To recycle or to dump, that is the question.
Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade
by Adam Minter 2013
Five of five stars *****
Where do the millions of tons of recycled goods end up and what is made from them? Where do old cars end up once they no longer can be fixed? How do we keep our landfills from bursting at the seams while recovering valuable materials from our junk?
This fascinating book, by a man who grew up in the scrap metal business, shows an insider's perspective in the amazingly lucrative world of recycling, where a few millionaires gain fortunes while others sift through other people's junk to make a bare, subsistence living.
The United States has been called the Saudi Arabia of scrap, where more junk is generated per capita than almost anywhere else in the world. As nations become more prosperous, they toss out more things sooner, to make room for more and more purchases yet to come. In poorer nations, there is much less waste, and some have found ways to make lemonade out of other nations' lemons.
Mining things like copper, aluminum, and petroleum products is very destructive to the environment as well as expensive, dangerous, and wasteful. Aluminum, one of the most popular metals because of its strength and lightness, is notoriously hard to make from raw materials, so much so that up to 65% of aluminum is now recycled into other aluminum. But petroleum products like plastics are much harder to recycle. Less than 25% of plastic water bottles end up recycled, and unlike metal, the uses for recycled plastic are more limited.
Junkyard Planet takes you behind the scenes of the scrap industry, where things like Christmas tree lights, car engines, and electronic waste are bought and sold in an international market unlike any other. Much of the action in this book takes place in China, where the author has lived for years and what was up until recently the hub of the global recycling industry. Minter follows Chinese scrap dealers as they travel the United States looking for the next big purchase of piles of scrap metal, plastic and paper.
China became the home of recycling for three huge reasons. One, they have a huge population of people who are willing and able to do the hard work of salvaging the valuable materials from the piles of junk that are shipped there. They have cheap, skilled labor. Two, because China manufactures so much of the world's stuff now, all sent out on huge ships in huge metal boxes, there are all these empty boxes that need to come back to China after dropping off their loads. These empty shipping containers are perfect for carrying trash from the nations that just bought the consumer goods, at a cheaper rate than it would cost to ship on land from one city to another. And three, China has had one of the fastest growing economies in the world, which makes them hungry for raw materials with which to build infrastructure, buildings, and cars. It makes more sense for the Chinese to utilize their cheap labor to get the raw materials needed for growth.
(Unfortunately, this book was written in 2013, before China changed their minds and stopped accepting plastic and paper trash in 2018, which has thrown the entire recycling industry into chaos.)
The author goes into some disturbing details of how plastic and e-waste are treated by Chinese peasants, showing how the dangerous chemicals have polluted entire towns and poisoned populations who are just trying to get by and survive. The Chinese government has apparently looked away from many of these problems given that cities like Shanghai have notoriously polluted air. The changes in Chinese policies since the book was published may have stemmed from stories such as this. From what I can tell, some of the problems have since migrated to other third world countries like Bangladesh, India, and Sudan, where eager cheap labor can still be found.
One of the most fascinating chapters of the book details the giant car shredders in Michigan, which convert entire automobiles into giant piles of metal, upholstery, and even a few spare coins that get salvaged every time. They use magnets to drag out the iron content, and then sell the rest, known as shredded non-ferrous (SNF) to others that will process shredded car innards for what they can find. Some are hand-sorted in poor countries, or machine sorted by sophisticated computers.
Each American generates approximately 6 pounds of trash per day. Of that, about 25% is recycled and 75% is either burned or sent to a landfill. Having always been a big recycler, I was expecting to hear about how great it is for the planet. It's not that simple. According to the author, the best answer for the planet might be to reduce consumption first. Recycling is messy, energy-wasting, and sometimes hazardous to health. If you can't reduce, then you need to look for ways to re-use items until they can't be used anymore. Much of the electronics that end up in China end up being cleaned up and sent out again for third world citizens who need inexpensive phones and computers. Taking computers or phones apart and salvaging their precious metals is next to impossible. Only the computer chips are valuable enough to be recycled.
According to the author, in some ways recycling can actually be BAD for the planet. The mere act of throwing a plastic bottle in a recycling bin makes us feel so good about ourselves that we are more likely to consumer MORE things than we otherwise would have. Minter describes psychological tests where people used up more materials when they knew recycling was an option, and it makes sense. We feel guilty wasting things, and recycling bins give us a "get out of jail free" card.
This book is an eye-opening look into the ways we use, waste, and reuse stuff. It made me realize that recycling is valuable but not the solution to our environmental woes by itself. Manufacturers especially need to focus on making their products more reusable and recyclable, and consumers need to demand more of it. At some point in the not-too-distant-future we may start running out of natural resources and be swimming in rivers of trash. The need to close the circle- here and with climate change- is the ultimate challenge of the 21st century.