On global waste and recycling flows

In the wealthy part of the Western world, we have come to think about recycling and resource reclamation as a something that is handled by anonymous technologies, more or less automatically, as long as we as consumers manage to put it in the right bin. Over at the always excellent The Atlantic, Adam Minter has been writing a series of posts called Wasted 7/7, which explores how much of the actual work of American recycling has been shipped abroad to Asia, where much of the labor is done by manual workers. This story can of course be told in many ways – for instance, one where the West ships its garbage to less developed parts of the world, which then have to struggle with pollution, health concerns, and labor inequalities and exploitation. And while there certainly is something to this interpretation (think, for instance of the stories of shipbreaking in India and Bangladesh), Minter wanted to draw our attention to another version of the story: “This is what happens when automobile-loving societies reach living standards so high that they can’t afford to take apart their old cars by hand anymore in order to recycle them.” Because of the surplus of cheap labor in parts of Asia, it is possible for scrap to get “recycled completely, providing a relatively clean alternative to mined, virgin materials,” and still be profitable (which is key to making business do anything green). Minter argues that China is “desperate to show environmental leadership” and that labor conditions actually are much better than one would think.

Chinese Metal Breaker. Photo from The Atlantic.

Minter tells an interesting story about how materials flow back and forth across the world. For instance, Minter notes that “recycled metal currently accounts for 25% of Chinese aluminum production, 40% of copper production, and 15% of steel production.” This gets shipped back to the US and elsewhere as part of new products. China’s scrap recycling industry has evolved into a “critical supplier of raw materials to respected manufacturers of iPhones, PCs, automobile engines, and other precision manufactured high-tech products.” In the end, Minter turns the exploitation story on its head:  “I simply can’t escape the feeling that the people being exploited are the Americans sending all that value to China.”

All in all, this is certainly worth reading. Minter is working on a book on the topic, which I am looking forward to seeing!

Here are links to all the posts in the series:

  1. The Motor Breakers of China
  2. The Plastics Shredders of China
  3. The Metal Shredders of Toyota
  4. The Metal Sorters of Shanghai
  5. The Metal Sorters North of Mumbai
  6. The Shipbreakers of China
  7. The Chinese Sample Room

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