Millions to lose their jobs as world's largest importer of waste hit by collapse in demand for packaging - The scrap trader was immovable, despite Wu Wenxiu's pleas. She would pay one yuan - roughly 10p - for a kilogram of plastic.

Around the corner in Shi Yuhai's yard, the offer was no better. Wu shrugged his shoulders and began to heave bags from his tricycle on to the scales. "One kuai [yuan] here, one kuai there - everywhere's the same these days. This industry has broken down," he grumbled. Wu is one of 160,000 collectors in Beijing who make a living from the detritus of urban life - plastic sheeting, office printouts, bottles, radiators and scraps of cardboard.

Recycling has become a global industry and China is the largest importer of the world's waste materials, taking in as much as a third of Britain's recyclables for example. Then came the slump, decimating the Chinese recycling industry and leaving Britain, the US and others grappling with growing volumes of recycled waste and nowhere to send it. "It's a canary in the coalmine: it's the front and back end of industry," said Adam Minter, who runs the Shanghai Scrap blog and specialises in the metal trade. "Until about eight weeks ago, for example, the entire [US] west coast paper market was sent to China and most of it was sent south. It was processed and made into packaging for products that then shipped back to the US ... But when US consumer demand dropped off, that broke the cycle."

Across the scrap trade, prices have halved or worse in a matter of months. Each link in the chain is disintegrating, from factories to scrapyards to collectors such as Wu, 56, a former farmer who now plans to return to Hubei province.