The author of Junkyard Planet demolishes myths and misconceptions about the junk recycling business.
ADAM Minter grew up with junk. He lived and breathed the scrap industry, literally.
It had this smell – “tangy like metal and thin like wire” is how he describes it. Every morning his father would take inventory: copper shavings, tubing, wire or aluminium cans, leftovers bought from factories, the local plumber or anyone looking to get rid of their trash for a buck. It would be sold to the highest bidder, often based overseas.
For a while, Minter helped run the family’s scrap business before wandering off the beaten path to become a journalist and ending up in China. And that was when all the pieces began falling into place.
Suddenly, scrap was more than just hunks of metal, bales of paper and heaps of plastic. It became something else – a pair of rubber slippers, a car, window frames or bathroom fixtures from highrises.
It was on a freelance writing assignment in Foshan, Guangdong Province, that Minter first caught a glimpse of the bigger picture. Some women were stripping insulation off wire cables just like the ones his family exported to China.
Except this time, they were in China. That’s when it clicked.
Minter had always known junk had value, but it was in 2002 that he began to appreciate how it was fuelling economies, becoming the fabric of development for emerging markets such as China and India.
In 2012, over half the copper China produced came not from mines, but from junk. In other words, it processed a whopping 2.75 million tonnes of scrap copper, 70% of which was imported, mostly from the United States. The story of the world’s scrap – recycled copper wire, dirty rags, plastics, etc – is more fascinating than you think.
And Minter has spent the last 10 years piecing it together. He thinks he may have visited more than 150 recycling facilities, scattered across a couple of dozen countries, and that’s being conservative.
In one sense, it took him 18 months to write Junkyard Planet, the first in-depth look at this remarkable industry in the context of today’s globalised economy. And if it wasn’t for the fact he came from junk, he may never have truly appreciated the scale and far-reaching implications of the industry, nor convinced the men and women behind it to open their doors to him. So in another sense, you could say it has taken a lifetime.
The same wherever you go
As a journalist, Minter cut his teeth on a variety of topics.
It was his series on the Catholic church in communist China, published in The Atlantic, which really got him noticed as a writer.
The subject fascinated him for reasons similar to why the recycling industry does, too: he’s attracted to subjects everyone assumes they know everything about.
“It’s the stuff people think is very black and white … it’s always more complicated than that … and that’s what the scrap industry is for me.”
Recently back from a spate of book promotions in Britain, where he gave talks at the House of Commons, Cambridge, and the Royal Society, Minter spoke to The Star at its Petaling Jaya headquarters. “My wife’s family reads The Star,” he says with a smile.
Though based in Shanghai (where he’s a correspondent for Bloomberg World View) he travels frequently, including visits to South-East Asia and Malaysia, where his wife’s family is from. He’s visited e-waste recycling facilities in Penang, steel processing factories in Thailand and various other sites in his effort to connect the dots.
But what’s interesting is that wherever he goes in the world, it’s always the same. Take India, for example: “India is far less developed than China at this point. But the things I’m seeing … in India right now, are the things I saw going on in China 10 years ago.
“And it’s the same with Brazil, I’ve been there a few times in the last three or four years, and the same sorts of processes are being used in the industry over there too.”
The recycling industry is something that has evolved organically – when you’re poor and have access to cheap labour, you do things a certain way. And when you’re developed and wages are high, that’s when mechanisation tends to happen.
In his book, Minter describes the Houston Material Recovery Centre, a giant, whirring sorting facility that uses infrared sensors to machine-gun plastic bottles off speeding conveyors.
China is moving in that direction. Manual skilled labour used to cost about US$100 (RM332) a month; now the same Chinese scrapyard worker makes US$800 to U$900 (RM2,660-RM2,990) a month.
“Now China is starting to bring in the same kinds of technologies that are being used in the United States, the European Union and Japan.”
Minter is lucky. He gets into a lot of places because he’s been covering the industry for years. His background helps, too: “They assume, and correctly I think, that I’m going to give them a fair hearing.”
Trash isn’t the sexiest of subjects. So on the whole, it isn’t surprising that it took someone like Minter to finally uncover this amazing story about how an industry built on underdogs has given rise to a vast and efficient infrastructure through which society redistributes raw materials and moderates the need for destructive resource extraction.
Unfortunately, the mainstream journalists that do lock onto it are usually hungry for the other end of the stick – exposé-style pieces about the exploited “huddled masses”, or how the West is dumping all its waste on the developing world.
While it’s true that the recycling industry isn’t pretty, still, as Minter says: “The situation is far more complicated than the way it is usually depicted in these very simplistic news stories.
“People are not being dumped on. They’re not even being exploited.
“In fact, if anybody is being exploited it’s the Americans and Europeans foolish enough to sell this stuff to the Chinese and Indians, who then turn it into new products and sell (it) back to them!”
A lot of reports are just flat-out wrong, he says; they miss all the subtleties. And it’s exactly this sort of subject that Minter loves tearing apart, dissecting all sides of the story: “The recycling industry is not black and white. It’s very grey. It’s morally complicated, so I wanted to bring that out.”
Minter admits that the industry doesn’t do itself any favours.
It’s notoriously closed off, but there’s a reason for that.
Minter’s Russian-Jewish grandfather started at the bottom of the chain, picking rags off the street in Galveston, Texas before running his own scrapyard in Minnesota.
And there are two characteristics that Minter’s grandfather shared with other typical “grubbers”, people who rummage through trash for valuables. The first is the stigma attached to making a living out of garbage.
The second is that most people who deal in junk tend to be from marginalised communities, often immigrants and the poor.
It’s the same the world over, says Minter. In the United States it was the Italians and the Jews; in Shanghai, it’s the An Hui people, who come from the poor provinces. In other words, it’s a job often reserved for “outsiders”.
“People can be insecure about being depicted correctly, because of the stigma attached,” Minter adds.
He gets a kick out of environmentalists coming along and saying that we really need a recycling industry.
That’s because in his view, the industry has been massive for decades, and it’s not driven by green warriors preaching about recycling.
That’s not to say household recycling isn’t a good thing – it’s just that good intentions don’t turn old beer cans into new ones.
No, this billion-dollar industry exists for one thing, and one thing only: money.
“The only reason why there is a recycling bin is because somebody wants to make something new out of it,” he says.
The recycling industry wasn’t built on virtue, it’s a by-product. It exists because smart people like the late Leonard Fritz (whom Minter sees as one of the industry’s great heroes) saw a way to make money out of garbage, and because a continuing demand from consumers means there will always be a demand for cheap resources from manufacturers in places like China.
And as the prices of commodities and raw materials rise further, so too will the recycling industry grow.
One of the biggest challenges in the industry is the cost of extracting recyclable materials from non-recyclable sources, and this is largely a design problem.
At the moment, companies like Apple design for the consumer, not for ease of disassembly further down the line.
But Minter believes that as more manufacturers consider retaining some of that value from their waste by recycling their own products, they will eventually have that “light bulb moment” and design products that are easier to take apart.
This may not have happened yet, but the recycling industry is evolving. It is not as clean and green as most consumers might like to think, but as Minter says, the worst recycling is still better than the best mining, drilling and clear-cutting.
> Junkyard Planet is published by Bloomsbury Press. You can find out more about the book and its author at shanghaiscrap.com.