A single strand of burnt-out Christmas lights weighs almost nothing in the hand. But a bale of burnt-out Christmas tree lights the size of a love seat? That weighs around 2200 pounds, according to Raymond Li, the general manager of Yong Chang Processing, a scrap metal processor in the southern Chinese town of Shijiao. He would know: on a recent Saturday morning I stood between him and three such bales, or 6600 pounds of Christmas tree lights that Americans had tossed into recycling bins, dropped off at the Salvation Army, or sold to a roving junk man. He had bought that 6600 pounds for my benefit, to show me how his company's Christmas tree light recycling system works.
The huge volume was nothing unusual for Shijiao, the world capitol for recycling the old, unwanted Christmas tree lights that Americans throw away every year. Yong Chang recycles around 2.2 million pounds and Li estimates that Shijiao, located about an hour's drive from Guangzhou, is home to at least nine other factories that import and process similar volumes. Combined, the factories here process in excess of 20 million pounds annually.
Shijiao, like most of China's recycling zones, began to thrive 20 years ago in part because of its cheap labor and low environmental standards. Even two years ago, visitors to the fields around town would see clouds of black smoke churning off giant piles of burning wire (not just Christmas tree wire), the fastest -- though by no means the cleanest -- way to extract copper from plastic and rubber. But something interesting happened on the road to globalization: China's manufacturers, hungry for cheap raw materials, developed an appetite for the recovered insulation that wraps around insulated copper wire, and devised a way to make into a range of products including, Li tells me, slipper soles..
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Photo: Adam Minter