Chinese recyclers are the world’s greatest buyers and processors of what others don’t want.
In early November 2009 I was seated in the front row of a stuffy, nearly empty conference room at the Dongfang Hotel in Guangzhou, China. The occasion was an annual Chinese government–organized convention to promote the importation of scrap metal into China. High- and low-level officials from and around China were in attendance, along with several hundred scrap metal traders from China and the world. By late afternoon, almost none of them were in the conference room, which was understandable. The speeches were dry affairs, primarily recitations of prepared facts, figures, and policy changes. The action was out in the lobby, where business cards and millions of tons of developed country scrap metal, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, was traded.
I would’ve liked to have been in the lobby. But I was reporting that day for Scrap, an American trade magazine, and I was obligated to cover the speeches. It was a grueling job, especially at the end of the day when the government organizers dumped the speakers that they felt obligated to include because they were important sponsors or political allies. So I wasn’t expecting much when, just after 4 p.m., Guo Guanghui, vice chairman of a scrap metal recycling trade association in Qingyuan, a thriving industrial town roughly two hours north of us, took the podium. Guo wanted to talk about a government policy that roughly translates as “going out,” designed to help Chinese businesses set up operations abroad. He thought it a good idea for the government to help recycling companies “go out” to foreign countries where they could buy up recyclables and ship them back to China. “We need to get rid of the ability of the other countries to control the resources,” he declared from the podium, “and seize them for ourselves.”