This review was first published on Beijing Cream on 18 November 2013
Junkyard Planet, the first book by Bloomberg Shanghai correspondent, Adam Minter, offers a look at the often unheard and unseen, $500billion global scrap and recycling industry. This is an industry which has formed in the shadow of burgeoning Western, and increasingly Chinese, consumerism. And it is an industry which links disposed Christmas tree lights from America’s mid-West with Shanghai and Shenzhen’s glistening sky-scrapers.
Minter is himself “a proud junkyard kid” from a Minneapolis scrap trading family, who established themselves through hard graft in the post-Depression period. This background has provided Minter with the connections and knowledge to offer us an invaluable insider perspective on this unknown trade. It also informs his somewhat Romanticised, American Dream-inspired perspective on the scrap and recycling industry.
The personalised voice of the book is also a key reason for the US-China focus. Minter first came to China in the mid-1990s whilst working for the family scrap business. It was a time when American consumption and its inevitable by-product, waste, was sky rocketing and a time when China, opening up to the world, offered willing and cheap labour for the dirty work of recycling. Since then the shipment of American waste to China has come to form the foundation of China’s huge recycling industry.
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, American scrap which came to China was broken down into its most useful elements and sold as raw materials to Chinese factories who would then use it to make products such as toys, tools and car engines for resale to America and the West. There is a neat ecosystem here, which Minter presents with unceasing enthusiasm.
In the last few years, however, the path of this scrap material has been changing. The products made, wholly or partially, from recycled American goods are increasingly sold within China. And one key metal, the electricity-conducting copper—the main recyclable from Christmas tree lights—is finding its resting place in China’s high speed train networks and in the wiring of China’s sprouting high-rise metropolises. In 2012, China accounted for 42% of the world’s copper demand.
Minter is in admiration of the scrap trade, its truly global reach and its ability to create wealth from junk—modern alchemy. He is, however, also concerned with the side effects if this industry. He speaks in particular of the environmental tragedies for which recycling is responsible, such as the transformation of Wen’an county in Beijing province from a “bucolic…agricultural region renowned for its streams, peach trees, and…rolling landscape” into a plastic-scented “dead zone.” Minter also expresses his concern, as would any human, at the devastating health effects of such toxic landscapes. The township of Guiyu, Guangdong, a hub of ‘e-waste’ recycling, has been reported as having a shocking 88% of children under six suffering from some form of lead poisoning.
There is a stark ambivalence, however, between these moral concerns and Minter’s more frequent hard-headed business outlook on the industry. It is hard to square, for example, the above fears of environmental pollution, labour conditions and health risks with his assertion, “whether I need the upgraded iPhone of not (and I really don’t), I want the upgraded iPhone.”
A moral ambivalence characterises the book throughout, in part because of the complexity of the global system Minter is describing, and in part because of his personally ambivalent position as both “junkyard kid” and journalist. Minter is not afraid to voice strong opinions, however. Most notably, he rails angrily against Apple for their concerted efforts to monopolise the repair and recycling of their products through making them too complex for untrained workers to dismantle.
Junkyard Planet offers an informed insight into a massive global system of trade of which very few of us are aware. The book is littered with surprising examples of what happens to our junk. In the end, Minter offers us a positive portrait of the unglamorous, often filthy and sometimes wealthy industry of recycling. He reminds us that, ultimately, “if China didn’t import…resources, it’d have to dig and drill them.” And we are all fully aware of the environmental damage that can cause.