Junkyard PlanetJunkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade
Adam Minter
Bloomsbury Press
1385 Broadway, Fifth Floor,
New York, NY 10018;
2013. 304 pages. Hardback $26.00; e-book $17.99.

Junkyard Planet is a fascinating and entertaining account of a global industry that few people acknowledge and even fewer comprehend, and it is hard to imagine anyone with better qualifications than Adam Minter to explain how it works and assess where it is taking us. As a self-professed environmentalist, Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View, and third-generation product of a well-connected Minneapolis mom-and-pop scrapyard company, Minter takes the reader on an insider’s tour of what drives this $500 billion engine of raw capitalism. The author’s personalized account is fast-paced and often amusing, if not hilarious. But he also conveys sobering reminders of humankind at the brink.

The “Saudi Arabia of Scrap” is what he calls the United States, functioning as a go-to source with a scrap-metal sector employing 138,000 workers—everyone from sorters and crushers, to buyers, packers, and shippers. But America is basically an exporter of scrap; China is where the real action takes place. China’s growing cities, emerging urban middle class, and even the national push to expand the high-speed rail system are buttressed by a determination to make the most (profit) of others’ discards.

Take, for example, items as inauspicious as discarded electric motors. Taizhou, a city of 4.5 million not far from Shanghai, is the heart of China’s reuse industry, where millions of electric motors from the United States and other countries await a second (or third) life. On a tour of one of several vendors’ markets, Minter is told that what cannot be repaired and reused is disassembled to the base metals and melted. Taizhou is the headquarters for Chiho-Tiande Group, the world’s largest motor recycler with a listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Taizhou enjoys the highest per-capita car ownership rate in the country, largely because the Chinese car maker Geely (which bought Volvo for cash in 2010) has a large manufacturing presence there. Everything from bicycles to refrigerators is manufactured in Taizhou and then shipped—not to the United States, but to shopping malls in Shanghai or towns in west China.

Traveling further afield to Penang, Malaysia, Minter is escorted through the huge facilities of Net Peripheral, a computer monitor refurbishing corporation. Here he views thousands of arrivals from a Vermont-based source—which has provided more than 300,000 monitors in just four years. Workers at Net Peripheral clip, poke, solder, and refurbish monitors for resale in the Middle East and Africa.

Eye-popping mountains of hissing refuse, bales of Christmas tree lights, computers, auto chassis, and coils are stacked on ships, warehouses, and loading docks. They add up to something that is unquantifiable—the universal drive for the comforts afforded by greater prosperity. Herein lies one of Minter’s conundrums about supply and demand and a maxim on planetary morality: the wealthier a country becomes, the “less likely it is to embrace the thrifty practices of its developing stages.”

Minter is of two minds. As a capitalist and junkyard aficionado, Minter harbors strong sympathies with consumer-driven capitalism, while the environmentalist in him worries about the limits of free markets. His anxieties are candidly revealed in a chapter ironically titled “Ashes to Ashes, Junk to Junk.” The unalterable fact, he reminds the reader, is that all sorts of stuff cannot be recycled indefinitely. Moreover, some stuff cannot be recycled at all. He cites reliable statistical surveys to underscore another nasty fact: people everywhere have a proclivity to generate unnecessary waste, even when they know better. Bad habits are hard to change.

Unrelenting pressures to feed, clothe, house, transport, and entertain 7.2 billion humans bespeak of wrenching conflicts between worldwide aspirations and resource scarcity. A solution—if indeed there is one—can be found in the first word of the environmentalists’ credo: “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” As the author admonishes, “there’s always the alternative: stop buying so much crap in the first place.”

Martin Zimmerman directs Green Mobility Planning Studio USA.