"America’s trade deficit with China reinforces the two countries’ relationship as recycling partners," reports The Economist in a review of Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter (1/11/14). The relationship is premised on the fact that Americans both consume and throw away much more stuff than Chinese. It is supported by the fact that it’s "often cheaper for American scrap-yards to send their goods to China than anywhere else in the world. This is because shipping companies hauling goods to America would rather not return to China empty."
So, the shipping companies take our junk back to China, where it provides the raw materials needed to support the building boom in China. Scrap traders actually refer to the US as the ‘Saudi Arabia of Scrap.’ American demand for such manufacturing materials is low and in any case "American labor costs are too high – and environmental regulations too onerous – for it to be cost-effective to salvage most scrap anyway." Meanwhile, it has driven a "kind of innovation that diverts more junk from landfills," such as the "motor shredder, which turns old vehicles into scrap metal."
Back in the 1970s, "at least 20 million rusting cars were abandoned across America. In 2012, America recycled nearly 11.9 million cars. China, the world’s biggest car buyer, has become the fastest growing market for shredders." Indeed, "the multibillion-dollar recycling trade stands as ‘one of globalization’s great, green successes.’" Of course, "nothing is 100% recyclable. The special chemistry of many products, such as iPhone touchscreens, means they cannot be recycled. Consumers should be more aware of what is nasty and companies should be nudged to design products that are easier to repair and recycle."