Editorial: O Little Town of . . . Shijiao?

Perhaps it was Santa who first introduced us to the concept of what is now called globalization. From his base at the North Pole, he loads up toys made in China, then flies his stuff-filled sleigh to deliver these multicolored and multi-shaped plastics down rooftop chimneys to nice-but-not-naughty children here in Rappahannock County and all across America.  

What’s less recognized are his return trips to China, when his sleigh is now laden with tossed-out toys from previous Christmases. Call it the globalization of junk.

Take, for example, that now-necessary accessory for Christmas trees: wired strands of lively electric lights. When American consumers judge them to be burned out or simply too old, the strands are trashed or, better, recycled.

So starting in the New Year and reaching its peak during “spring cleaning” is high season for Yong Chang Processing in the southern Chinese town of Shijiao, population 20,000. Hay bale-sized blocks of compacted Christmas tree light strands, each weighing more than a ton, make their way across the ocean in huge container ships from U.S. ports.

Just one of 10 recycling plants in Shijiao, Yong Chang processes around 2.2 million pounds of imported Christmas tree lights annually. An estimated 20 million pounds are processed in total in that small Chinese city each year. The immense scale of this operation is difficult to imagine when you remember how light to the touch is a single strand of Christmas tree lights.

I’ve learned these facts from a Christmas present to myself — a new book called “Junkyard Planet,” by Bloomberg correspondent Adam Minter. And I share them now simply as something to think about at the dawn of a New Year. For I certainly now look at my brightly lit Virginia cedar tree, freshly cut from the meadow around my cabin in Amissville, in a whole new light.

Walter Nicklin