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

What Does San Diego Have Against Recycling, Free Enterprise, and the American Way?

For more than a decade, Gary Ries of Mission Hills, California, has spent his spare time earning money by picking recyclable cans and bottles from trash cans owned by the city of San Diego. Under most definitions, this is laudable entrepreneurship and everyone wins: Ries makes a few extra bucks, San Diego trucks a few less pounds of trash to the landfill, and, well, recycling!


However, according to a report by ABC 10 in San Diego, the city of San Diego doesn’t quite see it that way: “The city of San Diego says that once an item enters a trash can on city property, it becomes property of the city.”

So, rather than laud Ries – or, better yet, just leave him the @#$% alone – the city of San Diego has decided to make him miserable. Last weekend, they twice issued $150 citations against him. And if he doesn’t stop recycling the city’s landfill-bound cans and bottles? The police officer who harassed him the first time around will “arrest him, take him to jail and have his bail set at $5,000.”


But it gets worse. San Diego isn’t merely concerned that Ries is stealing their garbage. They’re worried about liability if “someone gets hurt digging through the trash,” as well as identity theft (ie, the city is protecting people who might leave bank statements in San Diego’s beach-side garbage cans). Or, in the words of Jose Ysea, spokesman for the city of San Diego Environmental Services Department: “it’s more to protect the residents and the community at large.” Continue reading

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.


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:


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.


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.