NEW YORK If you ever have trouble making a family member or friend understand the complexities of the global recycling industry, you might want to consider handing them a copy of Junkyard Planet.
From the very first page, author Adam Minter engages his audience with the sheer scale of the topic, explaining how Shijiao, China, once a remote agricultural valley, transformed itself into the worlds largest recycler of Christmas tree lightsjust Christmas tree lights. The volume is staggering: 20 million pounds of white and multicolored lights annually.
As the mind boggles, Minter starts throwing out bigger numbers and facts: that scrap is a $500-billion-per-year industry and now "the largest employer on the planet outside of agriculture."
Recycling is "cleaning up what you dont want and transforming it into something you cant wait to buy," quips Minter as he simultaneously prepares the reader for what is in store when he cautions that recycling is "the third-best option in the well-known mantra: reduce, reuse and recycle" and goes on to show why it is "the worst best solution."
Minter proceeds to primarily contrast metal scrap processing in the two countries with which hes most familiar: his native home, the United States, and his current home, China.
Anointing the United States the "Saudi Arabia of scrap," he details how China became one of the largest importers of our recycling and the largest exporter of new goods to our country. And while the story he recounts might cause some grumbling in the United States, he simultaneously points out why transforming that scrap here, where manufacturing is challenged, wouldnt be as financially lucrative as it is in China. (As a major exporter to the United States, China has many advantages in terms of logistical costs.)
The account is a fascinating read on multiple levels, perhaps most notably because of how honestly Minter portrays the best and the worst aspects of recycling.
He acknowledges the achievements of U.S. recyclers, citing their 100-percent success in having taken on the chronic and pervasive problem of recycling automobiles over the past 50 years. He also confirms the role that the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has taken to set standards and promote recycling in the United States.
At the same time, Minter acknowledges that standards elsewhere in the world are not always what we would hope. "Not every recycler is an environmentalist," he warns, and Junkyard Planet bears that out.
Without engaging in hand-wringing, Minter writes about firsthand interviews with families in China and other developing countries, detailing how they actively seek and purchase scrap and process it in "deplorable conditions" that produce hideous levels of pollution and jeopardize their health due to the lack of a controlled environment or better resources.
Minter paints a picture of his subjects with almost searing accuracy and humanity as he asks them hard questions about fumes and processes that most likely will terminate the natural lives of some prematurely. Their responses often are surprising, with more than one pointing out that these are the best jobs they can find and that work is better than starvingwhich in some cases, unfortunately, is the horrific alternative.
The structure of Junkyard Planet is occasionally uneven; the first third of the book focuses on the global industry and includes fascinating statistics and descriptions of the underlying drivers of the recycling business. In contrast, the remaining two-thirds is predominantly anecdotal as Minter tells the stories of the different people he has met in the trade.
The inclusion of so many biographical accounts leads to a few glaring omissionswhile Minter says he would focus on the scrap metal trade, theres no mention of Turkeys role, which is the largest importer of U.S. ferrous scrap.
Finally, Minters story is as personal as it is soundly researched. A journalist as well as the son and grandson of scrap business owners, Minter is as forthright in recounting his own familys history in the trade as he is discussing those of families he interviewed worldwide. His poignant account of a family members addiction nearly destroying the family business, as well as how his grandmothers influence helped them survive, gives the book a surprising amount of heart.
As an individual who has family ties to the junk trade and an ingenious grandmother who helped our family survive the Great Depression, I found this book thoroughly engaging.
As an American, and therefore part of the greatest consuming society in the history of the Earth, I found it provocative, shedding a glaring light on how carelessly we as a nation waste our own raw materials contrasted with how jealously we regard Chinas rise in the global economy.
As an engineer and executive engaged in a business that routinely draws customers from the recycling industry, I found it a methodical and frank explanation of the vast gray area between environmental protection and destructive intervention.
I remember once seeing a young person in India pounding an aluminum can flat with a rock. His economic reality was such that even the investment in a hammer would not have had a payback. I thought fleetingly about buying him oneuntil I realized Id be putting the five workers next to him out of a job.