Most people are familiar with the fact that many of our goods are made in China — but what folks don’t know is that much of America’s recyclables end up in the land of Great Walls.

While we addressed the fact that recycling in China is more of an economic activity whereas it’s seen as a ‘green thing to do’ in western society — today we’re going to look at how and why China has become the world’s junkyard capital, according to The Atlantic Cities.

What kind of recyclables are we talking about?

The cargo ship that arrives to the US loaded with everything from electronics and home appliances to toys, clothing and shoes that you’ll find at your local mall —actually returns to a southern port in Shenzhen, China with stuff from the rest of the world that no one plans on using.

See, used scrap metal, plastic and paper are things most places consider as nothing — and China turns them into something.

“China turns the world’s cast-offs into goods it sorely needs,” reports The Atlantic Cities, “For example, aluminum from automobile scrap gets melted and exported to Japanese car makers. Scrap plastic might end up as plastic ‘lumber’ used to manufacture backyard decks.”

Even Christmas tree lights get recycled in places like Shijiao. Apparently, one can actually extract both insulation or copper from these used holiday staples.  Copper is all the rage in the recycling world there — as copper is necessary in all kinds of things (like power cords and iPhones).

According to author of Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter, there is a shortage of metal resources of their own in China. This would explain the desire to collect those sweet scraps of recyclable metal there. Minter suggests that this cycle makes for a pretty carbon-neutral boat ride to China.

What are these ‘junkyards’ like?

Well, the junkyards in China are anything but a paradise. Junkyard labourers are responsible for taking all that used junk we sent over from US and work their magic in a polluted environment. These sludge-filled landfills reek of burning plastic —while an algae and waste infested river runs through in the Wen’an in Hebei province.

But according to The Atlantic Cities, Minter has a solution to this dystopia. “Stop buying so much crap in the first place,” says Minter.

More about the author of Junkyard Planet

With his family involved in the scrap business in China, there’s no wonder he had a personal fascination with the industry.  For an audio and transcript of a great interview where Minter discusses the hidden interesting world of global recycling, click here.


Image credit: Elizabeth Kate Switaj