The reason most US trash flows to China is not, as is popularly believed, because of China’s low cost of labor and weak environmental protection (or, at least, not primarily). If it were, Minter says, we’d send our trash to Sudan, and Sudan wouldn’t be sending its trash to China. Minter first traveled to China in 2002, around a decade after Chinese buyers first came calling at his father’s scrap yard. One fairly obvious reason China imports the most trash is because its booming factories require raw materials, and these are often more cheaply and easily obtained through recycling than they would be otherwise. Take copper: China consumed over nine million tons of it in 2012. If its manufacturers didn’t buy 50 percent of that back in the form of used objects like shredded Christmas tree lights, they would have to mine it, which, Minter argues, would be both financially and environmentally far more costly. Moreover, because the United States imports so much more from China than it exports, the container ships that deliver the goods to our shores would return to China empty if we didn’t fill them with something. The trip back to China is essentially already paid for, which means, as Minter explains, that to ship a container full of scrap paper from Los Angeles to Shenzhen costs a quarter of what it would to truck it to Chicago. Densely populated coastal cities with big ports thus recycle a lot, in part because it’s profitable to do so, whereas cities like Houston, whose sprawl makes it costly to collect trash and where land for dumps is cheap and plentiful, do not.