of China characterize as “dumped” waste. Click to enlarge.DSC04747To be precise, the image, taken two weeks ago at a scrap metal warehouse in Ningbo, China, shows scrap copper wire and tubing freshly unloaded from a shipping container that just arrived from the United States. I am talking about the copper pipe that used to send water flowing through your bathroom; the old telephone wire that once carried the voice of your best friend. Is it trash? This afternoon, in pursuit of an answer to this question I showed the photo to two scrap dealer friends of mine, and asked for a price. The consensus was that it’s worth around $3/lb at current market prices (for the professional scrapper crowd: minus twenty to twenty-five off the COMEX). Now consider the fact that there was 40,000 lb of this stuff in the container. That is to say, somebody sent roughly $120,000 worth of “foreign trash” to China. Of course, it’s entirely possible that somebody, somewhere in America, is willing to dump $120,000 worth of trash on China without any thought of being paid for it; but I’ve yet to find that person. Indeed, according to data from China Customs that I received this afternoon, between January and September of this year, China imported 3.19 mmt of copper scrap worth $10 billion (the US was the leading exporter). Much of it looked like this – that is, it looked like foreign trash being dumped in Ningbo, China. But, of course, it wasn’t trash. It was something much more valuable that – if one can get past how it looks – makes the world a cleaner, greener place.

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: the de-Bottling Line

During the run-up to the November 12 release of my first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, I’m posting photos taken during my decade of reporting on the global waste, recycling, refurbishment, and repair trade. Today’s Scene shows Chinese workers emptying the sacks of plastic bottles that we saw in Monday’s Scene. Click to enlarge.DSC04548

This image, taken at the largest plastic bottle recycling facility between Chongqing (arguably the largest city on the planet), and Chengdu (a seriously massive city in its own right), shows workers doing what workers in plastic bottle recycling factories around the world: open bags of bottles and set them running up conveyors, where they’re picked over for trash, and then compacted into large plastic bottle bricks weighing hundred of pounds. From there, the bottles are shredded and sent to be made into new bottles. There’s nothing pretty or mysterious about it – the equipment at this factory is state-of-the-art European-built. But it is effective, profitable, and green while serving as the key link between your recycling bin and a new bottle.

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: Bottled Up

During the run-up to the November 12 release of my first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, I’m posting photos taken during my decade of reporting on the global waste, recycling, refurbishment, and repair trade. Today’s Scene shows a Chinese worker wandering among giant sacks containing thousands of plastic bottles. Click to enlarge:

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This image, taken at a plastic bottle recycling facility in China’s Sichuan Province, offers a hint of just how much bottled water, Coke, and green tea is being consumed in China on a daily basis (there isn’t an imported foreign bottle in this photo – or factory). Trust me: it’s a lot. The problem is, despite the fact that everybody knows the volume of recyclable bottles tossed out by Chinese is growing, nobody can say for sure just how much it has grown by. The stats, quite simply, are mostly non-existent; those that exist might as well revert to non-existence. Still, at a time when environmental opposition to plastic bottled water is hurting the product in Europe and the US, China – where few trust the water supplies – is consuming more and more. Needless to say, if you’re drinking bottled Evian, you’re probably drinking bottled Coke, too. In China and other developing countries, low wages make for a strong incentive to recover plastic bottles from the trash, and sell them to people who find value in them – like recyclers. Thus, businesses like this one are thriving across China, supported by the growth in consumer demand for bottled beverages. No consumer demand, no need to recycle.

Junkyard Planet Excerpted at The Atlantic!

I’m thrilled to point readers in the direction of The Atlantic, where a new excerpt of Junkyard Planet is running. This is the third excerpt to run in advance of the November 12 release of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, and in many ways it’s the most personal one (see Bloomberg Businessweek and Foreign Affairs for earlier excerpts). There are two reasons. First, this excerpt recounts some of my family’s multi-generation history in the scrap metal trade – a history that threads Junkyard Planet. And second, my first mainstream writing (as opposed to trade writing) about the scrap trade was supported by the Atlantic. Thus, it’s really a treat to see it all come full circle with How China Profits From Our Junk.

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Over the next few months I’ll be making appearances in the US, UK, China, Singapore, and Malaysia to talk about Junkyard Planet. An events page with confirmed dates can be viewed here. Additional dates will be posted in coming weeks (for all five countries). In the meantime, you can pre-order Junkyard Planet from your favorite online bookstore, now – links are available to the lower right of this post.

And finally, Goodreads is hosting a drawing to win one of five signed hardcover copies of the book. Enter here.

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: Loose Change Edition

Today’s Scene from a Junkyard Planet – actually two scenes – takes its cue from a story circulating in the French press (thanks to Wee Ling Soh, who tweeted the story in my direction). There are a couple of versions floating around, but here’s a concise edit of the Local’s version of events:

Two Chinese tourists in Paris found themselves in hot water recently with anti-fraud authorities. After paying their €70 hotel bill in €1 coins, police found €3,700 in change in their possession, and arrested them on suspicion of forgery …

For their part, the two told a representative from the Paris Mint that they had acquired the coins from an unusual source back home.

“They said they had bought all the coins from scrapyard dealers in China,” the Paris Mint official told Le Parisien.

“When cars owned by Europeans, and destined for scrap metal, get sent to China to be recycled, the junkyard owners often collect dozens of euro coins from each vehicle,” the source added.

So here’s the deal. In Europe, the US, Japan, and other developed countries, automobile recycling is typically accomplished via giant metal shredders (for a delightfully entertaining take on metal shredders, see Foreign Affairs’ excerpt from my upcoming book on the subject - or just pre-order the book). Once the pieces are reduced to fist-sized chunks, magnets separate out of the steel from everything else – and everything else goes overseas to giant workshops where it’s hand-sorted into component metals before recycling (there are a couple of notable exceptions – one of which is found in my book). In any case, all of that shredded metal contains an often overlooked but nonetheless valuable commodity: all that change which fell out of your pockets and became lodged in the seats.

According to one US-based recycler who would know (his name is Jack, and he’s also in my book), the average US automobile contains $1.65 in change when it arrives at the shredder. And that means, generally, that there’s a LOT of change in the shredded metal that arrives in China every year by the millions of tons. Below, a metal sorting facility in Foshan, Guangdong Province. Metal has just been unloaded onto a conveyor and the women in the photo are employed to pick out the coins from it. And that’s all they’re employed to do. Note, in the below photo, the plastic buckets circled in red: those contain coins.

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And, below, those are the coins. Gnarled and chopped up, but coins nonetheless. Needless to say, there are enough of them in that shredded metal to pay the salaries of these workers (at the time the photo was taken in 2009, the going rate was around $400/month).

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Clearly, some of those coins are re-usable and – predictably – the Chinese scrap processors who collect them are not averse to selling them to people who have their own uses for gnarled up money … like Chinese tourists who don’t mind schlepping them to Europe in suitcases. At Chinese scrap yards, the price of the coins is set at a serious discount to their actual value (and takes into account currency fluctuations – of course). The tourists probably figured they were getting a killer deal. Which, I suppose, they were.

As for the coins that can’t be re-sold for re-use because they’re too gnarled? They’re sent to smelters who recycle them into new metal. Viva la scrap.

Scenes from a Junkyard Planet: The Chinese Metal Sorters

During the run-up to the November 12 release of my first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, every weekday I’m posting a new photo taken during my decade of reporting on the global waste, recycling, refurbishment, and repair trade. Today’s Scene shows Chinese workers sorting the same kinds of shredded metal shown in yesterday’s scene, which featured Indian workers. Click to enlarge:

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This 2005 image, taken at a Shanghai-area scrap yard, shows hundreds of workers diligently sorting the various metals that emerge from US and European automobile shredders. Like the Indian sorters featured yesterday, the workers at these tables are all women. However, unlike the Indian sorters, the Chinese workers are afforded basic safety gear – face masks, gloves – and given extensive training for the work of sorting copper from aluminum from zinc etc. In the foreground of the above image, the table to the left is a training table where workers spend several weeks learning the trade (and being tested) before they are placed on one of the actual working tables. The result is better recycling – cleaner metal that can be used in all kinds of products (much of what is sorted in this factory is recycled into the automotive industry). Though not all Chinese metal sorting facilities are not as nice as this one – it’s one of the best – they are, generally, superior to the conditions at Indian facilities, and thus so is the metal that they produce.