Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade
© 2013 Adam Minter
I once encountered a pair of supermarket clerks unloading cases of bottled water from their pallet jack to the shelves where the water awaits the public, and I commented to the pair that they must have to put out new cases fairly often, like once a week or so. The pair gave me a look and said they bring out new cases three to four times a day. Astonishingly, so it is with that unsightly pile of scrap facing the reader of Junkyard Planet. Adam Minter is not out to convince you that there’s a problem to be solved, one that needs your attention. Far from it, in fact: that seemingly problematic pile of scrap is as transient as Wal-Mart’s cases of water; here today and gone next week, broken up and distributed across the globe, where various classes of materials are put to use by an astonishing array of specialists and spur further development in less industrial countries.
Adam Minter is uniquely qualified for a book of this sort; he grew up in a scrapyard family, but left the family trade to pursue a career in journalism – and followed that calling to China, where he lived for several years. He opens with a history of scrapyard recycling in the United States, one that long predates the environmental movement of the 1970s. Early Americans had a far better motivator for recycling than idealism: they had need. Prior to the maturation of industrial capitalism, manufactured goods were preciously expensive; they were diligently preserved, repaired, or put to some other use once they were beyond mending. (For a full popular history of how Americans went from reusing everything to throwing everything away, see Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want). Sorting these goods and reducing them into re-usable elements was labor-intensive work, though, and as the cost of labor grew in the developed world, the chief advantage of producing with recycled materials over new ones — cost – disappeared. Scrapping thus became more of an export business, with China as the main buyer.
Those who don’t know scrap may view the export of recyclables to Asia and elsewhere as one of privilege — the western world using China as its dump. But the Chinese are buying scrap, not being paid a fee to take it away. They want it — in fact, members of Chinese firms travel constantly from scrapyard to scrapyard, looking for specific categories of materials to send back home. There, what the average American consumer views as rubbish is transformed into infrastructure and skyscrapers, or even better – into new consumer goods. There’s an entire global trade in this stuff: the oil-rich gulf states have a similar relationship with India, where it’s cheaper for them to ship rather than China. (The United States sends some scrap to India, but it’s generally cheaper to send it China’s way given the constant cargo traffic; ships are able to incorporate scrap deliveries into their backhauls.) South America and Africa, too, participate.
What makes China special for this is not just its cheap labor, but the fact that it has a rapacious hunger for scrap to fuel its own growth. China’s people have not yet lost the use-it-up, wear-it-out mentality that was chucked into the US’s landfills somewhere around the 1950s: in cities, people actively bargain for and repurpose refuse, so that whatever goes in China’s own landfills or incinerators is truly trash. There are also burgeoning markets for simply reusing goods which arrive from the United States: an old CRT monitor is far more valuable when resold as part of a used computer setup to a farmer just trying to learn one, than as scrap. While some materials are melted down into their constituent parts, electronics are more likely to be mined for their processors and such.
Though a scrap man, Minter doesn’t shy away from the downsides of China’s headlong embrace of recycling everything it can find a use for, especially plastics recycling. The poor city which does the bulk of China’s plastic processing can boast of lung and circulatory diseases afflicting 80% of the population. Over the years China’s ruling power has gotten more picky about the kinds of scrap it will accept, however, and Minter is optimistic that the future of recycling in China will grow cleaner.
Junkyard Planet is a fascinating look at a market which I suspect few are aware of it, and while it wears a little repetitive, ultimately it left me feeling….well, a little delighted. Despite my hostility toward consumerism in general, I genuinely love and admire trade’s way of bringing people together, and Junkyard Planet demonstrates superbly how even what we throw away conjoins the prosperity of each nation on its neighbor. The reader isn’t quite off the hook, however: if you want your goods to participate in this glorious global scrap trade, you have to at least make an effort to recycle or get them to the scrapmen to begin with.