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The international scrap system

January 28, 2014
By Sharon Root , Marshall Independent

Lyon County recycling coordinator

There's a book out there called "Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade" that I want to get a copy of. Reading an article in which the author, Adam Minter, was interviewed by the editor of "Resource Recycling" and also looking over the description of the book on-line has definitely piqued my interest. Growing up the son of a Minneapolis junkyard owner, he had a close up-and-personal view on the scrap business and now as a journalist based in Shanghai for more than a decade, he has one on the international scrap system.

I know that recovered materials whether paper, plastic, glass or metals are commodities and as such, are part of the global economic market and that the U.S. exports a lot of said materials overseas to China. Because of their rapidly growing infrastructure, they need materials and as such, they're the primary overseas market for the vast majority of recyclables from the U.S.

Here's an excerpt from the article I read that sheds a little light on why so much of our scrap goes over there. China controls roughly 43 percent of the world's copper demand. As Minter points out, if the Chinese weren't getting the copper from those Christmas lights (The book says that the village of Shijiao has become the Christmas Tree Light Recycling Capital of the World.) - and manifold other sources - they're going to turn to other, possibly dirtier means. How do you want them fulfilling it? Do you want them fulfilling it in (e-scrap) recycling workshops in China or do you want them fulfilling it with (a) copper mine in northern Minnesota or another copper mine in the Amazon, in Brazil, or another copper mine in Indonesia?"

In the interview, Adam was asked if there's much organized collection of recyclables over there. He said it was pretty much a free-for-all. Everybody there, rich to poor, knows about recycling. Bottles and cans and cardboard are worth money, and folks don't just throw them in the trash. He said once when he was at a buddy's house, the couple had just bought a huge flat screen, which was packaged in a cardboard box. The wife called down to the front gate and asked the attendant to get a recycler up there to buy the cardboard box. Ten minutes later a recycler showed up to buy the box.

The interviewer responded to Adam's answer, "that's hard to imagine here." That's for sure! Adam said the big difference between the U.S., the EU, Japan and the rest of the developed world is we think of recycling in environmental terms whereas in China it's thought of in economic terms. And from what he says, if you go to a landfill, you'll see food waste and maybe some drywall and unrecyclable construction waste. But you won't see a bottle or a can in there.

Now, I like the environmental reason behind recycling, but I'll go along with the economic incentive if that's what it takes to reduce waste and give resources another go-round!

Keep reducing, reusing, recycling and buying recycled! For info or if your club is interested in a presentation (free) regarding recycling/waste reduction and hazardous waste disposal, call the Lyon County Environmental Office at 507-532-8210. Call us for info about the aforementioned topics and about disposal of appliances, electronics and tires or visit Click on environmental under public works menu.



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