China’s hunger for materials and its powerful economies of scale can make a viable business of recycling what would occupy landfills elsewhere. At The Atlantic, Adam Minter describes the town of Shijiao, whose factories recycle more than 20 million pounds of discarded Christmas tree lights each year. The town may offer a challenge to the perception that shipping material (back) to China for recycling is invariably bad for the environment:
Shijiao, like most of China’s recycling zones, began to thrive 20 years ago in part because of its cheap labor and low environmental standards. Even two years ago, visitors to the fields around town would see clouds of black smoke churning off giant piles of burning wire (not just Christmas tree wire), the fastest — though by no means the cleanest — way to extract copper from plastic and rubber. But something interesting happened on the road to globalization: China’s manufacturers, hungry for cheap raw materials, developed an appetite for the recovered insulation that wraps around insulated copper wire, and devised a way to make into a range of products including, Li tells me, slipper soles ….
There are some U.S. companies and organizations that take Christmas tree lights for free and promise to recycle them in the United States. And some of those lights may, in fact, end up being chopped in U.S. recycling plants. But most, invariably, will be sold for about 60 cents a pound, stuffed into a shipping container, and shipped to China — to the benefit of the environment, and pocketbooks, in both countries. Indeed, if there’s a weak environmental link in the chain, it’s the American consumers who start it by buying tens of millions of pounds of Christmas tree lights every year, only to throw them into the recycle bin, guilt free, when a bulb breaks. But Li, for one, doesn’t mind: that waste is the raw material for his green business.
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