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Our Most Surprising Export
It’s a dirty job, but someone's doing it. And for the health of the planet, that’s a good thing.

Adam Minter grew up in the scrap business, watching his father haggle with Minnesota street peddlers and hearing stories of his great-uncle bashing apart small motors to recover their copper. Now a Shanghai-based reporter for two magazines covering the global scrap industry, Minter asks Americans to reconsider their assumptions about recycling, revealing the gritty reality of a business that exists primarily to provide materials to markets hungry for resources at the best available price. This is, as you may have guessed, mostly a story about Chinese demand and first-world supply.

By Adam Minter, Bloomsbury, 304 pp., $26

In 2012 the United States exported more than 46 million metric tons of scrap metal, paper, rubber, and plastic. (Scrap has been America’s number one export, by value, to China for several years running, though it was bested in 2012 by record soybean sales.) Historically, these materials stayed in this country, to be reworked into new consumer products or, in the absence of markets, abandoned, landfilled, or burned. But rising labor costs, in concert with tighter environmental regulations and the constrained economy, gradually closed the vast majority of U.S. manufacturing plants.

On the other side of the world, meanwhile, China was rapidly industrializing. You can’t build highways, railroads, factories, and skyscrapers without an abundance of metals. China’s insatiable demand, coupled with willing hordes of low-cost laborers, lax environmental regulations, few import duties, and discounted shipping rates on “backhauls” from the United States to Asia (filling ships that would otherwise go back empty), conspired to turn China into the world’s biggest consumer of steel, copper, aluminum, lead, gold, silver, palladium, zinc, platinum, and rare earth elements. China is now the number one importer of American metals, plastics, and paper.

Minter has nothing but admiration for how the scrap trade has globalized. The industry “turns over as much as $500 billion annually” and employs more people than any other industry on earth except agriculture. He tours Wen’an County in Hebei Province, formerly bucolic farmland, where 20,000 mom-and-pop shops now wash, sort, and melt plastics derived from car bumpers, baskets, and crates. Workers send home wages that in turn send children to school. Roads get paved, buildings rise.

But Wen’an is also choked by traffic, polymer fumes, and grime, its young workers succumbing to pulmonary fibrosis and paralyzing strokes. Minter revels in presenting such paradoxes. Overall, he reminds us, this industrial-scale recycling is good for the earth. It keeps stuff out of landfills (135 million metric tons of material in 2012), and it prevents the mining or extraction of natural resources (oil and natural gas, in the case of the plastics). To get your hands on one ton of virgin copper requires processing 100 tons of ore, an energy-intensive process that rips up vast landscapes, contaminates waterways, and leaves sulfuric acid in its wake. As Minter says, after visiting a copper mine in Minnesota, why would anyone mine this metal when “there’s an endless supply of perfectly recyclable and reusable copper—worth billions!—available in the junkyards and recycling bins of America?” (The scrap may be here, but the means of transforming it aren’t: the last U.S. copper smelter shut down in 2000, and China is now home to the largest copper refining industry in the world. Why, you may be asking, is copper such a big deal? It’s essential in hybrid motors and wind turbines, and in transmitting information and energy, to name just a few of its uses.)

Minter travels far and wide, traipsing through trash heaps in India, the Middle East, Africa, Brazil, Taiwan, and beyond. He describes piles in scrapyards, piles in warehouses, piles in the front yards of shacks. He watches, awestruck, as a million-dollar machine in Indiana pulverizes cars into streams of ferrous and nonferrous metals, plastics, and glass, and he marvels as thousands of low-wage laborers in Asia unwind copper wires from small electric motors and hack the aluminum from discarded water meters.

At another workshop, he observes gloved hands sorting through “fingernail-sized flecks” of metal and tossing them into buckets. “Each piece, on its own, is nothing; each bucket is little more than nothing; but weeks and days of so much nothing can add up to millions of dollars,” Minter writes. The recycling of Christmas tree lights exemplifies the value of hand work and diverse markets: American scrappers gather the plastic- or rubber-coated wires, and when enough are accumulated, they are baled up and sold to Chinese importers, who in turn sell them to processors who pay workers to strip the strands and extract the copper. (Some companies even find a use for the discarded insulation: it goes into the soles of slippers.) The margin on these goods is often pennies, but handle 10 million pounds a year and ... you get the picture.

Junkyard Planet is an affirmation of the transformative power of capitalism. As waste travels the world, economies grow, livelihoods improve, and stuff that looks like “borderline trash” morphs into crucial raw materials. After a decade on his beat, Minter has dozens of Chinese banquets’ worth of contacts to support this narrative. However, while he dines and travels with the captains of industry, he spends no time with the people wearing the work gloves after they leave their posts in factories and shops. To be sure, Minter observes dangerous workplace conditions, but he doesn’t ask laborers how those conditions affect them personally. There’s an assumption here that the workers, many of whom labored on farms for subsistence wages before processing facilities pushed them off the land, are better off today. As a researcher with China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection told the author, Chinese workers have more pressing problems than illness triggered by fumes and acids: food security and safety, for example. But aren’t all these things connected?

Minter doesn’t linger on these issues. If Americans are worried about the well-being of plastics workers, he suggests they think twice about buying disposable plastics in the first place, then urge corporations that use recycled plastic in their packaging to seek less-polluting suppliers. Prohibiting the export of plastics to Wen’an or electronics to Guiyu, a town criticized by eco-activists for lax health and safety standards, won’t improve conditions for laborers, Minter says. But raising their standard of living will.

Minter has great affection for this much-maligned industry. And who can resist the archetypal appeal of spinning mountains of gold from endless streams of straw? Like an exploded-view diagram, Junkyard Planet illuminates how this system moves massive amounts of material to manufacturers who will make use of it, diminishes demand for mining and drilling, and lifts millions from poverty along the way. Proponents of relocalization—and the owners of domestic plants and mills hungry for more plastics, paper, metals, and electronic waste—may wish this activity happened closer to home, but Minter explains carefully why it does not.

Of course there are downsides to the global scrap trade, beyond its carbon footprint and the outsourcing of jobs. It can be difficult to track where things end up, who is handling them, and how. This is especially important when considering plastics and electronic waste, which involve so many toxic materials and processes. Yes, oversight of environmental and human health impacts should be much tighter, but responsibly repurposing, refurbishing, and recycling these goods is, on the whole, far better for the planet than the alternative: incinerating or burying them, and then extracting new materials in order to make more. Refurbishing used electronics, a significant part of the global trade in e-waste, also provides low-cost devices to millions who would otherwise go without.

One might wish that recycling didn’t enable planned obsolescence, or spur the production and consumption of consumer goods bound, in short order, to be landfilled, or let producers off the hook for generating excessive and disposable packaging. But the process also produces valuable and essential goods, stuff that developed nations aren’t going to give up and developing nations want their share of. It’s easy to rue the despoliation of Wen’an and vow to consume less—Minter actually suggests this—but at least the American detergent bottles and bumpers piled up there will be incorporated into new goods, unlike the stuff that never gets collected for recycling in the first place.

Junkyard Planet is an often startling look at a secret world of grubbers and scrappers, men and machines. Yes, it contains contradictions, and Minter’s assumption that American tree-huggers are clueless about why and how recycling happens can be irritating. But his central message is solid: those grubbers and scrappers are essential if we’re going to continue consuming and disposing at anything like the current rate.

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image of Elizabeth Royte
OnEarth contributing editor Elizabeth Royte also writes for the New York Times Book Review, which called her "no stranger to the pleasures and perils of chasing errant pieces of plastic and other castoffs to surprising (and often disgusting) places." She's the author of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It and Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. MORE STORIES ➔