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Kings and Paupers of Scrap

“The scrap trade is an honourable profession” my old late metal friend, Reg Simmonds, would say – even as he was taking my eyes out on a deal. He had worked in yards in the East End of post war London – a London largely made up of bomb sites and scrap. Like  England’s first billionaire, the founder of NCP car parks, who saw bomb sites as potential car parks, scrap people saw shell cases for the brass, reinforcing bar sticking out of concrete like broken tree stumps as tradable profit that formed the basis of our recycle world.

It might have been honourable, but let’s not confuse honourable with ‘honest’, unless we mean ‘honesty amongst thieves’. The ease with which deals then and now were done on a handshake did not mean that the trade was not full of every trick in the book. Salted samples, non-homogenous parcels, hidden contaminations, under-deliveries on rising markets, over-deliveries on falling ones, swapped parcels were all part of it, and those who were good at it did not measure their success in PhDs.

Rolling forward, when it came to the early 1990s and an entire society (the communist one) was on the point of scrapping itself, it was not surprising that those who were able to react best were the scrappies and grubbers. If, like me, you found yourself in Russia buying titanium sheet, carefully disguised as a pigsty, or nuclear submarine reactor shields described as commercially pure (CP) Titanium (but, in fact, 200 mm thick lead sandwiched between 1mm sheets of Titanium) the skills needed to win were those of the scrap trade. How I survived, I am not quite sure. It must have been in the blood. The need to handle cash, which in those days meant circumventing the Soviet banking system, which at that time was still controlled by the defunct state of the evil empire, was one of the more interesting challenges. This was not a job for clerks or red braced city folk used to chasing the secretary round the office. Your cargo was more likely to resemble a pile of steaming shit – the very words used to describe a parcel of self-combusting oxidised molybdenum metal turnings from Estonia, as I shakily wrote the cheque in Rainham, Essex.

Adam Minter in his 2013 book ‘Junkyard Planet’ has written the book I would love to have written and anyone with passing interest in metals or recycling will enjoy it. Being born into scrap, a bit like being Jewish, confers membership of a club you didn’t ask to join – and one, which, to make things worse – you cannot get out of.  Adam Minter is both.

As well as the nuts and bolts of sorting and shredding, this book is also the story of Minter’s family and his dad. The small family yard in Minnesota, while theoretically well-positioned to take advantage of the boom in scrap, led by China’s demand for raw materials, unfortunately gets left out as his father slides into alcoholism and substance abuse. Eventually he is sent into rehab, leaving granny to run the show with the aid of her college grandson.  There, in the yard, the young Adam learns the trade, sharing ‘kosher hot dogs in the morning’ with his grandmother and writing tickets for the loads brought to the gate. It’s the reason that this is no ordinary book written from the outside. Adam Minter was a scrap man through and through but in the end gave it up to become a journalist. Thanks to this, doors open to yards and warehouses, and Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries’ (ISRI) meetings. Instead of writing this from an office with facts lifted from Google, Minter goes on a never ending road trip accompanying Chinese buyers intent on harvesting scrap from the boneyard of Trump’s ‘Rustbelt America’.

On the honourability/honesty front, and scrap’s association with poverty, for reasons that Minter’s book makes clear, society tends to disdain those of us involved with metal, let alone scrap. Try telling an insurance salesman (or feeding a computer with the information) that your profession is in metal and scrap, and see what it does to your premium.

Reading Minter, I was put in mind of the Dustmen of London in the 1850s as described by Henry Mayhew in his work ‘London Labour and the London Poor.’ In the 1850s, London consumed 3.5mln tons of coal per annum. With that amount of coal, in a short time London would have been buried under a mountain of cinders and ashes were it not for the dust contractors who – seeing the value in the dust for sieving and re-use in brick-making – initially competed to pay the ‘sum of £5000 for the liberty’. It was not long before the collectors, realising their power, created a cartel and the reverse was happening – the City was paying the dustmen. Dickens in his novel Our Mutual Friend creates the character of Mr Boffin ‘The Golden Dustman’. ‘Rags to riches’ was as true a fact then as it sometimes is today.

However, today, while most of the rags come from us, the riches go to China. And one of the questions the book raises is ‘At what price?’ In a place called Wen’an outside Beijing where many of the world’s mixed plastics come to die, or be reborn again, we get part of the answer. It is the centre of China’s plastics recycling industry, which also means it is the centre of the world’s, with, in 2006, 20,000 family-owned workshops. Here is a description:-

A few businesses might leave out piles of old taillights and bumpers, in cases where there’s no room in their warehouses, but most use their storefronts to dry piles of wet, shredded plastic. It’s a bustling, crowded, and incomprehensively dirty main street, crossed by the occasional stray dog, partly blocked by a broken down truck, and frequently scarred by black spots where – I’m later told – unrecyclable plastics were burned in the night. Above me, plastic bags are captured by the wind, floating on the breeze. But what I find most striking about Wen’an is this; there is nothing green. It is a dead zone.

As little as twenty-five years ago, Minter writes, this same place was ‘an agricultural region renowned for its streams, peach trees, and simple rolling landscape…fragrant soil…fishing, and soft summer nights.’ Today the local Doctor, who has been there since the 1960s describes how many of the people of the town have ‘pulmonary fibrosis and paralyzing strokes’ and high blood pressure, all caused by pollution.

Today’s plastic, you might say, is no more than Victorian England’s dust – except it is so much more toxic, and not just sent out to Kent but thousands of miles to the other side of the world to be processed out of sight and out of mind in ways that good citizens separating the recyclables in Surrey or Sussex would probably not wish to conceive of.

But while toxicity and our hypocrisy  is one side of the story, the other is that scrap processing for poor Chinese in the countryside is seen as a better kind of farming; the collection of mixed metals and e-waste, a kind of crop to be harvested. The money is better for a start and some of the better recyclers have all their plant under cover and men and women work a clear eight hour day because their sorting skills are better when they are not tired. And then a big percentage of recycling is for re-use. Copper snipped from small motors by hand to feed China’s huge hunger for local electronics reduces the need for primary, aluminium separated from mixed shredded U.S. car scrap is processed and then sent on to Japan where it could end up in a new Toyota. While the US and the developed world has technology to do a lot of recycling mechanically, even the best machines cannot get to the micro scale that hand sorting is able to. The poor have jobs they would otherwise not, and a chance to better themselves, while China reduces its dependency on primary metals.

Minter’s wife is Chinese and he lives and works in Shanghai where he has written on the subject of scrap for Recycling Magazine as well as Bloomberg and others. Not confusing trading scrap with writing about it, he is asked by traders why with all his contacts he doesn’t open a yard. His answer is that the open doors he has been shown by scrap people in USA, India and China would not have been quite as open had he been a competitor and not a journalist. He sits in on a showdown meeting in 2008 when prices collapsed and it was better for the Chinese to lose the 50% advance payment for a cargo than to pay their balances, leaving dockyards full to bursting with unclaimed containers. There in a meeting room at the China World Hotel in Beijing, Minter attends as an array of Chinese and US yards meet across a long table – years of working together about to be trashed like the scrap they are dealing in – and yet, each side takes their losses, and moves on.

If, like me, you have ever wanted to hitch a ride with your blue bin to see where your rubbish goes, this book is the next best thing. Or, if you are a metal man involved in any part of this world, you will be lost in this book, excited to be a part of this supply chain, frowned upon by the many charged with creating the Utopian green laws of the rich West who, rather than tackling the waste we generate on our doorstep, prefer instead the hypocrisy of sending out our waste to foreign lands and importing shiny articles made from it.

One old metal man told me a few days ago that in his family’s scrap business in his day the horses and carts would come in with the pots and pans for sale. In those days, if the horse generated manure in the yard, the dung was collected and his mother put some by the bed at Christmas so the children knew the reindeer had been. Now that’s what I call recycling.

‘Junkyard Planet, Travels in the billion-dollar trash trade’, by Adam Minter is published by Bloomsbury Press

Published January 25th 2017 on www.lord-copper.com