Is March too early to start talking about Christmas? Throughout the southern province of Guangdong it seems that Christmas is a topic perpetually on peoples’ minds. This is less about celebrating the birth of Christ, or exchanging gifts with loved ones - they’ll leave that for the richer, foreigner-heavy provinces to the north. No, for these people Christmas is a means to get rich. Filthy rich.
Several weeks ago I explored the underground world of China’s recycling trade. In it, I talked about how the bell ringers, whistle blowers and cart men driving around the east coast’s megacities are beneficial to the environment rather than a nuisance. Coincidentally, Bloomberg’s Adam Minter dove further into the world of trash in his book Junkyard Planet. So how do trash and Christmas coincide? It all comes down to those little lights.
Consider this –
Every year the town of Shijiao recycles 20 million pounds of Christmas lights.
Where do these lights come from? Mainly the United States.
What are they looking for? Copper.
With the precision of a surgeon, not unlike their counterparts in Shanghai’s alleyways, workers furiously separate component parts into their smallest denominator. The goal, as Minter points out, is to find the copper as well as insulation surrounding the wiring. It is also to “…take something that costs $0.55 – like a pound of Christmas tree lights – and turn it into something that costs $3.12 – the London price for a pound of pure copper…” Through rather ingenious, often homemade, machinery copper metal is sifted, shaken and separated. By the time the process is complete, the Christmas lights have yielded copper that is over 90% pure.
Christmas light recycling is only the tip of the scrap iceberg.
As China exponentially increases its level of consumerism and wanting new rather than used items the masses of recyclers throughout the country are more important than ever. The part they play in China’s changing landscape cannot be overstated. They keep trash off the country’s new streets, fuel an economy many have no idea exists and try to level the playing field, knowingly or not, between China and its environment.
Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter is available now from Bloomsbury Press.