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.
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
few dusty but still colorful images of Hindu deities. As I sit, I watch scrawny men pour sand into the boxes of unheated molds and pack them tight with their bare feet, just a step or two away from the white-hot hole in the floor. On the other side of the room is a pile of Honey just waiting to be stuffed into the fire. The air is hot, filled with soot that chokes. I feel bad breathing it; I can’t imagine how it’d feel to inhale it for an eight-hour shift, much less a career. In the course of my
difference whether it’s achieved with American scrap, Japanese scrap, or European scrap. The important thing is that Taizhou has scrap—especially motor scrap—in endlessly arriving containers. This hunger, however, has started to have a very real, very troubling effect (if you’re in the motor scrap export business): there are fewer electric motors to import from abroad. Over breakfast David told me, “In the early eighties, I saw shiploads of motors, from the Chicago area, the Great Lakes area, and
from somewhere far away. Workers climb atop it and unload the pieces by hand, dropping parts and bags to the ground, where they’re inspected and weighed by two portly men with notepads. As we watch, our driver tells Josh that there were 120 metric tons of plastic on the trailer (a wild exaggeration), and that he makes the trip three times per month from Harbin, a city roughly six hundred miles away. We walk the length of the street, through dozens of salesmen, past a county-run scale that—the
twenty-five, takes a quick glance at my bag and shakes her head. I linger for a moment, and I guess I see her point: she has phones in her display case, yes, but none look nearly as old as mine. “Three-G,” she says with a nod. “Three-G.” My phones, for sure, lack 3G capability. They’re just good old solid dumb phones. If a migrant construction worker needs the ability to cruise the Internet with a phone, then that migrant should look elsewhere. But if he wants to call his mom on the weekend,