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Garbage across the Pacific


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    Waste paper enters the plant.

    - Scott Tong

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    After the waste cardboard has been broken down and reformed, it comes off machines in large rolls.

    - Scott Tong

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    The rolls are flattened, cut and stamped.

    - Scott Tong

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    New boxes are printed and sent to Chinese manufacturers to ship new goods back to the U.S.

    - Scott Tong

Tess Vigeland: So yes, the U.S. actually imports trash from its neighbors, but we export it as well and this next story closes that loop in spectacular fashion.

But first, generate for yourself a mental picture of a pile of garbage.

It's probably got all kinds of gross stuff in it, but in reality, 35 percent of our waste is simple paper and paper products like cardboard.

Sad, when you think of how easy it is to recycle that stuff. But when it is recycled, you won't believe where it goes.

We asked our correspondent halfway around the world, Scott Tong, to go do a little dumpster diving in China.

Scott, whadja find?


Scott Tong: Hi Tess. On a tip, I started my trash hunt in the port city of Taicang, outside Shanghai.

I had my eye on big orange shipping crate as it got plucked off a ship and deposited on a truck bound for a nearby paper recycling mill.

There, we opened the container and feasted our eyes on 2,000 cubic feet of paper trash -- i.e. slimy old boxes.

The labels read like a mile-long, consumer hangover.

Tong: Cat food, Boost, Bud Light, Huggies diapers, Coca-Cola, fabric softener, Diet Coke, antibacterial multisurface cleaner -- I feel like I'm home.

That's right: all this trash traveled 7000 miles from America.

What's it doing in China? Well, It's the very profitable idea of a woman named Zhang Yin -- she's chairman of a Hong Kong paper recycling behemoth -- it's called Nine Dragons.

Zhang is part of a new generation of self-made billionaires in China. She started with nothing, growing up in China's hardscrabble rust belt in 1950 and 60s.

Zhang Yin: My father was in the military. His salary was very low and he had to feed eight children. As far as food, we hardly ever had meat.

Zhang is 50. She's a small person with a big voice -- and a very big diamond ring: her net worth is $10 billion dollars -- all from the garbage trade.

Zhang got into waste paper in the 1980s, just as China was ditching the planned economy in favor of a free market.

Zhang: In the 80s and 90s, China went through a giant change. It needed all resources. At the time, I was in the recycled paper business and I realized the China market was a blank slate.

Since China didn't have enough trash of its own, she went elsewhere to find trash. Remember Oscar from Sesame Street?

Oscar the Grouch: Oh, I love trash...

Zhang first collected in Hong Kong, traipsing from one landfill to the next. Then she went big-time, to the promised land of human consumption: America, where the streets are lined with gold -- in the form of trash.

Zhang: I went to the U.S. for business, because I thought America is a big consuming country, although it's not an overconsuming country.

Ok that's debatable.

Tamara Stark of the nonprofit Greenpeace thinks it makes sense that a Chinese company got into recycled paper early on: China just doesn't have the trees to make enough brand-new paper.

Tamara Stark: In countries such as the United States or Canada, we're still blessed with quite a large amount of natural forest. In the case of China, much of those forests were logged out centuries ago and so it's forced companies like Nine Dragons to look at our resources in a different way.

Back at the paper recycling plant, that American paper trash is dumped into a big vat of hot water ... which splashes all over me.

Now remember, this is dumpster material that's been on a boat for weeks. Suddenly the folks near me aren't so near me anymore.

Anyway, the old boxes get shaken and stirred, stretched and filtered and then they're put thru a series of high-tech dry processes. It's almost all mechanical.

This is no cheap Chinese labor story. Nine Dragons owns state-of-the-art German and Scandinavian machines.

Bill Moore: They've become the premier exporters of recovered paper in the world.

Independent paper industry analyst Bill Moore explains how a recycling company can make so much money: It has the newest, most efficient technology. It has scale. And, believe it or not, it gets low, low shipping rates across the Pacific.

That's because the Chinese ship everything to America and the Americans send far less back.

Bill Moore: We have a glut of empty containers here in the States that have to go back to the countries that are filling them. So, shipping old corrugated boxes from Los Angeles to China is actually less expensive than shipping them from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

He says it also doesn't hurt that Ms. Zhang has joined an exclusive communist party advisory body. Translation: friends in high places.

One other advantage is that Nine Dragons factories run on coal, which is dirtier but cheaper than the natural gas that some competitors use.

Toward the end of the trash reincarnation process, giant sheets of brown paper get blow dried and stored on rolls. The paper then gets twisted and bent into cardboard, which gets twisted and bent into boxes.

Who buys these boxes? You know the names.

Advertisements:...so shop Office Depot today...Panasonic: ideas for life...Phillips television...

Of course, these Western companies make their stuff in China, so the recycled shipping boxes are made in exactly the right place.

At the end of the factory tour, stamping machines are putting manufacturer logos on the boxes. In fact, one stack is stamped to head back across the Pacific.

Your recycled trash, Tess, is coming to a store near you.


Vigeland: Sure enough, armed with a photo Scott sent me, I came to my local big box store and here in the toy aisle, I've reconnected with what very well could be my recycled trash. It's a Nine Dragons box holding a child's bike. The carton is made of recycled paper that's literally been on the slow boat to China and back.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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