When you drop your Diet Coke can or yesterday's newspaper in the recycling bin, where does it go? Probably halfway around the world, to people and places that clean up what you don't want and turn it into something you can't wait to buy.
In Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter - veteran journalist and son of an American junkyard owner - travels deeply into a vast, often hidden, multibillion-dollar industry that's transforming our economy and environment. Minter takes us from back-alley Chinese computer recycling operations to high-tech facilities capable of processing a jumbo jet's worth of recyclable trash every day. Along the way, we meet an unforgettable cast of characters who've figured out how to build fortunes from what we throw away: Leonard Fritz, a young boy "grubbing" in Detroit's city dumps in the 1930s; Johnson Zeng, a former plastics engineer roaming America in search of scrap; and Homer Lai, an unassuming barber turned scrap titan in Qingyuan, China. Junkyard Planet reveals how "going green" usually means making money - and why that's often the most sustainable choice, even when the recycling methods aren't pretty.
With unmatched access to and insight on the junk trade, and the explanatory gifts and an eye for detail worthy of a John McPhee or William Langewiesche, Minter traces the export of America's recyclables and the massive profits that China and other rising nations earn from it. What emerges is an engaging, colorful, and sometimes troubling tale of consumption, innovation, and the ascent of a developing world that recognizes value where Americans don't. Junkyard Planet reveals that we might need to learn a smarter way to take out the trash.
©2013 Adam Minter (P)2013 Audible, Inc.
Yes, great insight into something that affects all of us, but which few of us know anything about.
It's like a look behind the Wizard's curtain, to look at the inner workings.
Aside from the occasional headline or TV news story disclosing how our waste ends up in a developing nation to be sorted by children, I don’t generally think about what happens to my rubbish, recyclables or otherwise. The only other time I think about it is when I’m reviewing the list of things I’m allowed to throw in my recycling bin, which is decidedly lacking.
So this book provided a fascinating insight into the global trade in junk. And by that I mean anything that can be recycled in some way, whether that be direct reuse, or stripped for materials.
The scrap trade is now global, and Minter explains why those headlines about our waste being shipped to China, or India, or other locations with cheap labour, is actually a good thing (without that cheap labour it would end up in landfill). It’s an eye-opening journey through everything from the technology used by US recyclers to how the Chinese government is dealing with the growing pollution caused by an essential industry.
Not that the book was without issues for me. It focuses on a few materials (mainly metal, notably copper), with some others getting less attention (plastics) and some none at all (paper, fabric, glass). It is also heavily biased on two countries, the US and China. Some others are mentioned, but most only in passing.
Then there’s the simple notion of reducing demand. If we want to help the planet, and put an end to some of the polluting caused by the recycling industry, we need to stop buying so much. I get that, I do. Equally, Minter doesn’t address the fact that we can’t. Things don’t last forever, modern devices aren’t designed to for a start, and should I deny myself a faster, better, sometimes more energy efficient device because I want to stop the waste?
What about the world economy? It’s built on consumer power. We saw what happened when money got tight and people stopped buying so much: the world economy collapsed. The factories in China stopped producing and the scrap trade itself took a nose dive.
Then there’s the issue of re-use. Just because I’ve finished with a device doesn’t mean someone else can’t get a lot more out of it. That’s true, to a point. The book even describes Chinese dealers turning up their noses at phones only five year’s old. Yes we can send devices to developing nations so they can have access to things they may not otherwise have if they had to buy new, but eventually they’ll end up on the scrapheap, it’ll just be in a different nation. Out of sight and out of mind.
It’s a complex issue and there are some points that are a simplification too far. To be fair, he does also discuss the need for manufacturers to be held accountable, and to make devices that can be repaired, upgraded and, finally, disassembled easily.
And that’s before we get to some of the weird parts, such as when we spend a chapter in the passenger seat of a guy visiting scrapyards in the US, which doesn’t seem to add much, simply retreading many of the same points raised elsewhere.
Having said that, it will definitely open your eyes and make you look at the world a bit differently. It’s a thorough examination of modern consumer culture and will make you question things.
Stephen McLaughlin does an excellent job narrating this, so well you could believe he was the author.
The core message of this book is simple: reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s better do things in that order rather than toss something into your recycling bin and assume you’ve done your part. Sustainability is an issue that has been becoming more prevalent, but disposing of things, as this book shows, isn’t always so bad. We just need to try and do it responsibly.
If you care about the environment and what’s happening to this planet, this book will give you mixed emotions.
I’ve often wondered what happens to all that glass, plastic, tin, cardboard and paper that we lovingly sort into different green containers. I’ve heard rumors that it gets shipped to China – that we pay them to take it off our hands, and then they just burn it or dump it in landfill.
Fortunately, that’s only partly true. The true part is that it IS mostly shipped to China.
This might seem like a terrible misuse of fossil fuel, to haul this cargo of waste so far across the sea, but it isn’t as bad as it sounds. Container ships filled with consumer goods arrive in huge numbers in Western ports. China sells vastly more consumer goods to the West than the West sells to China, and so these container ships would have to return to China empty. It makes sense to use these ships to carry recycled material back to where it can be used.
And what happens to it when it gets there? Well it isn’t dumped, and only a little of it is burned. Whatever recycled waste is shipped to China, whether it be cars, cellphones or Christmas tree lights, is intensively processed to extract as much value as possible. Pulled and picked to pieces in all sorts of ways – by hand, or using chemicals or with fire, by armies of low-paid workers. Then the raw materials go to Chinese factories to make more consumer goods for shipping back to the West. A virtuous circle? Or a vicious cycle?
The author tells of a factory containing hordes of female workers in blue boiler suits who spend their working lives sorting shredded metal chunks into piles: Steel, aluminium, copper. It sounds like hard, tedious work - and I’m sure it is, but these women have all chosen this work in preference to an even harder existence planting and picking rice in the paddy fields from which they migrated. So they get more pay for fewer hours, and their work turns our junk back into useful metals, reducing the need to scar the globe with more mines and smelting plants.
This is so far sounding pretty good, but there is unfortunately a big downside too. Some recycling industries are highly toxic, causing heavy pollution and serious harm to the workers’ health. Some of the processes used to process batteries and e-waste are horrendous, involving burning or the use of chemicals, and they have turned some Chinese (and Indian) cities into post-apocalyptic toxic nightmare zones.
So, even though recycling is a benefit to society in many ways, it also has a very depressing dark side. The famous 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, are deliberately placed in that order.
If you want to help to save the planet:
Firstly, Reduce = don’t buy so much stuff.
Secondly, Reuse = try to keep your stuff going. Repair it, don’t just chuck it away to buy the next upgrade.
Thirdly, Recycle = if you have to get rid of your stuff, recycling is the next best thing.
This is the message of this book. Interesting and enlightening. Pleasing and saddening. Mixed emotions.
"Boring.Could not finish it"
Someone who like repetition. It repeats the same points and gives different examples of the same scenario over and over and over again.
Not be so condescending to individuals who recycle and explain how it is all handled
He was OK. Limited due to subject matter but added nothing
NOt character driven
If he went into more detail about individual examples and not just repeat the same mantra of how business is wonderful, China is booming, blah blah blah
I was really disappointed by the narrator's performance. He sounded robotic and akward. I was really interested in the story, but the narrator made it impossible to sit through.
"Fascinating, better heard than read"
This is a fascinating account of an urgent issue. I'm recommending it to all my friends. I wanted to read the book, but didn't, and I believe audio is the best medium for an account like this. There is some repetition from chapter to chapter, which was good for me as I listened in chunks separated by weeks. The repetition also helps to connect the chapters, which literally go all over, as they must to convey the situation.
"Know more about your world"
Everyone should know what happens to the stuff they buy and discard, and this is an excellent place to find out more. This whirlwind world tour of what happens to the stuff you throw out. The bottom line? REDUCE, REUSE, and don't rely so much on recycling. There are some surprises in there about recycling; he makes you feel like you've been along for the ride.
"A great look into the recycling industry"
This was a very informative and eye opening look into the recycling and scrap industry. The author's experience in China gives us in America the reality of the consequences to our unsustainable over-consumption.
Because of this book I will reduce and re-use what I can, and only recycle as a last resort. I have looked up my local scrap yard and plan to recycle what I don't need. Thank you for this eye-opening experience!
yes, it's well written and well read.
the non-nonsense approach. no "green" environmentalism, just the facts in a concise way. I am an environmental engineer, working in the biofuels arena and dealing with China.
very thought provoking and a great listen. flew through it!!
loved learning all the different factors that effect "trash"
"interesting if you like business and economics"
interesting industry. There's a lot of money and adventure if willing to get dirty and take the risks
"Fascinated by junk"
The author is in love with scrap, from a long-life family connection. He writes a sympathetic yet critical critique of the business- if you don't want to export potential toxins, for example, maybe first don't buy so much new stuff. I was surprised how much exported junk is re-used (better than recycled)- either repaired, or parted out for valuable LCD's, chips, memory, etc. Also, how economics rules the flow and destiny of every gram of waste.
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