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"Big waste country, the U.S."
September 7, 2013 9:43 AM   Subscribe

To a Chinese Scrap-Metal Hunter, America's Trash Is Treasure: Johnson Zeng is a Chinese trader who travels across the U.S. in search of scrap metal. By his estimate, there are at least 100 others like him driving from scrap yard to scrap yard, right now, in search of what Americans won’t or can’t be bothered to recycle. His favorite product: wires, cables, and other kinds of copper. His purchases, millions of pounds of metal worth millions of dollars, will eventually be shipped to China.

Additional Articles
* Crain's Chicago Business: China's reach into Chicago's alleyway economy
* Denver Post: Colorado's trash is China's treasure, with scrap shipped overseas. "Developing economies such as China's lack the volume of old cars, appliances and other consumer items to recycle domestically, so they look to developed areas."
* Wall Street Journal (2011): Scramble for Scrap Metal
* In These Times (2011): Detroit Scrap City: A few entrepreneurs pick through the ruins for profit.
* NPR (2008, when the market took a downturn): Drop In Chinese Demand Melts Scrap Metal Market
* Charlotte Observer (2008): A boom in scrap metal
* New York Times (2004): China's Need for Metal Keeps U.S. Scrap Dealers Scrounging

ScrapMonster: China Scrap Prices
posted by zarq (29 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
A contrast to this story:

* Washington Post: China doesn’t even want to buy our garbage anymore.
* Christian Science Monitor: China puts up a green wall to US trash

Also:
* Great Lakes Trade Adjustment Assistance Center Blog: Scrap Really is Our Top Export to China
* Business Insider: (Repost of an article from the China Business Review): Top 10 US States Exporting Goods to China. They are: South Carolina, Minnesota, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, New York, Illinois, Washington, Texas, California.
posted by zarq at 9:56 AM on September 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Behind the spottless polished professional look, the work of a decent photoshopper, probably lay a number of chinese being ruthlessly exploited, inhaling poisonous heavy metals and whatnot. But who cares, they are oversea out of sight out of mind.

Yet what' shipped oversea eventually comes around in cheap products or local unemployement.
posted by elpapacito at 10:16 AM on September 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


Shanghai Scrap has long been a very interesting glimpse into this world.

probably lay a number of chinese being ruthlessly exploited, inhaling poisonous heavy metals and whatnot

Here's a couple of photo essays about Guiyu, Guangdong, China. And here are a couple not limited to China.
posted by msbrauer at 10:26 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


...driving from scrap yard to scrap yard, right now, in search of what Americans won’t or can’t be bothered to recycle.

If I cause something to be in a scrapyard, please believe me when I say I want it to be recycled. That is the entire function of scrapyards, is it not?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:48 AM on September 7, 2013 [11 favorites]


Listening to sports radio a couple of years ago, I was perpetually amazed at the number of ads for dealers who wanted to buy scrap gold or silver in any quantity, no matter how small, and I came to wonder whether the Chinese might not be trying to quietly repatriate some of their uncomfortably large trade imbalance driven surplus of dollars and convert it to precious metals in the only way open to them which would neither send the price of the metals through the roof or the value of the dollar through the floor once it became known that China was unloading them.

I don't hear those ads anymore for whatever reason, and I don't know how or if this could fit into a similar scenario, but it's giving me the same kind of scalp-tingle.
posted by jamjam at 11:11 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Metal scavengers drive around the East Bay looking for people putting bulk trash out. I moved recently and was putting out the final load of trash when not one but two guys screeched up and proceeded to take away anything and everything made of metal. Rather helpful actually. This in an area where metal trash used to sit around outside unwanted for years.
posted by telstar at 11:24 AM on September 7, 2013


If I cause something to be in a scrapyard, please believe me when I say I want it to be recycled. That is the entire function of scrapyards, is it not?

All this stuff gets recycled. Probably nowadays even more than ever because of global markets. The hand wringing is about who does the recycling.

Here in L.A. scrap metal collection is an active thing. Like telstar's experience, anything that's metal will be collected within a day by private folks who patrol the alleys with small trucks. When I had to replace my water heater, I happened to catch one at the right time in the alley, looking like a husband-wife team in a small flatbed. As soon as they saw me wrestling it out of the gate, they stopped. Helped them load it on their truck and they were on their way. Theoretically, the city might take it for you, maybe for a fee depending on what it is. But it could take a week for them to get around to it. Seems they rarely get the opportunity with scrap metal.

Paper/cardboard collection seems to be a less common thing. I think economies of scale and active recycling programs favor municipal programs. But I have seen private individuals doing it on occasion.

Plastics, aside from CRV containers, still seem to be the domain of municipal programs.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:56 AM on September 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've been saying for years that investors should get together and buy old landfills, as they're filled with mineable resources.
posted by sneebler at 12:09 PM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The hand wringing is about who does the recycling.

Yes, my comment was a response to the assertion that these Chinese gents are looking in scrapyards for stuff Americans won't recycle. If that is really what they're looking for, they're looking in the wrong places; all the stuff in scrapyards is stuff Americans are trying to recycle. I think what they should say is that the Chinese will pay more for it than others, but that doesn't say anything snide about Americans.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:09 PM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


2N2222: "Like telstar's experience, anything that's metal will be collected within a day by private folks who patrol the alleys with small trucks...Seems they rarely get the opportunity with scrap metal.

Sometimes they will steal the aluminum siding right off your house
posted by double block and bleed at 12:12 PM on September 7, 2013


So what's going on is that a bunch of our fellow Americans are desperately poor, because America has abandoned them/us, but fortuitously America's also abandoned a bunch of buildings containing valuable metals. Conveniently, one of our geopolitical rivals has a great need for metal, so our abandoned people can make a living by taking apart our abandoned cities and selling the pieces on the cheap.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:15 PM on September 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


A pile of trash has a way higher concentration of useful stuff in it than an equivalent pile of dirt. It seems natural to me that eventually, mining in trash will be just as big a business as mining in dirt, maybe bigger. It's just recycling with a time delay!
posted by miyabo at 12:27 PM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, a time delay accompanied by stink, poisoning of groundwater, and leaching of heavy metals and toxic chemicals into the soil, but yeah. The fact that we'd rather stripmine than go to the "bother" of recycling says a lot about us, none of it flattering.
posted by emjaybee at 12:34 PM on September 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


Wonder how Sid Meier will incorporate this in Civilization VI.
posted by Renoroc at 12:57 PM on September 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


When I first moved to Atlanta, I was confused by how many areas didn't have street lights. My assumption was that in the economic crisis, municipalities were saving money by turning off the lights. The truth is that in the economic crisis people have been stealing the wires off of the lightpoles.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:31 PM on September 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


Near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn there is a scrap heap that is continuously in the process of being loaded onto barges. One side effect is that it is really common to see window air conditioners - stripped of copper - left on the sidewalk. Nice.
posted by R. Mutt at 2:32 PM on September 7, 2013


Less metal will sit around, slowly leaching and rusting away in the states, and less mining will be necessary. All thanks to this guy.

Great!
posted by oceanjesse at 3:11 PM on September 7, 2013


I honestly have never thought much about the style of scrapping that involves driving around looking for things that people actually want to throw out. When I think of scrappers, I think of the people who break into and dismantle abandoned buildings, people who cut apart street lights for metal, people who break into the BART system to steal copper wiring. Not recycling, but theft.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:32 PM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


On the scrapmonster link, it looks like insulated wire is going for $38750 per pound -- that can't possibly be right. Am I reading the chart improperly, or is it just wildly inaccurate?
posted by yohko at 4:37 PM on September 7, 2013


I have roughly twenty years of old AC adapters and speaker wires in my closet; where does one go to turn that into twenty bucks or so?
posted by maus at 5:05 PM on September 7, 2013


On the scrapmonster link, it looks like insulated wire is going for $38750 per pound

Shit, I just hit the jackpot. I have one pound of insulated wire...

Looking at that site, it looks like prices are in renminbi, so that CNY38750 is more like $6331 US, but that still seems high. I wonder if it's really per ton and not per pound. On their sidebar, they're quoting nickle at CNY 97600, which is about $15946 and roughly comparable to some of the prices on the London Metal Exchange* (they range from $13895-14775).

* first google hit for "nickel price per ton"
posted by cosmic.osmo at 5:07 PM on September 7, 2013


Nice batch of articles, zarq.

I hope the drop in metal prices will keep me from being bothered by metal thieves again.
posted by yohko at 5:34 PM on September 7, 2013


Wow, this is fascinating. Most of the action in the first piece takes place in St. Louis. I wonder whether Zeng ever goes to Grossman or Brock. I once interviewed an itinerant metals trader like this (an American, now the president of JHS Metals Trading), and it was amazing how he could just look at a pile of scrap and say what it was worth.
posted by limeonaire at 5:56 PM on September 7, 2013


Neighbor thought his once grand Sony Trinitron TV would be gratefully picked up if he left it on the curb. Someone came by and cut off the power cord (for the copper), leaving the worthless TV behind.
posted by bonefish at 8:06 PM on September 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


I recently purchased 9 pallets of used stainless steel paper towel holders on Ebay from the Naples School District here in FL for $149.95.After pulling out the paper towels, (life time supply BTW) and setting aside the 20 units that were still brand new in the box, I scrapped/recycled the rest for a very tidy profit. I'm not typically in the scrapping business but for a few hrs work it seemed like a no brainer.
posted by HappyHippo at 9:23 PM on September 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


"Since January 1, 2013 the Police Department has taken 11 reports of copper wire theft or attempted theft. These crimes typically occur on the greenbelts or near public parks. The thieves most consistently target city light poles, but city facilities have also been targeted in the past.
The most recent cases of copper theft have shown that these crimes are possibly being committed in separate stages. First the subject(s) will access a city electrical box and cut the copper wire inside. Once the wires are cut, the subject(s) will remove the wires and either leave the scene with them or stash them nearby. If stashed, a subject(s) will later return to the scene to collect and take the stolen copper wire.
Copper wire theft is a crime that can have devastating consequences for our city. The damages are not only costly, but they cause the city lights to malfunction or completely go out which can become a safety hazard for citizens. These crimes affect the entire community and the Police Department is requesting your help."
posted by semmi at 7:43 AM on September 8, 2013


bonefish: "Neighbor thought his once grand Sony Trinitron TV would be gratefully picked up if he left it on the curb. Someone came by and cut off the power cord (for the copper), leaving the worthless TV behind."

I see this all the time in my neighborhood. Somebody will set an old TV out at the curb then somebody else will come along and break the back of it to pull out whatever metal they can scrap. The city won't pick up the TVs as part of the regular trash pickup, so the broken TVs will line the streets for weeks until there is a special pickup.
posted by maurice at 10:43 AM on September 8, 2013


A pile of trash has a way higher concentration of useful stuff in it than an equivalent pile of dirt. It seems natural to me that eventually, mining in trash will be just as big a business as mining in dirt, maybe bigger. It's just recycling with a time delay!

Hah. I just realized: on a very long time scale, the oil industry is just a kind of recycling, too.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:30 PM on September 8, 2013


recycled dinosaur butts lol
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:30 PM on September 8, 2013


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