Junkyard Planet

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade

Adam Minter
Bloomsbury Press (2013)
304 pages; $26

Reviewed by Scott F. Parker

Let’s start with a fact from Adam Minter—his Junkyard Planet is full of them. The term recycling originated “in the 1920s, when oil companies needed a word to describe how they recirculated unrefined petroleum through a refining plant to reduce impurities.” Today, we use recycling to mean putting our waste in the bin next to the one labeled TRASH, but this feel-good act has as much to do with the actual process of recycling as a New Year’s resolution does with regular flossing. “Recycling,” Minter writes at the outset of his thorough report, “is what happens after the recycling bin leaves your curb.” And what does happen is a prime example of the kind of efficient trade globalization is capable of producing.

Recycling is second only to agriculture in the number of workers its industry employs. Millions of people around the globe coordinate efforts to get used and scrapped materials to those who identify value in them. The whole market depends on disparities of who values what. The copper contained in old Christmas tree lights is good copper—to draw on one of Minter’s surprising examples. The question is whether it’s worth it to strip that copper for resale. Currently, in China, stripping discarded Christmas lights is profitable. And so every year the United States exports 20 million pounds of them to a small village across the Pacific that specializes in this kind of recycling. This beats putting those lights into landfills and mining that much more “new” copper, but you can appreciate how precarious this arrangement is. An increase in the cost of Chinese labor, tighter Chinese environmental regulations, a decrease in demand for metals, a dropoff in the Chinese exports that subsidize American return shipments of recyclables, Chinese waste that crowds ours out of the market—any of these could disrupt the trade of used Christmas lights or any other good.

Extrapolating from his investigations into many such exchanges, Minter argues persuasively that recycling must be understood in these kinds of economic relationships, rather than with the naive environmental optimism we’re accustomed to. The ethical benefits of recycling are mostly ancillary to, and wholly dependent upon, market forces. The recent global recession beginning in 2008 crashed the market for scrap metal and forced American and European recyclers to send much of their product to landfills, regardless of any guilt they may have felt doing so.

Under better economic circumstances, the fact that the relatively sustainable solution is often the most profitable one speaks to the success of markets in rewarding efficiency and penalizing waste within a system. The problem, though, is when the system is not closed and some of the associated costs become externalities borne by the planetary system we remain within. Burning rubber off Christmas lights, for example, is an efficient way to isolate copper; it’s also an efficient way to pollute the environment and endanger workers. Or think of American automobiles, “the greatest waste stream that the world has ever known.” For decades, cars were abandoned in creeks and fields and deserts across the continent by the millions, left to rust, erode, and leak poisonous chemicals into the land and water. In the late 1950s a new invention, the shredder, made it economical to turn the waste of one system (automobile industry) into the input of another (the scrap metal trade). Fifty years of constant destruction later, the backlog of abandoned cars was cleared in 2008. Until CO 2, to take one urgent concern, can be monetized, there is no mechanism within capitalism to offer up similar incentives for its clean up. Short of some technological deus ex machina , a response to waste will come from either organized moral efforts or environmental necessity. (Today, as I write, Minter’s adopted home of Shanghai is experiencing unprecedented levels of air pollution, the particulate matter in the air is actually beyond the range of the pollution index.)

These conditions reinforce Minter’s reminder that recycling is merely the least bad response to our excessive waste. Better is to not produce the waste in the first place, to reuse what we do consume, and best of all reduce consumption absolutely. Minter assumes no such sacrificing on the horizon, and the kinds of prescriptions he offers fall pretty squarely within a realistic acknowledgement that our consumption-driven lives are under no threat. Instead of buying fewer electronics, he recommends we demand that electronics be made more amenable to updating, repairing, reusing, and eventually recycling.

While Junkyard Planet is the kind of book for which summary nearly suffices as review, the book is as peripatetic as the trade itself, and from Minter’s around-the-world travels he provides real reading pleasures in the form of strange details and interesting characters. His life spent in and around the business—before he was a journalist, his family owned a scrapyard in Minneapolis—makes Minter an ideal guide to take us behind the recycling label and show us where the stuff we get rid of goes and how it keeps coming back.

Scott F. Parker is dislocate’s Reviews Editor.