Junkyard Planet — Adam Minter

I wish I’d read Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade when it came out: it’s both informative and, sometimes, strangely lyrical, which I wasn’t expecting in a book about the scrap metal business. You may think a book titled “Junkyard Planet” is boring, and I anticipated precisely that and was proved wrong. For Minter the scrap business is tied up with his family: he grew up in in the industry, so, like a writer from a restaurant family, he gets things most journalists don’t, or wouldn’t (“Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of wandering among the family junk inventory, often with my grandmother, finding treasures:” a sentence few of us can utter).

He’s also refreshingly direct about costs and benefits; many writers want to condemn the global recycling trade because of the obvious pollution produced in China. But Minter goes the extra step and asks: why do things exist as they do? Will exist this way in the future?

This book aims to explain why the hidden world of globalized recycling and reclamation is the most logical (and greenest) endpoint in a long chain that begins with the harvest in your home recycling bin, or down at the local junkyard. There are few moral certainties here, but there is a guarantee: if what you toss into your recycling bin can be used in some way, the international scrap recycling business will manage to deliver it to the person or company who can do so most profitably.

It turns out that “Huge, mind-bending, Silicon Valley-scale fortunes have been built by figuring out how to move the scrap newspapers in your recycling bin to the country where they’re most in demand.” Did you know that? Me neither. I learned from every page. It also turns out that for a couple decades following World War II, most dead cars were simply discarded in vast junkyards or chucked wherever they could be concealed. It took China decades in turn to go through all that American scrap (“the world’s most recycled product (by weight) isn’t a newspaper, a notebook computer, or a plastic water bottle—it’s an American automobile, most of which is metal”).

By the way, there are many important reasons to choose electric or plug-in electric cars, but one of them is the car’s valuable battery. Even in a decade or two, when the battery is likely to be too depleted for automotive use, it’s still likely to be valuable as grid storage. Seriously: “
Why Used Electric Car Batteries Could Be Crucial To A Clean Energy Future
.” Individual choices today are going to matter a decade or two from now.

For now, though, there are two major ways to get raw materials for new goods:

Digging mines was one way to obtain those raw materials; the other was to go to the United States, the place that many scrap traders call the Saudi Arabia of Scrap, the land where there’s more scrap than the people can handle on their own. It’s a funny nickname, Saudi Arabia of Scrap, but it’s not meant as a compliment. Rather, it’s an opportunity to exploit.

Think about this quote, too, every time you hear about a “shortage” of some commodity (nickel, cobalt, poorly named “rare earth” metals). A “shortage” usually means that someone doesn’t want to buy at a given price. You’ll know there’s really a shortage of something when you can sell old laptops, phones, or computers to Best Buy for a couple bucks. Right now, it’s not profitably enough to pay for out-of-date electronics. If and when it is profitable enough, you’ll be able to sell them—and profit will likely motivate more than green signaling.

By the way, what China is doing now is what the U.S. did more than a century ago; in the nineteenth century,

The U.S. was not yet scrapping its old infrastructure, [. . .] so it looked abroad to Europe [. . .] for raw materials. According to data culled by Carl Zimring, U.S. imports of scrap iron and steel grew from 38,580 tons in 1884 to 380,744 tons in 1887—a tenfold increase during, not coincidentally, a railroad building binge.

There are many more points of interest in the book. The total amount of recycling going on is much greater than I imagined, but it’s primarily happening behind the scenes and far behind the headlines.

In some ways, Junkyard Planet tells a circular story: each developing country goes from poor and a tremendous importer of “junk” (which is not actually junk), then moves up the value chain towards wealth and producing more apparent junk than it consumes. The obvious question is, “When will the world run out of poor, developing countries?” One hopes the answer is, “Soon.”

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