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Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter

His wife says it best: “I never knew garbage until I knew Adam Minter.”

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter
Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, Adam Minter (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, November 2013)

Minter spent his high school days working in the family scrap yard in the U.S., but these days he reports from Shanghai for Bloomberg, freelancing on the side for publications like Scrap and Recycling International.

After reading Junkyard Planet you’ll have to agree: Minter certainly knows his scrap.

 

The planetary junkyard is a multifarious and complicated place.

A bum scavenges beverage cans out of trash bins and sells them to a roving scrap buyer with a pickup truck. The buyer sells the paper and metals he collects to a local scrap yard which acts as an accumulator, selling on bales of newspapers, cans, wire and used plumbing to larger yards that specialize.

Those larger yards sell container loads to buyers from China who ship the containers to Shenzhen for sorting and processing. Once the insulation has been stripped from the wire and the shredded washing machine motors have been sorted (by hand) into their copper, white metal and aluminum components, the pure metal is sold on to foundries which do the actual recycling—turning used metal or paper into new ingots or cardboard.

 

Why China? The immediate assumption is about cheap labor, but if labor costs were the key it would all be done in Bangladesh or Burkina Faso.

China is a scrap magnet because of all the stuff it sells to the U.S. It’s all shipped in containers. The U.S. sells few manufactured goods to China, so most of the containers have to be shipped back empty. Sending a container load from Los Angeles to Shenzhen might cost US$400, from Los Angeles to Chicago might cost $2400. When you’re moving scrap around, shipping costs make all the difference. So China gets inexpensive raw materials.

But an even more important point is that today the U.S. doesn’t manufacture enough to recycle all the scrap metal it throws away.

 

This is a complicated tale. In Junkyard Planet it’s told as a travelogue. Minter describes in the first person visiting scrap yards, processing facilities and foundries with some of the many colorful characters at the heart of the scrap trade.

His account focuses mostly on China (“the capital of the junkyard planet”) and the U.S. (“the Saudi Arabia of scrap”) but he detours briefly to Europe and Malaysia and to some truly godforsaken junk yards in India.

He has plenty to choose from. The industry’s long, worldwide supply chain turns over $500 billion a year and employs more people than any other business apart from agriculture.

 

Minter also makes the case as an environmentalist. He sorts his trash and fully subscribes to “reduce, reuse, recycle”; though “reduce” doesn’t get much of a look-in during his account of his travels.

Your 2G phone is no longer in demand even in Africa, but don’t just chuck it in with the food scraps and lawn clippings. There are workers in China who specialize in extracting the chips and firms who recycle them into talking dolls and other gadgets. The copper, zinc and precious metals are reclaimed from the circuit board, and the plastic is shredded and remelted.

If your drink cans didn’t go to China they would end up as landfill, and recycling a ton of aluminum uses about 8% of the energy required to smelt it from newly mined alumina and bauxite. Minter makes a convincing case.

 

His Bloomberg journalistic standards in evidence, Minter has turned out a book with a detailed, useful index and quite a few interesting and relevant photographs. His account contains enough statistics to qualify as a casual reference, but they don’t get in the way of the human stories it tells.

Liquids (used solvents, chemical plant by-products, used plating solution, etc.) aren’t mentioned (Minter describes himself as metal-centric), but otherwise the book provides a useful tour of today’s junkyard planet.

Minter will convince you, as he has his wife, that it’s a topic worthy of being much more widely understood.


Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People's Republic.