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.

[November 20, 2015. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, the video is no longer available on youtube. But it is available on China’s 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.]

Junkyard Planet Goes to China

I’m pleased – as in thrilled – to announce that the Chinese edition of Junkyard Planet has just been published. When I started writing the book four years ago, I always had a Chinese audience in mind. Nonetheless, for all kinds of reasons, there was never any guarantee that I’d reach that audience. So the fact that the book is now available in bookstores across the country is incredibly satisfying.


I’m quite eager to see the feedback, and I’ll share it with my blog’s readers as it comes. In the meantime, I’d be very interested in hearing what Chinese readers think of the translation. Please reach out to me if you’ve read it.

Anatomy of a Myth: the World’s Biggest E-Waste Dump Isn’t.

Let’s start with two photographs.

The first was shot by me in China’s Hunan Province. It shows a warehouse that contains roughly 5,000 old locally-collected televisions awaiting recycling. This photo only captures a portion of what is a big inventory, and a big operation. Every day more arrive. Most people outside of China have never heard of this place, mostly because it is indoors, and difficult for journos and activists to gain access to.


Next, a photo tagged “e-Waste – field of computers” that I came across while looking at a Google map of Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra, Ghana that everyone from the Guardian to Motherboard has called the world’s “biggest” or “largest” e-waste dump.


There’s nothing good or right in the Agbogbloshie photo. The pollution it depicts is nasty. But if you can get past the shock and evaluate the volume of e-waste in the image, it’s not much – especially compared to what we see in the China photo. Indeed, despite the parade of Agbogbloshie slideshows posted by media outlets over the years, there’s a curious dearth of images showing large volumes of e-waste at the site. Rather, the genre is almost exclusively devoted to pictures of laborers, oftentimes not even processing waste – see this useless and exploitative New York Times slideshow, or this more recent one from Motherboard. My long-standing suspicion has been that there aren’t any great volumes of e-waste at Agbogbloshie, and that most of the journalists and photographers who go there – having had no experience with developing world recycling – document their shock, but not what’s actually happening, frankly because they don’t know better.

This matters. Agbogbloshie has become a global symbol for what’s alleged to be a vast and growing environmental problem: the export of e-waste from the developed world to West Africa. Yet in recent years, academic and UN-sponsored research has shown that the problem is far more complex – and, in all respects, smaller – than what’s being depicted. In other words – we’re not talking about the world’s largest e-waste dump.

So what I’m going to do is show how somebody with actual experience reporting in and around the global recycling industry – especially in the developing world – looks at Agbogbloshie. My background is that of a journalist who has been writing about and photographing the industry for 15 years, and has visited hundreds of recycling facilities, especially in the developing world. In March and April, I visited Accra. Continue reading

The actual reason nobody’s interested in stealing your scrap metal, anymore.

On Monday the New York Times ran a very good portrait of a Detroit metal scrapper going about his business, scrounging for metal and seeking places to sell it. Business isn’t what it used to be, the Times tells us, mostly thanks to a spate of law enforcement measures that make it harder to fence scrap – especially copper wire and plumbing – from abandoned buildings. The proof is in the data: Detroit issued 222 warrants for scrap metal theft in 2012. This year, it’s issued “around 25.”

It’s not just Detroit. The UK’s Local Government Association points to the 2013 passage of a Scrap Metal Dealers Act as the reason that there were “only” 40,680 metal thefts in England and Wales in 2014, compared to 59,788 in 2013.  Likewise, last May the US’s National Insurance Crime Bureau [NCIB] revealed that insured metal theft had declined 26% between 2011 and 2013, from 14,676 cases to 10,807 – and it pointed specifically to legislation and law enforcement as the restraining factor.

No doubt, law enforcement has played an important role in restricting the easy options for metal thieves to fence scrap. But I’d argue the more important reason metal theft – especially copper theft – has declined over the last three years is embodied in the chart I’ve pasted below (click to enlarge). It shows the price of copper, dating back to its five year highs in early 2011 – and its precipitous, nearly 50% decline ever since (mostly thanks to falling Chinese demand). The price of scrap copper, including wires pulled from your home’s walls, is based on these prices:


At those prices, it’s probably still worth scrapping if you’re desperate – like the fellow profiled by the NYT. But for criminals who might have other options (including other options for selling it), the difference between $4/lb copper and $2.50/lb copper is probably big enough to make you think twice about breaking into an abandoned house to pull out its wiring. Continue reading

American Dockworkers Are Savaging Your Recycling Bin.

Last year, roughly one-third of the recycling generated in the United States was exported to more than 160 countries and territories. That’s 42.8 million tons – enough weight to fill over 2 million standard-sized shipping containers – worth $23.7 billion. China was the top destination for those exports (Canada was number two), while South Korea, Japan, and India were in the top ten. So when, back in July, a labor dispute and slowdown hit US West Coast ports, one of its first and most significant victims was the multi-billion dollar trans-Pacific trade in recycling, much of which ships from those ports.


In recent weeks, the toll – both economic and environmental – has started to come due. In San Francisco the city’s recycling contractor is running out of space to store recyclable paper and cardboard that typically ships to Asia, and the excess is piling up in mountains of cardboard. In neighboring San Mateo County, a different contractor, who also depends on shipping scrap paper to Asia, did run out of space – and the city had to lease it a 28,000 square foot warehouse to hold it. Meanwhile, two weeks ago, the California Refuse Recycling Council, a trade group, warned Governor Jerry Brown that its members might soon be forced to redirect all that California recycling to “disposal.” In other words: unless recyclers can start shipping to Asia again, a lot of scrap paper and cardboard might be landfill-bound. Continue reading