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Delve into the recycling industry and you’ll find a lucrative, dangerous place with China as the world’s binman
When Americans send off their discarded computers for recycling, a quarter of the hard drives have been used for just 500 hours. The developed world may convince itself that it is becoming “green”, but its capacity for wastefulness remains breathtaking and shameful.
Adam Minter guides us into the $500 billion world of backstreet bin-scavengers, scrap metal traders, and container ships loaded with used Christmas lights. In his hands, the stinking machinery that pulverises, grinds, strips and shreds becomes almost musical. The ingenuity and graft of the recyclers — the millions who make up the world’s largest industry after agriculture — are presented as heroes saving the planet from drowning in its own trash.
What goes on unseen by consumers is fascinating. The “upstream” processes that produce the goods we buy are fertile material for reportage, largely because corporations and their marketing departments are skilled at disguising the origins of everything. The iPhone, which Minter uses as a symbol of developed-world throwaway consumerism, is a culmination of manufacturing processes that include perilous copper mines, toxic plastic factories and coal-burning power plants.
What sets Junkyard Planet apart from similar books is that Minter comes from a family of American scrap dealers. This explains the passion that infuses the research and his highly personal approach to what he is reporting. Sometimes it is excessive; sometimes it obscures the point he is making. Mostly, though, it makes a book about rubbish palatable.
Cleaning up someone else’s garbage, he remarks from some grim Chinese recycling centre, is a dangerous business. Every old piece of plumbing, every used computer, is another opportunity for someone to be injured.
Junkyard Planet is peppered with stunning figures. America, we learn, recycled 46 million tons of paper and cardboard in 2012, and in so doing saved 1.53 billion cubic yards of landfill. China’s recycling of non-ferrous metals between 2001 and 2011 saved the country the need to excavate 9 billion tons of ore. (On a smaller point, the average junked automobile in the US contains $1.65 in loose change; with 14 million cars scrapped a year, that’s $20 million of easy money for the recyclers.)
Minter’s travels take him to Thailand and India, and he makes asides on the peculiar national characteristics of certain countries when it comes to their relationship with junk. Japan, he notes, blindly ships a colossal volume of scrap metal to China because, he says, it “can’t be bothered” to sort it out domestically. Egypt’s “Twitter revolution”, he believes, would not have happened if there were not such a vigorous global recycling market providing Egyptians with computers and phones originally from the West.
Primarily, though, this is a book focused on the US (as the per capita world leader in rubbish production), and China (as the world’s largest producer of rubbish by volume and home of the world’s largest junkyards). There are two strands to this relationship. The first is China’s history as America’s binman: scratching the small profits available from recycling huge quantities of rubbish. From the high-end processing plants that separate precious copper wire from its plastic insulation the journey rumbles to Wen’an, the irretrievably polluted county outside Beijing where the world’s addiction to plastic is bringing premature death to the wheezing workers who recycle it.
But the second strand is how China’s economic boom is also making it a more vigorous disgorger of garbage. China’s expanding middle class emerges as the culprit in this: between 2000 and 2008, China’s pre-packaged food industry grew by 11 per cent. In 2010 it became the biggest consumer of computers and electronic gadgets: today, China throws out 160 million appliances every year.
At the same time, China’s economic growth has made it an increasingly voracious consumer of what it recycles. With the same zeal that it scours the globe for natural resources, China has become an obsessive miner of the metal that ends up on its shores as rubbish. The copper it “mines” from a discarded American string of Christmas lights no longer returns to the US as the wiring in some other item, but is used to build Chinese railway cables or gizmos for the domestic market.
Minter uses this to highlight the changing fortunes of Chinese and US industry. Machinery motors that once whirred and roared in American factories are now heading to China — either to be re-used as motors in Chinese factories or for their copper to be melted down and turned into appliances for China’s consumerist middle class.
As the author notes a number of times in varying tones of despair, all the recycling in the world cannot change the fact that we need to consume less stuff. Recycling is no “get out of jail free card” for those who prefer consuming to conserving. Which turns out to be most of us.
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