Curiosities / Domestic / Economics / Environment / Film

The Other Scrap Metal Story: Chinese Container Ships Absorb America’s Crumbling Infrastructure

Scrapper Episode on HBO’s VICE

We’re familiar with the comfy concept of recycling where we take our different containers to the curb and they’re neatly picked up and some of us have even seen where the parts end up and yes—some of us even know about the revolving cardboard which comes into our homes from Amazon or countless other suppliers –originating from China—and then returning to China in massive homebound shipments of flattened cardboard—to be made into boxes and come back again.  All that time on the high seas.  But then, there is another recycling going on that is less well known because it is nearly invisible, but VICE explores it with a punch to the gut.

A tall, slight African American man with a gym bag slung over his shoulder climbs a fence to reach a broken window through which he crawls to begin his nightly foraging—digging through the dissected remains of a defunct school building.  He is a scrapper.  His is a new generation of desperate farmers, who trespass by night trawling perilously through crumbling buildings by flashlight, harvesting the decaying detritus of America’s inner cities.

Yes, women and children do spend their days shaping cow dung into patties that then dry in the sun to be used for cooking fires.  And yes, people sift through garbage and trash of all kinds, seeking bits of food or scraps to sell. These images have become routine.There are all kinds of multi-afterlife phases of utility for discarded stuff from which “the market” manages to extract continuing profit until it has been used up to its capacity and there is nothing left. This is known.

But, I can say that to see in America, these young men scavenging to make their living from the bits of copper pipe, wiring, electrical parts, pieces of metal, fixtures…whatever they can find that they know will sell, hurts.   It hurts not just for them, it hurts to see the decline –most dramatically of entire cities—such as Detroit, or the legions of neglected, dying buildings in forgotten neighborhoods of our inner cities.

What’s so poignant is to see plainly the eager Chinese businessmen at the other end of the transaction who drive thousands of miles crisscrossing America—competing with each other—in a race to be the first to negotiate with the scrapyard middlemen the best scrap on the best day at the best price.  So, America’s crumbling infrastructure gets loaded into hundreds of thousands of shipping containers and sent across to China where new infrastructure is being assembled at a speed beyond what seems possible. And somehow, our Congress can not muster the political will to invest in rebuilding America.


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