Junkyard Economics - Energy Week


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For a writer whose prose owes to so many legends of muckraking, Adam Minter isn’t exactly disdainful of the subject in his latest book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade. As Shanghai correspondent for the Bloomberg World View blog, he details the ways that China is profiting from America’s waste. The accounts are quite subjective, and while Minter hardly wavers from his first person-driven voice, it’s a voice of authority. The veteran journalist is also the son of an American junkyard owner, and his upbringing follows along every step of the ride.

What then comes from Junkyard Planet is not an environmentalist screed against an unsustainable global industry, as its title might imply. After all, a title like Fast Food Nation doesn’t sound like the author has anything nice to say about McDonald’s.

Though the global economy of waste that Minter describes, while not exactly eco-friendly and in ways the author is happy to elaborate on, is neither the root of a problem nor a solution. As the author’s treatment delicately articulates, it’s one complicated situation that leaves plenty of food for thought for anyone from tree hugger to trade speculator.

For instance, it’s the holiday season, so why not start with Christmas tree lights? They’re among the most mediocre products in American industry, at least in the eyes of American recyclers. For one, the insulation in Christmas tree lights isn’t exactly worth writing home about, and neither is the amount of worthy metal inside them. The makeup of these small incandescent lights is only 28 percent copper, the raw material that’s most valuable for scrappers.

Yet for a nation like China, the largest global consumer of raw materials, even the slightest amount of material that may make American recyclers shrug is enough to see dollar signs. As Minter explains, China will buy up scores of American Christmas lights at 50 cents per pound and flip it on the global market where its value currently resides at about $3.33. Thanks to developed technologies that help separate the copper from Christmas lights far more efficiently than heavily regulated American recyclers can, American junkyards become the new Chinese goldmines.

“It’s something that, in America, would be tossed into a landfill,” explains Minter. “In China, that copper’s going to be recycled into everything from cookware, to wire, to brass figurines.”

Which sounds like music to the ears of environmentalists, but as Minter explains, different recycling methods from nation to nation make it hard to see the ecological integrity of these practices in terms of black and white – or, as he puts it, “black and green.” For instance, what many Americans fail to realize is that by placing items like Christmas lights in the recycling bins, they’re essentially outsourcing their mess to South China.

From there, facilities with far fewer standards and regulations come with the appropriate occupational hazards (i.e. harmful dust in the air and increased likelihood of bodily injury). On the other hand, they may exhibit some environmentally friendly practices, like good water circulation, and the use of ‘clean’ fluids to help break down the copper.

Thus it helps to approach the situation with a critical, but not outright damning, eye. It helps to make worthwhile comparisons and common sense assessments that Junkyard Planet presents.

“One way or another, for example, China is going to get this copper for making their new stuff,” says Minter. “They can get it out of, say, a mine in Chile, or a recycling factory in South China. In my opinion and in my experience, having been to hundreds of recycling facilities, mines, and oil wells all over the world, I can tell you the worst recycling is better than the best mining.”

Something that Minter touches on throughout both writing and speaking about junk is the dignity that comes with the work of reusing these materials. He takes some issue with the common tendency to depict workers in third world recycling facilities as exploited and oppressed. In his travels documenting their experience, he found with very rare exception that the work these individuals are doing isn’t all that different from the junkyard work of his childhood and multiple generations of Minters.

Cultivating an appropriate lens by which to judge exploited and not exploited, environmentally friendly and not environmentally friendly, Minter explores a multifaceted issue that transcends the universal misnomer of being a “problem.”

“I hope it sort of goes away from objectifying these places as doing something different than from what we all did and puts into more of an almost familial sense,” says Minter, reflecting on the maturity of the developing nations trying to better their practices, as well as his own childhood spent in the field.

“I mean, they’re just the younger kids growing up. As somebody who lives [in China], I wish they do things differently but they learn from their mistakes. But on the other hand, I can’t hold it against them that they repeat our mistakes. We did this too.”