Video: Missouri’s top export to China: Scrap metal

Apr 23, 2012

At this scrap yard in north Columbia, it’s easy to think the piles of rusty metal and old machine parts are, well, just junk.

But these broken motors and tangled copper wire are actually one of Missouri’s biggest links to China. China may be a hot target these days for U.S. manufacturers looking for a market to sell their products, but the fastest growing American export to China last year was actually what trade experts call “waste and scrap.”

At the Advantage Metals yard in Columbia, president Raynard Brown says growth in Asia led him to set up an office in Hong Kong five years ago.

“The U.S. has been looked to to supply the scrap metal for a lot of the world," he says.

Part of that supply can be found in a big cardboard box in Brown’s warehouse filled with a jumble of old motors. Inside their plastic shells, these motors contain valuable strands of copper, so they’re shipped to China to be recycled.

“The electric motors, and the ceiling fans that we saw," says Brown, "those have to be hand-disassembled, basically, so that the metals can be recovered out of them.”

On the other side of the world, an economic boom in China is fueling demand for metals. This has helped turn scrap metal into Missouri’s biggest export to China, at nearly 300 million dollars’ worth a year -- more than corn, soybeans or any manufactured product.

Fifty miles north of Advantage Metals, in Moberly, trade with China has had a big impact on another scrap dealer who doesn’t even personally sell anything overseas. Dave Fusselman says China’s hunger for metal helped make prices here bounce back quickly after the financial crisis.

“It used to be scrap metal was fairly like grains sold from a farm," says Fusselman. "It would have its high years, and their terribly low years.”

But as China became the world’s largest metal consumer, it helped push prices to new highs last year, despite the effects of the recession in the U.S. and Europe.

“Now the rest of the world is driving growth, and we're just sort of along for the ride.”

Most of the scrap metal here in Missouri stays in the Midwest, because of the cost of shipping overseas. But an increasing number of these cast-offs, these broken motors, plumbing pipes, and pieces of cars are ending up in China, where they might become part of a new electrical wire, building or even a computer.

Reynard Brown of Advantage Metals says it can take less than a month for this scrap to become an entirely different product.

“I notice when people go through the yards, they get excited by what it was," Brown says. "And we get excited by what it’s going to be.”

And for Brown, that’s the most fascinating part of the business -- this transformation from old to new.


This story is part of The China Connection a multimedia project exploring various economic, educational and cultural links between Missouri and China.