This Book is Definitely NOT Junk

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Junkyard Planet
For some reason in Sustainability we are always exhorting people to know where their products come from-who is your farmer, where is that widget made?-but once they drop their waste in a blue bin they can forget about it. Adam Minter rolls back the curtain on your “recycled” waste and not just to your local transfer station where most stop1)For example, Garbage Land, by all measures a worthy book, hardly leaves the north-east US as it traces trash. Once it is baled at a transfer station, the waste is considered recycled. but all the way back to the villages in China where Christmas tree lights are transformed into plastic sandals. With detailed descriptions of giant machines that shred whole cars to small sheds where broken cellphones are burned for their metals, Minter takes on a epic journey of discovery to find out what ACTUALLY happens when something is recycled. Along the way, we learn a lot a very important things about Achieving Sustainability.

In fact I liked Junkyard Planet: travels in the billion dollar trash trade so much that I am throwing out my carefully designed format and am just going to talk about the seven things I particularly liked and why!

1) Minter is a Junkyard Junkie

There is nothing better than reading an author who is in love with his subject, e.g. Aldo Leopold on Sand County or Adam Minter on junkyards. Minter’s family owned a junkyard and he has spent over a decade reporting for trade publications with names like Scrap. His love for the topic brings what could otherwise be a boring topic to vivid life. But more importantly Minter has a deep, life-long knowledge of the subject he is addressing in the book. This isn’t a topic he spent a year researching, rather its been his whole life, and the difference in quality shows.

2) The book stays focused

As Minter makes explicit at the beginning,2)Now I’ll admit the title implies the book is much broader in scope but that was just to get our attention. he is focusing almost exclusively on scrap metal in China and the US, the trade and industry for which he has the deepest knowledge. This is all too rare and it means that he does not venture into topics he doesn’t know well just to expand the scope AND most importantly it means that Junkyard Planet does not run on too long.3)Overly long is probably my #1 pet peeve about non-fiction books I read. Minter’s goal, which I believe he achieves, is that through this deep look at scrap metal we get a sense of how the recycling industry works (or at least could work) in a host of other areas like plastics or paper which he only mentions in passing.

3) Globalization is good for recycling

Minter makes it quite clear that without globalization we would not be recycling even close to the amount of materials that we do today. In fact, although he doesn't make the argument, it seems clear to me that the worst era for recycling in America was after World War II when we grew too wealthy to want to recycle much ourselves, began to produce and consume a lot more crap and yet globalized markets had not yet arrived, so our landfills filled up.4)We still buy a lot of crap and are too wealthy to want to recycle much, what has changed is globalization. When Chinese factories slowed down after the 2008 recession, junk piled up in America. A globalized system makes it far more likely that rather than become waste, a thrown out item will be able to find a buyer somewhere.5)And will often be carried on what would otherwise be empty ships.

4) Captures big picture changes

In a book such as this one, filled with anecdotal stories and gory details, the big, important changes can often be neglected. While I think the book could be improved organizationally to better feature these changes, I came away with three things that fundamentally changed global scrap metal recycling.

  1. Most importantly was the rise of China. As they became the factory of the world their enormous appetite for raw materials created a demand for all types of metals, local businesses took advantage of low labor costs to recycle things that would otherwise be landfilled in the US and the containerization revolution in transport made getting junk to China dirt cheap.6)Minter discusses how shipping to China is often cheaper than across the US and the importance of containers in purchasing and moving purchased scrap metal but does not dive into the containerization revolution itself. For a complete look at this seismic global shift I'd recommend The Box, by Marc Levinson.
  2. Another big one was car shredders. This innovation changed cars from a major environmental hazard7)I had no idea but apparently by the 1970s cars were being abandoned at an alarming rate across the country, piling up everywhere. I blame my lack of knowledge on not being born yet :). to the single most recycled object on the planet at better than a 99% rate.
  3. The multi-decade commodity boom through 2008 (and its partial recovery since) drove prices for materials high enough that all sorts of products that never used to be worth recycling now suddenly were. It also meant that capital intensive systems necessary for recycling in the US were suddenly cost-effective and have been deployed by many companies, repatriating a lot of new recycling domestically.8)Obviously this commodity boom is only semi-independent of China's rise and has probably played itself out at this point but prices have stabilized much higher than a junk yard could ever have dreamed of in the 80s...thanks again globalization.

5) Acknowledges trade-offs

Minter loves recycling but as he says, "cleaning up someone else's garbage is an inherently dangerous business." His explorations include for example one of the most polluted places in China where much of the world's electronics are recycled. But his focus is a discussion of the trade-offs. For example, a phone recycled in a developed country is a lot less efficient (in terms of material recovery) than the laborious processes of China or other lower income countries.9)The work and living conditions definitely looked terrible but so does the alternatives for the workers but should we judge? As Minter says, "I’ve never lived in either circumstance, so I’m not about to guess." Additionally many electronics sent to these countries are not recycled at all but actually sold for re-use, which is far better than the best recycling process. Achieving Sustainability is tricky and there are few easy answers.10)Excepting LED bulbs of course, they are an easy answer.

6) Is not blinded by love

Minter loves the scrap metal recycling industry. But as he makes it clear over and over again, recycling is better than landfilling but it should be a last ditch effort. This is unusual, particularly in Sustainability authors tend to see their solution to be world changing--e.g. if only businesses took environmental impact into their accounting, or we used GMOs or whatever your pet hammer may be, the problems of the world would be solved. He even sees recycling as a source of harm as it lets consumers feel off the hook for buying useless junk. Minter admires the recycling industry for the good it is doing but the real solutions are further upstream.

7) Impactful but Achievable Recommendations

  • Reduce: "The best solution— really, the only solution— is to stop throwing away so much stuff." Yup.
  • Reuse: Even if you want to re-use or repair something you own, companies often make it as difficult as possible. There may be change afoot, but it is too little compared to the deluge of phones, tablets and laptops that are literally being designed to be 100% impossible to repair.
  • Recycle: Inevitably things will be bought and some can't be repaired (or are so hopelessly out of date... flip phone anyone?) and we should definitely recycle these things. But the way we mix materials (even in our packaging) makes recycling expensive and far less effective than it could be. Minter discusses how a spiral notebooks' mixing of metal, cardboard and paper--all three valuable materials--makes recycling difficult.11)That is unless you have poor Indian women to tear them into their constitute parts. Products should be designed for repair and for recycling, without this there is a clear upper bound on Sustainability.12)Another example he discusses is how rare earth metals are so integrated into touchscreens that they are impossible to remove. So they get landfilled even when your phone is "recycled" despite them being some of the most precious raw materials on the planet.

Aaron Redman is the founder of Achieving Sustainability and what passes for an administrator in these parts. Currently he is working on his Sustainability PhD at ASU while raising a baby daughter and taking advantage of nap time to foment discussions on this here blog.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. For example, Garbage Land, by all measures a worthy book, hardly leaves the north-east US as it traces trash. Once it is baled at a transfer station, the waste is considered recycled.
2. Now I’ll admit the title implies the book is much broader in scope but that was just to get our attention.
3. Overly long is probably my #1 pet peeve about non-fiction books I read.
4. We still buy a lot of crap and are too wealthy to want to recycle much, what has changed is globalization.
5. And will often be carried on what would otherwise be empty ships.
6. Minter discusses how shipping to China is often cheaper than across the US and the importance of containers in purchasing and moving purchased scrap metal but does not dive into the containerization revolution itself. For a complete look at this seismic global shift I'd recommend The Box, by Marc Levinson.
7. I had no idea but apparently by the 1970s cars were being abandoned at an alarming rate across the country, piling up everywhere. I blame my lack of knowledge on not being born yet :).
8. Obviously this commodity boom is only semi-independent of China's rise and has probably played itself out at this point but prices have stabilized much higher than a junk yard could ever have dreamed of in the 80s...thanks again globalization.
9. The work and living conditions definitely looked terrible but so does the alternatives for the workers but should we judge? As Minter says, "I’ve never lived in either circumstance, so I’m not about to guess."
10. Excepting LED bulbs of course, they are an easy answer.
11. That is unless you have poor Indian women to tear them into their constitute parts.
12. Another example he discusses is how rare earth metals are so integrated into touchscreens that they are impossible to remove. So they get landfilled even when your phone is "recycled" despite them being some of the most precious raw materials on the planet.
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