Book review: Junkyard Planet, by Adam Minter

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 5:17pm

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade
by Adam Minter
4 stars

Kit Gillet

By the 1970s, the United States was a veritable scrapyard, with rusting cars and abandoned farming and factory equipment scattered all over the country. But then the Chinese came, Adam Minter writes in Junkyard Planet, his tour de force journey through the global scrap trade.

Charting the movement of scrap around the world, and the role the industry plays in shaping the planet, Minter goes from hi-tech factories in the US, where automated machinery sorts different types of recyclable plastic bottles by blasting them with shots of air while they move past on a conveyor belt, to dirty factory floors in China and India where everything is sorted by hand by low-paid labourers.

In between Minter follows the flow of junk and the evolution of the industry from something that was dominated by mostly poor Jewish immigrants in America at the end of the 19th century - a group often unable, through discrimination, to find meaningful work in other professions - to an industry worth US$500 billion annually, and one that employs more people than any other on the planet, with the exception of agriculture.

It doesn't take long to realise the scrap industry provides a new look at the history of the world. In one of the more fascinating sections of the book, Minter writes about how scrap and scrap traders were instrumental in China's economic development, especially in the early 1990s.

As he explains it, at the beginning of the reform and opening-up period, only state-owned enterprises had access to raw materials, so even if entrepreneurs had a great idea, it was impossible to get the supplies needed to make their dream a reality. Small-scale scrap dealers plugged this hole, importing metal from overseas and selling it to anyone who had the money.

And, as China became the factory of the world, it became cheaper to send scrap metal or paper for recycling all the way to the mainland, further fuelling its economy: demand for Chinese goods in the US meant cargo companies offered cheap rates on ships leaving the US, ships that would otherwise depart from the ports of China full but return empty. As Minter puts it: "The majority of [used paper and cardboard] went to China in shipping containers that otherwise would have crossed the Pacific Ocean carrying … air."

It's not just a US-China story. India now exports food and other goods to the Middle East, and the ships return cheaply laden with scrap paper and metals.

Minter doesn't hide his esteem for the scrap industry. "The global recycling business has taken on the burden of cleaning up what you don't want, and turning it into something you can't wait to buy." But at the same time he doesn't shrink away from the negative sides: slum children picking through trash heaps in India; appalling conditions in places such as Jamnagar, India, and Guiyu, China.

A 2010 study in Guiyu, the e-waste capital of the world, revealed that 88 per cent of village children under the age of six were suffering from lead poisoning, while in Jamnagar, Minter sees where the villagers dispose of chemical-laden waste water. "The dirt walls are streaked with trash, and its floor is filled with green and brown water swirled with colourful plastic bags. It is where, we are told, much of the village's plastic cleaning fluid and unusable waste is dumped when nothing else can be done with it."

Yet Minter, a journalist who has covered the scrap industry for more than a decade, can't help but see mostly positives. In 2012 the US scrap recycling industry transformed 135 million metric tonnes of recyclable waste into raw materials: "That's 135 million tonnes of iron ore, copper ore, nickel, paper, plastic, and glass that didn't have to be dug out of the ground or cut out of a forest," he writes.

Perhaps his most intriguing revelation is that after decades of scrap metals moving from the US to China, America is now out of used cars, and with fewer factories the country is generating less worn-out equipment.

"The piles of motors that used to litter the American countryside in the 1980s and 1990s have already been exported. Now, the scrap motor market is limited to what's being thrown away in real time in the United States, Japan, Europe, and - increasingly - China."

This is a concern for China, which is desperately short of metal resources of its own. In 2011, the mainland produced 5.18 million tonnes of copper, with 2.6 million tonnes made from scrap, mostly imported from the US. It is a sobering thought, and one of many that readers are left with at the end of a captivating book on an often-overlooked industry.