Margie Beilharz Reviews Junkyard Planet: travels in the billion-dollar trash trade

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Junkyard Planet: travels in the billion-dollar trash trade
by Adam Minter

Review by Margie Beilharz

Author’s blog: http://shanghaiscrap.com/

Do you recycle? Separate out your paper, cans and labelled plastic from your landfill waste? Take your computer waste to a resource recovery centre? Go you! I do too, and every little bit helps, right?

Well, yes, of course it does. But if you read Junkyard Planet you’ll realise the vast chasm between our ‘recycling’ and the actual, multi-stage and often international process of recycling that turns our discarded plastic or metal into something new.

Putting it bluntly, Adam Minter tells us that, even though it may make us feel green, putting that bottle in that recycling bin ‘doesn’t mean you’ve recycled anything … it just means you’ve outsourced your problem’.

What happens to that waste, and the global economy that dictates how and where waste materials are re-used or recycled, is the subject of his book.

If you believe the maxim that you should write about what you know, Minter is the perfect person to write about the global junk trade. His family are scrap metal dealers in the US and he’s written on the global recycling business as a journalist since 2002, currently from Shanghai. He even got married in the middle of a scrap dealers convention, so it seems fair to say that scrap recycling is a very big part of Adam Minter’s life.

A global system

The trail that he follows in Junkyard Planet is mostly US waste that heads to China for recycling. Junkyard Planet makes sense of the world of scrap – particularly scrap metal and plastic – within our global economic system.

It’s a story of what sort of waste is discarded; who can see the value in a pile of junk; where it is economically viable to sort, separate and retrieve the useful components; and where those retrieved materials are most useful.

We are taken to north American recycling plants where electronic waste is pulverised and extracted in vast, expensive machines that don’t extract all the good stuff, like precious metals in touch screens.

These plants often can’t compete with recycling in China, where the cheaper labour rates and lax or non-existent environmental and worker safety laws make a very hands-on process economically viable. There, Minter sees recycling workers strip away chips from circuit boards by hand in a fume of lead vapour, or squat on their haunches for hours on end to sort little bits of metal, which is a skilled job.

But is, as many fear, the west ‘dumping’ its waste in China? Not in Minter’s book – it is the Chinese who are seeing value in America’s waste and, quite frankly, also needing the materials for its own growing middle class.

This recycling is also saving the additional extraction of huge amounts of minerals. In 2012, for example, 2.75 million tons of China’s copper production (almost half of the total) came from scrap, and 70% of the scrap was imported. Copper is vital in our communication technologies and power transmission. If China was not recycling all that copper, there would be a lot more copper being dug out of the ground – at least 100 tons of copper ore for each ton of copper.

‘What would the environmental cost of all that digging be?’ asks Minter. ‘Would it exceed the environmental cost of recycling the developed world’s throwaways? What’s worse?’

Consumption

All this material that needs to be recycled wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the massive consumption that is part and parcel of life, especially in rich western countries like the US (and Australia). Minter does not gloss over the relationship between consumption and waste. He is careful to point out that recycling is not ‘a get-out-of-jail-free card’ for consumption. The stats on recycling clearly show that while recycling volumes from US households and businesses have increased over the past 50 years, total waste has increased by a lot more.

When asked, as he often is, how we can boost our recycling rates, Minter will say that it’s far more important to reduce the overall volume of waste produced. He reports on studies that found having recycling options available actually increases our rates of consumption. Presumably this is because we think that by separating and recycling we are doing something beneficial, so we don’t hold back on our use.

Rather than blaming the Chinese recycling plants for the poor health of their workers, Minter says, we should consider our role in producing the waste in the first place. Remember, it is reduce first, then re-use and finally recycle.

This book is a good read. It has lots and lots of detail, gained from visits to many people and facilities in the recycling business – many of which were already friends of, or known to, Minter. I probably could have done with fewer of these visits, but the overall story was fascinating, and well told.

It’s the sort of book that will lead to plenty of nudges to your nearest and dearest: did you know …?, can you believe …? I was impressed, for example, at the ingenuity in making use of recycled products. They are coming back to us in GIS units whose screens are made from Japanese arcade machines; in children’s toys that run on old computer chips; in fireworks using titanium waste from aerospace to burn bright white; in slippers whose soles are made from the plastic insulation around the wire used in Christmas tree lights.

We buy, we throw away, we buy again.

I recently bought a new oven, and was left with the old, pretty non-functional metal oven to dispose of. Looking for an easy way of getting rid of the sizeable appliance, I thought about the scrap metal trade and wondered how it might operate in Melbourne – who might value that metal and send it on its way to a second life. So I put the old oven out on the nature strip and tweeted a pic with a few key hashtags and the location. It only took a few hours for a relatively elderly man to come by with a van, load it up and take it away. Adam Minter’s cleaner in Shanghai would feel I wasted my chance for some cash (she sells their waste cans to metal collectors). Still, I felt it was another contribution to the story of recycling, of which Junkyard Planet has given me a much deeper understanding.

margie-beilharz-2Margie Beilharz

Margie Beilharz is a freelance editor, writer and science communicator in Melbourne, Australia, working mostly for science, environment, health and education organisations. She moved to freelancing after eight years in science communication with science media and PR consultants Science in Public, and a background in zoology, environmental policy and academia. Margie is looking forward to the day when science is as much an accepted and loved part of everyone’s life as football or reality TV shows.

Margie’s blog: http://theopendesk.com/blog/
Margie on twitter: @mbll

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