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The fascinating journey of junk

Junkyard Planet details the massive global recycling industry

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January 23rd, 2014
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In 1960, Americans recycled 5.6 million tons of waste. Fifty years later, that number had risen to 65 million tons. Clearly, we have gotten the message about being good stewards of the planet. Drive down any street in America on trash pickup day, and you’re sure to see those ubiquitous blue recycling bins alongside the residents’ regular garbage cans. 

The journey

You may be surprised to learn that much of your recyclable waste is being shipped halfway around the world—to places like China and India and Malaysia—where it is sorted, processed, and turned into something useful. For example, waste paper is transformed into cardboard boxes for new Nike shoes. Some of those Nike shoes will be shipped back to the United States and sold in stores. Think about it. The box your new Nikes comes in may have been made using your recycled newspaper…in China.  

Global recycling is a $500 billion dollar annual endeavor—one that employs more workers than any other industry in the world with the exception of agriculture. Plastic bottles, waste paper and aluminum cans are just the tip of the recycling iceberg. Journalist Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World, lays out the dynamics of the global recycling industry in his book Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (Bloomsbury Press). 

Christmas tree lights

While the visual evidence of recycling is most obviously the blue recycling bins, the waste material placed in those bins makes up only 15% of our recycling efforts. Not surprisingly, automobiles are the largest source of recycling components. In between, there are many items that you may be surprised to learn are recyclable. Take, for example, Christmas tree lights. 

In Junkyard Planet, Minter details the long journey a string of holiday lights takes once it no longer works. The green vinyl on the outside of the light string is stripped off and used to make a low-grade plastic—the kind of plastic that makes great slipper soles. The other main component of Christmas tree lights is copper—a commodity in great demand by computer and electronics manufacturers. It’s so valuable it makes the process of reclaiming the relatively small amount of copper found in a string of lights worth all the trouble and expense to harvest it. 

There are a multitude of reasons why it makes sense to ship used Christmas tree lights and other waste around the globe to recycle it. First and foremost, is the trade imbalance. 

“It costs about $2,400 to send a shipping container from China to the U.S.,” says Minter. “But when those containers get to Los Angeles, there’s not much opportunity to ship them back to China. We just don’t make that much stuff to fill them. So shipping companies discount those containers by a lot. It’s about $300 for the container’s return trip. That’s a huge subsidy for anyone who wants to export to China. One industry that has taken huge advantage of that is the American recycling industry.”

The downside

Beyond the economics, the generally looser environmental laws and the availability of cheap labor allows other countries to do the work that could not legally be done in the United States. That is the downside of the recycling industry—the toll it takes on workers’ health and the environment. 

The realities of the global recycling industry are sure to trouble many. Minter says that even the worst recycling is better for the environment that mining. “If you really want to do something about this, the best way is to reduce your consumption,” he says. “By decreasing your consumption, you are going to put less stress on raw material demand. There will be less demand if you are buying fewer soup cans. Most people aren’t willing to do that, so the next step would be to start reusing things. Use products that are more sustainable.” 

Junkyard Planet also explores advances in the recycling industry. One of the most interesting chapters in the book details a visit to Huron Valley Steel Corporation in Belleville, Mich., the world’s largest recycler of shredded nonferrous metals. In its efforts to reap every ounce of usable material from an old car, Huron Valley has devised an ingenious method of harvesting the roughly $1.65 of loose change found between the seats in most junkyard cars. 

Family connection 

Minter has a special connection to his subject matter. His great, great grandfather was a Russian Jewish immigrant who arrived in the U.S. at the turn of the century “with nothing in his pocket,” says Minter. “He started out as a rag picker…he went from rags to picking other types of trash, metal and paper…and that grew into a full-scale junk business.” The family scrap business is still in existence in Minneapolis. “Even though I’m not in the scrap business now, I do cover it, and good, investigative journalism is a very similar business in that it’s all about finding that hidden treasure buried in reams of data.” 

Minter dedicated the book to his grandmother Betty Zeman. “I’ll tell you,” he says. “All the garage sales and scrap metal picking with my grandmother really became reflected in my outlook in life and on journalism.”

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