Fred Pearce, writing in the Yale Environment 360 online magazine, offers a greener interpretation of the fast-moving Chinese economy, countering the frequent gloom-and-doom assessments. What caught my eye in the article was how waste had become a much sought after commodity at the heart of the China boom.
China is so desperate for raw materials to keep its industrial revolution going that it finds uses for almost any waste it can get its hands on: plastic packaging, the metal in old computers and other electronic goods. Just as the country used to run its agriculture on “night soil” (a handy euphemism for human feces), now it runs its industry on as much trash as it can get its hands on.
He tells the story of China’s “Queen of Trash,” Cheung Yan.
Ten years ago, when China stopped logging its own natural forests to prevent a recurrence of big floods, she anticipated a paper shortage. She went to the U.S. and drove around in an old pick-up begging municipal garbage dumps to sell her their waste paper. She was so successful that today her company, Nine Dragons, ships more than 6 million ton of waste paper a year into China, which she recycles into boxes for electronics goods that will be taking the next container ship back to Europe and North America.
Nine Dragons has now become the world’s largest packaging company and the Queen of Trash is “reportedly mainland China’s richest person — and possibly the richest self-made woman on the planet.”
Talk about cash from trash. What this highlights is the intrinsic value embedded in the waste stream - a value mined out of necessity and shortages. “…The very problems that China is finding in obtaining raw materials for its manufacturing plants is already pushing it into taking a world lead in waste recycling,” he writes. So what value is wasting away in the industrialized world that one might see with a China perspective?