01 February 2014

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade

Synopsis: 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.

Stats for my copy: Hardback, published by Bloombury Press, New York, 2013; borrowed from the library.

My thoughts: At the library with my daughter one day, waiting for her and wandering around aimlessly, this book caught my eye and on impulse I checked it out. Very interesting look at what happens to our trashed items when they go in the recycle bin, and more. I had no idea recycling was such a huge industry! My own experience with recycling has been limited. In the last city I lived in we had curbside recycling and I did participate unfailingly. But then I moved to the smaller city I'm in now, where that was not an option. We do have several Paper Retriever bins around town for magazines, newspapers, junk mail and the like, with proceeds to benefit the local schools, and I dump a lot of stuff in them. But I haven't yet visited the city's new recycling center or gotten into recycling other items. Though living paycheck to paycheck, I am a big proponent of reusing. Probably 90% of the furnishings in my home came from thrift stores, garage sales, or hand me downs from other people. I've often wished I could just buy new stuff whenever I want, but I guess I can console myself with the idea that I'm maybe helping the environment a little by going used used used all the time.

But back to the book! Mr. Minter takes us all over the country and out of the country to visit scrapyards and recycling facilities. His accounts of the shredders and other machinery is fascinating, as are the stories of some of the people he's met throughout the years. I never would have dreamed that something I toss into a bin might end up in another country, when I myself rarely leave one state. Wonderfully detailed and at times captivating account of the trash trade. 

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