When I picked up Junkyard Planet, a book with a bright cover showing a huge heap of garbage (see the image above), I was expecting to find a doom-and-gloom depressing story about how we are creating far too much garbage, our current lifestyle is unsustainable, and how our world is basically going to fall apart in the near future because of our current practices.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this book is nothing like what I expected.
Instead of focusing on doom and gloom, Junkyard Planet is written from the first-person observations of Adam Minter, a man who grew up in a junkyard (his father owned a local scrapyard in Minneapolis, Minnesota). Adam talks about how the junk trade, once a small and local process, has been profoundly affected by the process of globalization. It’s too expensive here in America to recycle anything – but all of that garbage has a ton of value overseas.
America shreds and stores its trash, from paper to old automobiles to thrown-away Christmas lights, and sends these bales of recycling over to China in returning shipping containers (that once brought Chinese-made goods to our shores). In China, where the labor is cheap, these items are broken back down into their components, mostly metal – and then turned into new items to be sold to America.
The recycling trade is vast, extensive, cutthroat, and always balanced on a knife’s edge. Even tiny shifts in the prices of commodities can make – or break – a trade. And there’s always competition for the rich resources of America; Chinese traders will cut each other’s deals to the bone to be the one who walks away with a shipping container, often containing hundreds of thousands of dollars of raw metal.
The recycling trade is, by no means, clean. Especially in developing countries, there’s an abysmal lack of safety regulations, and many people develop diseases or die early because of their exposure to heavy metals or breathing in of toxic fumes. Yet still, these recycling jobs often pay more than anything else, by huge margins.
It takes nearly 1,000 tons of gold ore from a mine to harvest one ton of gold. But that same one ton of gold can be harvested from merely 41 tons of cell phones and other electronic devices, where gold is used for circuit board connections. There is huge wealth, almost all of which is extracted in one way or another.
It’s not a clean or environmentally friendly process – but nearly everything is recycled, in one form or another.
Time to read: About a week, in chapters here and there, mostly before bed.