Do you religiously recycle your stuff, but wonder what happens after the truck carts it away? Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter’s book about the trade in trash and recyclables, looks at how billions of dollars’ worth of usable materials (sometimes tossed after just a single use) gets collected, sorted, baled, sold and shipped off to recyclers, and reveals who is making a living harvesting the materials we pay to part with. He follows the trail all the way to the end, describing the people who pay a high price to pick apart and process (usually with bare hands) the valuable resources locked up in our waste. The book also includes color photographs of working conditions few Americans would tolerate.
Minter is uniquely qualified to write about this industry. He grew up in the family scrap business and now lives in China, where he serves as the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View. The book is part family history and part travelogue, as he accompanies Chinese scrap dealers crisscrossing the U.S., snapping up shipping containers’ worth of materials, including electronics that are tossed out by the tons every year. He also travels to Asia, where entire regions have dedicated themselves to recycling our scrap. Recycling brings much-needed employment to these often-impoverished areas and demonstrates the resourcefulness of the developing world, whose citizens repurpose, reuse and resell the stuff we consider “trash.” Minter describes these places, transformed from fertile rural backwaters to bustling, polluted urban centers where the labor is unregulated and the materials are toxic.
Adam Minter does not claim to be an environmentalist, and readers of that bent might be offended at his disdain of recycling, especially as practiced by well-to-do and well-meaning suburbanites. He does point out, however, that despite the toxic effects of some overseas materials processing, the developing world is doing what people in America used to do before things got so disposable: They are using brains and initiative to reuse perfectly good stuff. For all our talk about sustainable lifestyles and “going green,” Minter says, the people who buy our leftovers might be teaching us a lesson or two.