Book Quote:

“Copper wire is bought, sold, chopped, and sorted until it reaches a new place–and a stage–where somebody can afford to make it into something new. The chain is commonplace: refrigerators, plastic bottles, and old textbooks follow the same path, the only difference being the processes used to turn the used-up goods into raw materials, and the locations of the people and companies who want to buy the results.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (DEC 13, 2014)

It was probably just a coincidence that we put up our holiday lights today. The setting up of the twinkling bulbs is probably as much of an annual tradition as its other unfortunate side-effect: practically every year, we discover some strands that just don’t work. Now imagine the same scene being played out in every American household. That’s a lot of unwanted strands of Christmas lights. As it happens bales upon bales of these get exported to China, where workers set upon them stripping the wires free of insulation to get at the copper that is one of the most valuable raw commodities a booming China needs. The demand for raw goods — copper, steel, aluminum — in rapidly growing countries like China is fueling a global demand for all kinds of scrap be it metal, plastic and even rags (white rags can be turned into paper).

Adam Minter’s lively account of these peregrinations of our discards around the world make for fascinating reading. He visits scrapyards in China, India and countries in Africa, emphasizing the point that goods will flow to places where it can be shipped most cheaply and for the most net profit. So it is that India imports scrap not from the United States, but from Dubai. Why? Because India exports a lot of foodstuffs to Dubai and when those containers return, they come loaded with scrap from the middle-eastern country. It’s the same method that works for China and the United States. Minter adroitly points out the symbiotic relationship between these two large economies. American consumption of cheap Chinese goods means huge shipping containers departing for American shores from China. Scrap left over after all that consumption is then shipped to China in these same (now) empty containers. For those who worry about American scrap being shipped “all the way to China,” — Minter points out that these containers would be moving back and forth anyway. It’s just that now on the return journey, they get filled with scrap culled from multiple American outlets.

Each chapter is devoted to a particular kind of scrap — copper metal/wires, steel, plastics, even e-waste. Along the way we get to meet all kinds of interesting players and learn fun facts (trivia lovers, rejoice!). For example, did you know that in the scrap industry, Talk is shorthand for “aluminium copper radiators,” Lake for “Brass arms and rifle shells, clean fired,” and Taboo for “mixed low copper aluminum clippings and solids?” Even if it could have used some more detail into the hows of the various kinds of recycling, Junkyard Planet is still a great read. Excellent pictures complement an already powerful story.

Junkyard Planet is especially good at painting a complex picture of recycling, the morality behind doing the right thing (with respect to recycling) and our consumption. It should be noted that this is not a preachy book. The son of scrap metal dealers, Minter has a fondness for the industry that any regular outsider might not, and as a journalist, he lends interesting insights while painting a picture that’s more grey than black and white. For example, when he visits Wen’an County in China where a plastics recycling industry was in full force, and where environmental standards and workers’ safety issues were blatantly disregarded, Minter is quick to add that for many workers here, these jobs were actually a step up. While this might indeed be the case, Minter is sometimes too ready to condone some of these more atrocious acts of violations. His “who are we to judge especially because we are such eager consumers” attitude might be a worthy journalistic outlook but it washes over the crimes too easily sometimes.

The true problems can really be solved only when living standards rise, he points out, and when more pressing issues that face every developing country–food safety, proper nutrition, and clean water–are solved first. No one can really argue with that thesis. But this list fails to overlook the fact that workers’ safety and environmental standards on the one hand and the attainment of these other “must-dos” on the other, need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, they’re quite interdependent.

One of the most sobering lessons that Junkyard Planet delivers with precision (and with excellent bedside manners) is that recycling is not really a get-out-of-jail-free card for consumption. “Boosting recycling rates is far less important than reducing the overall volume of waste generated–recyclable or otherwise,” Minter writes. Amen to that!

A couple of days ago, we received a card in the mail that advertised the services of a company that would take away our metal scrap for free. Old and rusted appliances were their friends, they said. Thanks to Junkyard Planet, we now know what fate these appliances actually meet. Adam Minter’s journalistic account is an intriguing and eye-opening account of one of the many gears that keeps the world economy going.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 14 readers
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury Press; 1 edition (November 12, 2013)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: The Personal Blog of Adam Minter
EXTRAS: NPR interview with Adam Minter


December 13, 2013 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: China, Non-fiction

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