If you are drinking at one of China’s almost 4000 Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets, the plastic cup will have been supplied by Hunan Vary. But the company has other claims to fame, including combining its role as one of the world’s most innovative recycling equipment manufacturers with that of scrap processor. Its approach, which relies heavily on dismantling prior to shredding and separation, is claimed to yield even more recyclable material from end-of-life devices than the most high-tech recycling technologies in the developed world.
The slow-moving Miluo River winds through the verdant landscapes of north-west Hunan Province roughly 1000 kilometres inland from Shanghai. And here, out of sight from a new highway, stands one of China’s most important hubs for the recycling of the coun-try’s rapidly growing volumes of domestically-generated e-scrap and scrap cars.
I’m seated in a van beside Belly Feng, Overseas Sales Manager for Hunan Vary Tech - one of the world’s most innovative recycling equip-ment manufacturers and processors. Today, with his colleague Louis Zhou, also an Overseas Sales Manager, I’m being given an exclusive look inside the company’s newest and most important self-designed recycling facility.
We enter the Miluo Circular Economy Recy-cling Park, a 4000-acre government-chartered and supported project devoted to raising the overall level of China’s scrap recycling industry. On the left and right are new warehouses belonging to some of China’s most advanced e-scrap recyclers. Alas, there’s not much beyond the exterior walls to see: everything is indoors.
The tell-tale acrid smoke, piles of computers and other polluting signs of China’s traditional e-scrap recycling industry are nowhere to be found. This could be an under-construction suburban industrial park in the USA albeit one with rice paddies on the perimeter.
We continue down an under-construction road, its blacktop stained with the red mud of Hunan Province, until we reach a set of foothills and, on our right, Hunan Vary’s 40 000-square-metre site. It is dominated by two immense warehouses, one of which is abutted by a four-storey office building. ‘There will be two more warehouses - mostly for storage of scraps,’ Mr Feng announces.
As we step out of the van, my eyes are immedi-ately drawn to a stadium-sized warehouse filled with tens of thousands of end-of-life Chinese televisions. It is an astonishing sight, and I ask if I can have a look. So we walk down aisle after aisle of televisions stacked four and five high, interspersed here and there with end-of-life washing machines. It is stunning, and unlike anything I have seen in 10 years of Chinese scrap yard tours.
For a moment, I feel as if I’ve just found out where all of China’s old televisions go to die.
But that’s not quite right. According to Mr Zeng and Mr Zhou, this is where some of the televi-sions generated in the nearby cities of Chang-sha and Yueyang - cities of 7 and 5 million people, respectively - come to rest. These are the old televisions collected from just 0.0092% of China’s population. Somewhere in China there are warehouses that hold the old televi-sions that once belonged to the other 99.9908%.
Some might call that statistic an environmental problem; others might call it a business opportunity. Here at Hunan Vary, a company sup-ported at the highest levels of the Chinese gov-ernment, it’s both.
A stadium-sized warehouse illed with tens of thousands of end-of-life Chinese televisions.
National demonstration project
According to China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), its nearly all-powerful economic policy-maker, China is now generating annually close to 160 million scrap air-conditioners, washing machines, refrigerators,monitors/televisions and computers, with double-digit percentage growth expected into the foreseeable future. But it’s not just appliances that are piling up.
In 2010, China became the world’s largest car market, surpassing the USA. For now, China’s poor inland provinces provide a near-bottom-less opportunity for used car dealers, and thus prevent many of them from entering the scrap recycling chain. Best estimates - also from the NDRC - are that China is currently sending 5 million vehicles per year to the scrap heap.
However, in a country as large as China, saddled with significant data collection issues, those numbers are sketchy at best.
Hunan Vary’s factory in Miluo is an important national demonstration project with direct support from the NDRC, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and other key Chinese government agencies with an interest in raw material extraction, environ-mental protection and modernising China’s economy. According to company and govern-ment literature, it is designed to process 2.6 million scrap appliances per year - or between 1% and 2% of what’s being generated in China.
At the time of my visit, the plant was still being commissioned, but I’d seen the same equipment and technologies at work in Hunan Vary’s older Changsha plant, roughly 100 kilometres from Miluo, which has the capacity to handle 600 000 appliances per year - including monitors, televi-sions, washing machines and refrigerators.
High degree of dismantling
Unlike European, US and Japanese systems designed to recycle these devices, Hunan Vary’s technologies rely upon a high degree of dismantling before a final shredding and separation process. In this way, the company asserts, indigenous Chinese innovations are actually able to extract more recyclable material from a device than even the highest tech of high-tech developed world recycling technologies.