In the U.S., recycling is often pigeonholed as “green"—something to do if you personally care about the environment, but it's certainly not done for pure economic reasons.
That’s why many Westerners would be shocked to learn a simple fact: The recycling industry is worth $500 billion a year and employs more people than any other industry on the planet, except for agriculture.
This perception gap is the underlying driver of journalist Adam Minter’s new book, Junkyard Planet, coming out on November 12th. The book explores the often hidden world of the global recycling industry, with a focus on China, the mecca for the sector and where Minter, son of an American junkyard owner, has lived for the last decade.
Minter’s unmatched reporting takes the reader to places like the southern town of Shijiao, where scrappy entrepreneurs have built the “Christmas tree light recycling” capital of the world to feed China’s insatiable rubber and copper demand. Later, the book follows the trail of Johnson Zeng, a former plastics engineer who roams America in search of scrap, from old power lines to elevator wires, to export to waiting Chinese hands. It takes readers through the huge trade for the valuable components inside our tossed-away hard drives, monitors, and mobile devices, as well as more simple materials, such as plastics and paper.
In all, Minter visited more than 100 facilities to write the book, many of which took long periods of negotiations to gain access to. Above, you can see a slide show of images from Minter’s blog, “Scenes from A Junkyard Planet,” (some also appear in the book) that document his global travels in search of the world’s most valuable trash.
Over the course of his visits, Minter began to appreciate how the recycling machine has driven China’s “economic miracle” over the recent decades, just like cheap labor and the shift to more open free market policies. “China is relatively resource poor, and mining is very expensive,” he says. The five provinces in China that are most responsible for the country’s growth and reputation as the “workshop of the world,” he notes, are also the biggest importers of scrap metal and materials.
Minter has come to believe that recycling has gotten a bad rap, mostly because of media reporting. “It’s almost always the same story. Rich western countries are dumping their waste on poor developing countries. The poor people, often under-fed, are always shown working on devices we consider as ‘high-tech,’” says Minter. “This is a vast simplification of recycling. If anyone is being exploited, in some sense, it’s the people who don’t realize the true value of waste who are being exploited by the people who do recognize its value.”
There are poor conditions in some recycling facilities, Minter says, and he doesn’t excuse them because he’s seen them up close. But he says many people who work in these facilities aren’t in need of a job—there are huge labor shortages in China—rather, they are often making choices and are attracted by the wages or opportunities in the industry.
He notes: “The work almost never conforms to U.S. health and safety standards, and it’s going to be many years before it does—just like goods we buy in the United States are rarely produced in places that conform to these standards.”
Minter hopes that readers will view recycling in a different light after reading his book, and stop thinking of it as an “expatiation of their original consumer sin.” While the economic value generated by the industry is enormous, from an environmental standpoint, he says: “All recycling really does is hold off the garbage a little longer.” The “reduce” and “reuse” portions of the dogma are really where our focus should be, he believes.