Pulling profit from the rubble

A woman salvages materials from a destroyed building in the Sichuan province of China.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Weeks of torrential rain in China have caused flooding across much of the southern part of that country -- not good news for the millions who're still trying to recover from last month's earthquake.

Bulldozers have been able to clear some of the quake debris, but scavengers comb through the rest because what's left in the rubble is valuable to somebody, as Lisa Chow reports.


Lisa Chow: Ma Hong Fang sits next to a big scale, surrounded by piles of metal.

One of her customers throws a wok, a wire chicken cage and a stove onto the scale. Ma writes down the weight, the unit price -- for iron in this case -- and calculates payment.

Her partner Zhou Jiao Hong says their recycling business has tripled since the earthquake.

Zhou Jiao Hong: We can recycle everything except power lines and telephone lines because they're considered government property.

But since no one wants to look like they're profiting from disaster, Ma plays down how much money they're making.

Ma Hong Fang: We have big expenses. We have to pay for transportation. The truck drivers, they make a lot more than we do.

But it's not just about profit. Ma and Zhou also lost their homes in the earthquake. These days, they sleep in tents less than 30 feet away from the trash.

A mile away, Wang You Hui's just finished cooking lunch. She's living in a tent between a busy road and where her house used to stand.

Wang You Hui: Bulldozers came to level it. We were lucky to get our furniture out before that. The wood beams in the house were all broken and now they're mixed in with bricks.

So she's given others permission to collect the wood.

Hui: Maybe it's a waste, but we don't have the time or energy to deal with it. All those nails... it's dangerous.

Tang Chang Qing and four others load wood beams onto the back of a truck.

Tang Chang Qing: The family here gave us the wood for free, as a gift, to use as firewood for cooking.

But later, I spotted him at the recycling center.

Not far away, another team, each with a large hammer in hand, takes on a much more difficult task: finding rebar. The steel rods are embedded in concrete and so to get them out, you've got to knock them out.

Zhang Zong Que watches the others scavenge for material. He lost his house in the earthquake and has become an expert on local prices.

Zhang says in the last few weeks, recycling centers are offering less and less money for wood and steel. He suspects it has something to do with the fact that there are so many people collecting material and so much material coming into the market. After all, more than 5 million buildings collapsed in last month's earthquake.

Fu Feng Yi has been buying up lots of old wood from individual collectors. He's in charge of the raw material supply for a factory that manufactures plywood for desks, dressers and beds.

Fu Feng Yi: Before the earthquake, we didn't accept used wood. But afterwards, my boss visited the villages and was shocked by how much wood was lying around. He thought it would be good to recycle it.

Fu says the factory has invested nearly $30,000 in equipment to process used wood. And with the coming push to rebuild and refurnish houses, he hopes the
investment pays off.

In Peng Zhou, I'm Lisa Chow for Marketplace.

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