Consuming "Junkyard Planet"

A terrific book about recycling, China, and our interdependent globalized economy.

January 14, 2014

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter 

Published November, 2013.

How many cell phones have you disposed of in the last 10 years?  Computers?  Monitors?  Bundles of Christmas tree lights?  

If your household is anything like my own than your rate of electronic consumption / recycling / consumption has intensified.   All the electronic stuff that we recycle has a story, and Minter is the perfect person to tell it.

Adam Minter is a Shanghai-based journalist writing on the scrap industry for the scrap press.  (Yes, there is a scrap press, a set of sister publications and websites to the higher ed press.  Scrap journalists.  Scrap conventions. Scrap bloggers.  Who knew?).   Not only is Minter a journalist focused on recycling, he grew up in his family run scrapyard in Minneapolis.   My Dad was (and is) an academic, his Dad was a scrap man.   The apple doesn’t fall far.

The story of how China and the U.S. have built a multi-billion dollar partnership around recycling is truly fascinating.   The sheer size of the industry, the tons of electronic, metal, paper, plastic, and cardboard materials that flow from U.S. households to Chinese scrapyards is mind-boggling.   Minter is very good with statistics, with numbers, and with putting the global scrap trade in the context of the larger global economic flows.  

China, lacking in mineral and natural resources but needing to meet enormous demands from factories for raw materials, has pursued recycling as a national strategic priority.  Cheap migrant labor has allowed Chinese scrap yards to break down goods (such as Christmas tree lights for copper) that would be prohibitively expensive in the U.S.   The presence of Chinese factories making low-value but high raw-material content goods (metals, plastics, etc.) means a ready market for recycled scrap.   

Nor is all American recycling sent to China broken down to its component parts.   China leads the world in refurbishing and re-using goods (such as old computers, cell phones, and monitors) no longer wanted in the wealthy West.  As China develops, however, the population’s appetite for cast-off American electronic goods is waning.   The Chinese want the latest mobile phones and flat screen TVs that they are making in their factories for export.  Used electronic goods are now making their way to less developed areas of Africa and Southeast Asia.

Junkyard Planet is one of those terrific books that helps us understand how our world has become interconnected and interdependent.  It is also one of those books that helps us make sense of the underlying logic, and costs, of a society built around the consumption of goods - goods (particularly electronics) that are rarely made any longer in the U.S.   

Minter wants us to understand and consider the implications of our discarded goods.  To see the path that our discarded electronics takes through the global supply and re-use chain.  To get a glimpse of the people who touch (and break apart and sort) the stuff we drop into our recycle bins and drop-off at the dump or the recycling center.   To take some measure of the positive benefits to economic growth and employment balanced against the environmental and worker safety challenges associated with many of electronics that we recycle.

What are your favorite books about the hidden world’s that make possible our material culture?

What books would you recommend to make sense of global economic change and integration through the lens of a single industry?

What are you reading?


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