Photograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg Businessweek

Big Waste Country

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    Johnson Zeng is one Chinese trader, in one rental car, traveling across the U.S. in search of scrap metal. By his estimate, there are at least 100 other Chinese traders like him driving from scrap yard to scrap yard, right now, in search of what Americans won’t or can’t be bothered to recycle.
     
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    Photograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg Businessweek
  2. 2

    Zeng squeezes between two piles of aluminum. In effect, Zeng and his peers are the vanguard of sustainability, the greenest recyclers in an era when that means something. He’s the link that binds your recycling bin, and your local junkyard, to China.

    Photograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg Businessweek
  3. 3

    Zeng uses his cell phone to photograph scrap wire. He sends the images to his partner, Homer Lai, who tells him if they should buy or not.

    Photograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg Businessweek
  4. 4

    Employees cut scrap down to size at L. Gordon Iron & Metal in Statesville, N.C.

    Photograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg Businessweek
  5. 5

    The metal piles at American Compressed Steel in Cincinnati.

    Photograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg Businessweek
  6. 6

    A supervisor at American Compressed Steel shows Johnson around the yard.

    Photograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg Businessweek
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    Zeng takes inventory at American Compressed Steel.

    Photograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg Businessweek
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    Scrap TV remotes at Newco Metals in Pendleton, Ind.

    Photograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg Businessweek
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    Zeng says that all of the time on the road can be lonely and frustrating—especially if you’ve been doing it for five years. He has a wife and son in Vancouver, but he spends only about six months of the year with them.

    Photograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg Businessweek
  10. 10

    Scrap aluminum at Moskovitz Brothers. “Big waste country, the U.S.,” Zeng says. “They make these things but have no way to recycle them.”

    Photograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg Businessweek