One of my Fourteen Books for 2014
I’ve always heard that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but I was not fully aware of how much treasure is out there until I spent the weekend reading journalist Adam Minter’s lucid and engrossing new book on the global scrap and recycling business, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. Plastic bottles, junk mail, metal shavings, old computers, plastic fruit baskets, broken Christmas tree lights—there’s a market for everything, and as Minter writes, “if what you toss into your recycling bin can be used in some way, the international scrap recycling business will manage to deliver it to the person or company who can do so most profitably.”
Although the Shanghai-based Minter makes stops in India, Malaysia, and elsewhere in Asia, Junkyard Planet is mostly a U.S.-China story. Scrap from the United States, where we do a terrible job of maximizing usage from discarded objects that still have life in them, travels in 40,000-pound shipping containers to the southern coast of China, where workers process them, sort their contents, and harvest every last usable bit of paper, plastic, and metal. All those raw materials then go down the road to southern China’s factories, where they’re turned into new products that generally get shipped back to the U.S. for sale. After a few years, those products break, or are made obsolete by newer models, and the cycle goes on. China produces, the U.S. consumes and discards, China recycles, China makes again. Junkyard Planet should be required reading for any economics course on globalization.
But the book is far from a dry economics text (thank God!): Minter mixes genres, and the result is part investigative journalism, part travelogue, and part memoir (he grew up working in his father’s Minneapolis scrapyard). Minter explores both the high- and low-tech ends of scrapping, from the migrants hand-sorting trash in Beijing in search of soda bottles that they can turn in for a few pennies, to the multi-million-dollar recycling facility in Houston that collects identical soda bottles by blasting them off a conveyor belt filled with trash using infrared sensors and jets of compressed air. He discusses the environmental and health effects of recycling, which can be serious—but which are still generally preferable to the alternatives, such as mining fresh metals rather than reusing what has already been excavated. Minter develops each chapter through compelling (and often gently humorous) profiles of people employed in the scrap industry; though few of them imagined that they would grow up to spend their days negotiating the best prices on shipments of mixed metals, or figuring out how to extract copper from strands of discarded Christmas tree lights, they all recognize the treasure that can be realized from piles of trash. As one Chinese interviewee explains to Minter, “I wanted to be rich and successful. So I joined the scrap business.”