A fight in a garbage dump

No one is surprised to hear that the United States and China are major trade partners. Also it is no surprise that it is a highly unbalanced trade arrangement. We sell China about $100 billion worth of “stuff” and they sell us $400 billion. This 4:1 ratio has been relatively constant for several years.
From China we import every imaginable kind of manufactured good — mostly shrink-wrapped, boxed, crated, palletized and containerized for the trip across the ocean. In return, our number one export to China is soybeans. We sent them $10.45 billion worth in 2011.
We also send to China a lot of our junk. Added together, all of the various categories of waste materials that we export to China, paper, plastics, aluminum, iron and steel, and copper, are valued at $11.3 billion and thus in total are an even more valuable commodity than soybeans.
What drives this trade and how can we afford to ship our cast-off material halfway around the world? Adam Minter explores this question in his new book, “Junkyard Planet”.
The first and probably most significant driver is transportation. The products which come from China come in containers on massive ships. These containers and ships need to get back to China for the next load heading this way. Better to fill them with scrap than to go back empty. It costs about $600 to ship a 40,000 pound container of scrap paper to southern China. To ship the same load from Los Angeles to Chicago would cost four times as much.
Second, labor is cheap in China. We can send away mixed scrap that we would otherwise landfill in this country and they can have people hand sort the material into component parts that can be recycled. Complementing the abundance of labor are the lax environmental and public health regulations which permit the processing to be done under conditions that would not be tolerated in this country.
Finally, China has an insatiable demand for raw materials. Given the above, it becomes more economical to mine our trash than to find and develop new sources of these materials.
In early 2013 China initiated Operation Green Fence. Under this program, bales of trash arriving at Chinese ports were subject to inspection before they could be unloaded. Excessive moisture and extraneous materials such as food waste, dirt, dog poop, and dead rodents were cause for rejection. Thousands of tons of rejected materials have been shipped back to the US at the seller’s expense or diverted to another developing country such as Vietnam where there may be fewer restrictions. Operation Green Fence has now expired but many of the regulations remain in place.
This may seem like nothing more than a fight in a garbage dump but the Chinese restrictions have repercussions both here and overseas. It is difficult to generalize on either the positive or negative elements involved in this situation because there are so many environmental, human and economic cross-currents at play. In the short run, the market will undoubtedly sort out this interesting story for better or worse. In the longer term, this is one more piece of environmental reality that we must control, lest it control us to everyone’s detriment.

Muscatine Journal column 3/01/14