Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade
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When you drop your Diet Coke can or yesterday’s newspaper in the recycling bin, where does it go? Probably halfway around the world, to people and places that clean up what you don’t want and turn it into something you can’t wait to buy. In Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter--veteran journalist and son of an American junkyard owner--travels deep into a vast, often hidden, five-hundred-billion-dollar industry that’s transforming our economy and environment.
With unmatched access to and insight on the waste industry, and the explanatory gifts and an eye for detail worthy of a John McPhee or a William Langewiesche, Minter traces the export of America’s junk and the massive profits that China and other rising nations earn from it. What emerges is an engaging, colorful, and sometimes troubling tale of how the way we consume and discard stuff fuels a world that recognizes value where Americans don’t. Junkyard Planet reveals that Americans might need to learn a smarter way to take out the trash.
opportunity. Here at Hunan Vary, a company supported at the highest levels of the Chinese government, it’s both. Arranged throughout this newly built complex are disassembly lines devoted to the recycling of televisions and their associated wastes. It’s a complicated array, but the thing I notice first is that much of the space is devoted to stations where workers disassemble the televisions into their respective components—glass, copper, plastics. Afterward, some of the material is shipped
profiting from what steel mills tossed in the dump. By the late 1950s Leonard employed roughly 127 men, he told me, digging up dumps “all around the country.” It was hard work, but it allowed a small-time entrepreneur like Leonard Fritz to compete against some of the world’s biggest iron ore miners. After all, both businesses—the dump recovery specialists and the iron ore miners—served the same steel mills. Grubbing, however, is cheaper than mining, the sort of thing that a small-timer like
twentieth century, as Americans became largely self-sufficient in iron and steel scrap—throwing away as much as they consumed, in effect (all the while, iron ore remained the primary means of making iron and steel). Then, in the years leading up to World War I, Americans began to export modest amounts of steel scrap, mostly to Europe. This wasn’t a great shift—it would be two decades before the scrap steel export trade became a really big business—but it was a sign of a maturing, less desperate
big problem: he owned 40,000 tons of junk automobiles that he could not burn, and could not afford to strip by hand. But he absolutely had to unload them. One afternoon he boarded a flight from Salt Lake City to Omaha, and several hours and four screwdrivers later, he had a solution: shred them and then run the fragments over magnets to reclaim the steel. The idea wasn’t revolutionary, nor was it as crazy as it might sound now. Scrap companies had been shredding tin cans since 1928 (it was
cut between hills of gangly scrap metal. It’s ugly stuff, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in years of scrapyards: twisted, turned, and haunted like broken bones. I pause to get a closer look, and realize that the maze of metal is actually a pile of bicycle and motorcycle frames stripped of their tires, chains, and motors. They’re steel, rusty, bent, and bony, piled atop junk generated by China’s first wave of consumerism now gone to waste. Pieces of indistinct sheet metal stick out of the thorny