Why US rubbish will still keep going to China

Despite ever-growing supply of domestic waste, China's recycling factories still depend on imported waste, says Adam Minter, author of ‘Junkyard Planet’
<p>&quot;China is by far the number one market for materials,&quot; says Adam Minter. (Image: sansumbrella)</p>

"China is by far the number one market for materials," says Adam Minter. (Image: sansumbrella)

Nick Holdstock (NH): Many people think of recycling primarily in environmental terms, whereas you show that recycling is an industry like any other. What should we learn from this?

Adam Minter (AM): I’m not anti-consumption, but I do want people to consume more smartly and for product designers to design more smartly. If you understand how much goes into recycling, it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card- every recycling process has a loss. We grow up with the symbol of those three arrows going round and round [the international symbol for recycling) but there’s leakage, I don’t care what it is. The average piece of paper can only be recycled six or seven times, when steel goes into a furnace you will lose some of that steel. The idea that you’ve done some great deed, that you’ve put that ore back into the ground, or replaced that tree- you haven’t, you’ve just slowed down the draw on the earth’s finite resources.

NH: How do countries compare in terms of recycling efficiency?

AM: People can look down upon China and India for how they recycle, but the recycling rate is very close to 100%. If it can be reused, it will be recycled. But in Europe the recycling rate for paper is around 71%, and it’s going to be very hard to get that up (in fact it’s dropping). There’s no material that’s close to 100%. Why is that? Poverty in China is one reason. There’s an employment incentive. There’s also a culture of thriftiness. If I throw a can away,  my housekeeper will get angry, not because I did a bad deed environmentally, but because there’s value there. She can take it down to the recycling lady in front our building and sell it. China is going to recover more of its stuff than we are in the West on the basis of our ideological propensity for recycling.

NH: How crucial are economic conditions for determining rates of recycling?

AM: The US was a very thrifty culture before the consumerist ideology took over. Families saved their stuff, they recovered, they recycled, they reused. That went away after World War Two. That was driven in large part by affluence. Anecdotally, people I know in the industry and in the Chinese government are saying they are seeing less recovery of waste in affluent parts of Beijing.

That’s kind of the supply side of recycling. On the flip side, China has been very forward thinking in developing national recycling policies. The central government has raised metal recycling to the level of a critical industry, Why are they doing that? They see the long term outlook- raw materials, resources are riches in coming decades. They knew that they would have to develop a recycling industry.

NH: What role do state subsidies play in recycling in China?

AM: There’s a lot of government money in China going into electronics recycling. Since I started covering the industry in 2002, they have wanted to consolidate the industry into these very large players. Are these private players, are these semi-private players, are these state owned enterprises? Yes to all of these – the bigger a player is, the easier it is to control. But what they have found over the years is that this just doesn’t work very well. The amazing thing about the scrap industry is that there’s always someone who can do it more efficiently than you. A giant SOE isn’t going to have employees go into the alley and pick up the four bottles and five cans. For a recycling company, the most expensive part is getting something out of someone’s home and big companies are not very good at doing that on a very small scale. You need those small peddlers.

NH: You mention in the book that a rubbish collector told you that rubbish peddlers are mostly from Hunan, and that traders are mostly from Hubei. To what extent is that the case?

AM: Yes, up in Beijing it’s like there are guilds. It’s people who speak their local dialects to each other. Josh Goldstein has written wonderful papers about the history of these guilds.

NH: How much recycling does the US send abroad?

AM: In 2012 the US kept about 60% of its recycling, and 40% went overseas, though obviously that varies by material. China is by far the number one market for all materials. The EU is roughly comparable – it’s had more of an industrial slowdown, that is what it all comes down to. Unless you want to incinerate it or put it in a land fill, it’s going to have to go somewhere.

NH: Could increased environmental regulation make recycling too expensive?

AM: It happened in the US. About 30 years ago there were about 10 copper refineries in the US. They were chemical facilities where you would take certain kinds of wire. For instance, if you wanted to separate copper wire from its silver coating. But these were very dirty operations, they polluted. Even if you wanted to operate cleanly, the cost of doing so was so high it just wasn’t worth it. So all the copper refineries in the US shut down, the last of them in the late 1990s. So what happens to all the silver coated wire? China said ‘Fine, we’ll take it, we’ll have the largest copper industry in the world.

In China the costs are certainly going up quickly. In 2002 a metal sorter in Foshan made from US$ 80-100 per month, plus room and board. Now the best sorters – and it’s a skilled profession – get paid US$ 800-900 a month.  

The college graduates in the offices of these large companies are making less than the metal sorters. What’s interesting is what’s going to happen now that labour costs are rising. Is it all going to go to Vietnam? The answer is no. Although the margins are shrinking, they are still substantial. It’s an industry tradition to whine and cry about your margins but they are all doing fine! And China’s now starting to automate. They are now buying multimillion dollar metal shredders and sorting equipment and trying to find the balance between how to take advantage of the labour and supplementing it with these machines.

NH: How has
Operation Green Fence in China affected waste imports ?

AM: The coverage in the West has been that it was all about blocking certain kinds of material but the real goal was to put a lot of small, very polluting recyclers out of business. The way it works is that the recyclers need import licences. A lot of these importers would bring in the material then they divvy it out to thousands of small recyclers. The block on licences not only killed imports – it killed all of these small recyclers, mostly in the plastics sector.  

A customs official in November said in a speech that it was over but some enforcement will continue. What does that mean? Traders are telling me that it’s loosened up, we can get some things back in. But it’s had an effect- they know the regulations can come back, so they are operating more cleanly.

NH: Will we be seeing more of these sudden environmental interventions?

AM: I think there was an assessment made that something had to be done. But the Ministry of Environmental Protection has only a limited number of employees. Where were they going to devote their resources? They only have about 500 employees (compared to 30,000 at the US EPA). Are we going to devote these limited resources to ensuring certain types of recyclables don’t come in? To water quality? What’s the more pressing issue? Ultimately they rely upon provincial and local protection officials and often they have links with industry, if they don’t own part of it.

NH: A recent report from MIT suggested that the
amount of e-waste is likely to increase by a third by 2017- what are the consequences and concerns about this?

AM: It’s a great study. The growth will come from the developing world. China is theoretically preparing itself for it – over the last decade they have started to build infrastructure for an e-waste take back system – this is the world’s largest take back system. Is it going to work? I don’t know. Some of the plants they’ve subsidised are extraordinary. Right now they are focused on cathode ray tubes, which are in old TVs and computer monitors and they’ve got a lot of them. One of the reasons they’re getting them is that they’re hard to recycle profitably. What’s going to happen to PCs? Are the Chinese government going to be able to capture them?

My sense is that this is a solvable problem. I don’t think we’ll be sitting here in 10 years’ time saying what will we do about e-waste? There’s a lot happening in this area now, much of it profit-orientated, or raw material-orientated. You’re also starting to see manufacturers getting into the recycling business. If you’re a consumer electronics company manufacturing in China, and you’re looking 10 years down the line, do you believe the price of copper or aluminium or rare earths is going to be down? Of course not. So what are you going to do about it? You’re going to try to reclaim some of that yourself, and one IT company has, Wistron – it will be interesting to see how that works out.

But why not make this stuff more recyclable? Right now we don’t have people making easily recyclable electronics products. Apple in particular seem determined to make it as difficult as possible to recycle their materials. I really believe we’re going to see this resource-driven shift.

NH:  As the Chinese consumer market grows, how is the proportion of domestic to international scrap shifting? Will they stop needing to get so much from the US and elsewhere?

AM: Not any time soon – but we are starting to see it in paper. More than 50% of China’s paper is coming from itself- less and less is imported. For that to change in something like aluminium or copper is going to be very difficult to see. Well over 50%, maybe even 80% of China’s copper is still scrap from elsewhere. It will be interesting to see what happens ten years from now. As we know, the Chinese government doesn’t like to rely on imports – they want to be self-sufficient.

NH: Manufacturing in China is starting to move inland – do you think recycling might follow it?

AM: That’s a critical question. Yes, but it’s difficult. A lot of the recyclers I know on the east coast are talking about moving inland, if they haven’t already. The problem is the logistics. One of the things that’s made this industry so profitable is that it’s been so cheap to ship the stuff to the coast. But if you want to ship scrap to Chongqing via the Three Gorges Dam it’s extraordinarily expensive. And China’s rail freight is still a mess.

There’s a new train that goes from Zhengzhou to Chongqing to Hamburg. It’s essentially a freight train. When I was in Chongqing they were talking about Chongqing becoming Europe’s recycling hub – that it brings it on the back haul from delivering all the high end consumer goods.

NH: With citizen environmental awareness growing in China, and
nimby protests becoming more common, will recycling facilities also be targeted?

AM: Lead battery recycling has been a big issue in China, with a lot of contamination in Anhui. There were protests, not directed at the recycling, more at the smelting factory. That’s been a big target of the regulators. There hasn’t been this ‘aha-we all need to recycle moment’. I’ve yet to get a dirty look from throwing my can in the wrong bin. There isn’t that ideology surrounding recycling- it’s still an economic activity.

Not so long ago I was at a friend’s home in Shanghai and they’d bought an enormous HD television which comes in big cardboard box. They’d spent thousands on this thing but they still called down to the front gate and had a recycler come up with a little balance scale and got a few yuan for it.

I hope that doesn’t go away. I’d rather they approach recycling from that standpoint rather than the environmental because you get more recycled.

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade is published by Bloomsbury