In part 1 of my interview with Junkyard Planet author Adam Minter, he talked about the removal of one 'pin' in the global recycling economy during the global financial crisis, which brought the entire industry to a temporary halt. Here's my second question to Adam.
PB: China itself is one of the key pins in the recycling industry and thus features a lot in your book. Its insatiable desire for raw materials to feed its growing economy is part of the reason for this. And this has helped millions of people improve their livelihoods (some dramatically so!) through employment opportunities.
But it has also contributed to growing environmental and health problems. There are signs that the Chinese government is becoming increasingly concerned about (some of) the negative environmental consequences. Do you think this will have a fundamental effect on the recycling industry?
AM: Though it's true that the recycling industry pollutes, I'd argue that China is less polluted for having such a large recycling industry. I look at it this way: China is going to use plastics, metals, and paper, regardless of how it obtains them. If recycled materials aren't available, then China will drill, mine, and harvest. Fortunately, recycled materials (both imported and domestic) are available.
Data on how much energy is saved via the use of recycled materials versus primary materials isn't always reliable (it depends, to a large extent, on which factories are being surveyed), but according to data from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a Washington, DC based trade association, the manufacture of aluminum from recycled material saves up to 92% of the energy that would be expended making aluminum from mined ores. For copper, the savings can be up to 90%; for plastic 87%; and for paper 68%. These kinds of savings apply to pretty much any raw material that's mined in significant, recoverable volumes (thus, rare earth materials aren't really good candidates for recycling at the moment).
But that answer doesn't excuse or justify the pollution (and especially the negative human health impacts) that occurs as a result of the Chinese recycling industry. It's significant.
That noted, over the eleven years that I've covered the industry in China, I've seen a progressive improvement of environmental and safety conditions. Much of this clean-up has been market driven. For example, the rising price of oil has made plastics recycling a profitable proposition for wire and cable recyclers. So, instead of setting fire to piles of wire in order to remove insulation from it, they've developed simple technologies that remove the insulation mechanically, so that it can be collected and re-sold. Government had very little role in that, but it had an enormous impact on air quality in and around China's recycling zones.
Of course, the market can't solve everything, especially when it comes to recycling low-quality plastics (like wrappers) and many types of so-called e-waste. Low-tech recyclers are very capable of processing these materials, but they tend to do so in a manner that pollutes and harms human health.
Alas, because their costs are so low, they can out-compete higher-tech, clean recyclers. As a result, the Chinese government has established a producer responsibility system for e-waste recycling, whereby manufacturers are required to pay a tax on each unit they manufacture and sell in China. That money is then used to subsidise expensive, environmentally-sound (mostly) e-waste recycling.
The system was years in the making, and it went online officially last year. Currently there are half a dozen publicly subsidized e-waste recycling hubs scattered around China (mostly in the west), and they are extraordinary (I've visited two). In addition to being some of the largest recycling facilities I've ever seen, they are clean and mostly sustainable counter-punches to those in the media and environmental community who would depict China's e-waste recycling as solely the provenance of backwater home workshops. To be sure, the backwaters still exist, but China's state-funded system is starting to take a bite out of their business.
The key question is, will the government sustain its commitment until the Chinese industry can stand on its own feet? Will it ever be able to stand on its own feet? Those are tough questions and I don't think anyone yet knows the answer. But in my opinion, the steps China has taken in recent years places it (and, to a lesser extent, India) at the vanguard for how the world's e-waste will be recycled in coming decades.