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Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade Hardcover – 2013
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“Eye-opening… [Minter is] an excellent guide to this sprawling and bewildering trade.” ―Wall Street Journal
“Superbly researched.” ―Financial Times
“A satisfying investigation-cum-travelogue.” ―Mother Jones
“Fascinating” ―Atlantic Cities
“Minter successfully resists oversimplifying the issue China currently faces―with a growing middle class demanding more raw materials for new construction, the options are living with the pollution caused by recycling or the environmental consequences of mining for raw materials…Minter concludes that the solution is in the first word in the phrase, ‘Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.’” ―Publishers Weekly
“Minter is here to tell you that there's big money to be made in what American consumers and industries throw away. As he travels the world from Houston to Guangzhou, surveying the debris and discards that fill scrap yards and warehouses, Minter takes the reader into a world of commodities trading that is every bit as lucrative and cutthroat as anything on Wall Street. The son of a scrap man, Minter brings an insider's knowledge and appreciation for an industry that no one thinks about, everyone contributes to, and a lucky few profit from.” ―Booklist
About the Author
Adam Minter grew up in a family of scrap dealers in Minneapolis. He became a professional journalist and now serves as the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View, in addition to making regular contributions to the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and other publications. He now lives in Shanghai and blogs at shanghaiscrap.com. Junkyard Planet is his first book.
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The author takes the reader on a tour of the various types of scrap that exist. From electrical wire, to electric motors, to plastics, to cars and to steel and aluminum and many more, each type of scrap has a market and a place in the recycling pecking order. In addition, there are places in China that specialize in each of these types of scrap.
Our garbage is China's, and to a lesser extent, India's raw materials from which new products spring. Each has a growing economy and a developing middle class that wants the same goods that are present in the United States. In addition, we are still addicted to buying inexpensive merchandise from China and the "raw" materials have to come from somewhere. The easiest way to obtain those goods is to come to the United States and buy them from recyclers and scrap dealers.
Although that would seem to be an expensive proposition; buying a container of scrap, shipping it to China and then separating it into useful parts, nothing could be further from the truth. The containers travel back to China virtually free. The shipping companies have to get the ships and containers back to China, and they would get nothing for an empty one way trip, so they offer deep discount shipping to get something to help cover the cost of fuel. And, getting the product ready is also inexpensive as labor in developing countries is also cheap.
The author made several points worth pondering. One, if the developing world didn't buy our scrap, it would end up in landfills, filling them more quickly and burying materials that have significant value. In addition, by buying our scrap, these countries are not opening mines to find the raw materials, which saves the environment and cuts greenhouse gas emissions. Imagine how many emissions would come from a copper mine, where 100 tons of material have to be moved to extract one ton of copper ore. Although the methods of stripping wire, or melting plastic in China are hardly ideal, they beat the various alternatives available.
The final take away from this book is that it is best to reduce your purchasing habits, then to reuse items as much as possible, and only then to recycle. It certainly opened my eyes. In addition, I found the book to be wonderful read. The author wrote well, and despite some redundancy, the book is full of important information. I cannot recommend it highly enough!
But you know what? It's true. I never gave much thought to what I threw out until I met Adam in 2009 and started listening to his stories about what he's seen in the last ten years as a scrap reporter in Asia. Back when I lived in North America, all I knew was that to be a good citizen of the earth, all my magazines, Amazon packaging, soda cans and plastic bottles had to go in the blue bin, the recycling bin. It was a very cleansing feeling to drop all that stuff on the curb and have it turn into an empty bin come morning -- it was like I'd done my part to help the environment, and now I could buy more stuff.
I had a friend who felt the same way. She was the most vocal about recycling, and would sometimes retrieve recyclables from the kitchen garbage and tell off whichever housemate of hers had tossed those tin cans or cereal boxes into the "wrong bin." Her own recycling rate was tremendous -- her blue bin was always overflowing with DVD sleeves, cardboard boxes, shopping bags, glass bottles, etc., putting us to shame -- but only years later, while talking to Adam, did I really think hard about this fact: my friend was wealthy and had the biggest room in her house; she always had the newest clothes, the newest gadgets, and she recycled the most because she consumed the most. In short -- in a high-consumption, throwaway society, perhaps high recycling rates are nothing to be proud of.
I remember this friend also being concerned about the "living standards in developing countries." She was the kind of person who consumed and threw out a lot, then was outraged by how Western trash is transported to developing nations (such as China and India), where demand for raw materials is high, so people process the throwaways of developed countries to meet that demand, sometimes in not so ideal conditions that pollute the environment and endanger their health. The government should ban exports of our junk! argued my friend.
But, as Adam points out in Junkyard Planet, the issue is not so black and white. Much of Western junk would be landfilled if export was banned -- there is simply no such demand for raw materials in the West. And if you deny developing countries the ability to mine Western scrap for raw materials, they would have to dig actual mines in the ground -- and that's just as, if not even more devastating to the environment. For many people, working with scrap is a real choice they make, a solid way out of poverty. As someone told my husband in India, it's easy for us -- well-fed, privileged -- to want to enlighten the "poor people" who do this work about the possible consequences, when they want to do it because they can either worry about health/environmental consequences in the future, or starve to death today. And really, if you don't like what happens to your garbage, shouldn't you stop buying and throwing out so much stuff?
I've watched my husband toil over this book for two years, seen him struggle with how to present the good, the bad, and the gray of the global scrap industry. For him the story is also personal -- he grew up the son of a junkyard man, and spent time helping out in the family scrapyard after college. He knows the scrap industry is a misunderstood, under-appreciated, much-maligned industry, and this book goes a long way to changing those perceptions -- and more importantly, making us question our own roles in the creation of our junkyard planet.
I have heard the environmental argument about the recycling plants in developing countries - so, duh, if you don't like it, stop consuming so much stuff and then throwing it out. Better to go to China and get reused on some level than to dump it in the landfill. The author got me thinking what else gets landfilled that some inventive and enterprising person is going to invent a way to reuse it. As far as the conditions over there and the pollution, let's quickly get some of the more basic problems handled like proper food and water. After that, the pollution and working conditions will become a priority.
I even had some thoughts about going into the junk business myself. What a way to make money. But I suppose you might have to be that person who has pleasurable memories of Sunday mornings strolling through the junk yard with your loved ones.
If you are the least interested in a major sector of the global economy or you ever gave one thought about what happens after the County recycling truck picks up your recycling, read this book, it will astound you.