A trashy tale

Updated: 2013-12-01 06:49

By Belle Taylor(China Daily)

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A man born into the US 'junk business' has become a Shanghai journalist whose new book investigates the shifting global recycling industry centered in China. Belle Taylor reports.

Adam Minter grew up in trash - and loved it. "You get families who are old money. I come from old junk," Minter says, with a laugh. "My great-grandfather Abe Leder came to the United States, and, like a lot of Russian Jewish immigrants, he had nothing. He couldn't do anything so what do you do when you can't do anything? You junk," Minter says.

By the time he was born, the family owned a mid-sized scrapyard in Minneapolis, buying old cars and construction waste and selling it at a profit.

Leder's great-grandson did not pursue scrap as a career. But, as a journalist based in Shanghai for the best part of the past decade, Minter found himself drawn to report on the industry he was raised in. He has channeled everything he has learned from a lifetime of hanging around scrapyards into a book. Junkyard Planet is a fascinating, informative and at times surprisingly funny look at the global recycling industry through the eyes of someone with an insider's knowledge and an outsider's perspective.

A trashy tale

"I love what my grandmother called 'the junk business'," Minter writes in Junkyard Planet. "Some of my earliest and happiest memories are wandering around the family junk inventory, often with my grandmother, finding treasures."

The junk business, perhaps best known as recycling, is the second biggest global employer after agriculture. It's an industry that encompasses millions of people, from "grubbers" picking through trash in the slums of Mumbai to scrap merchants in the US haggling over the cost of a bucket of copper to millionaire businessmen tracking the price of nickel in Hong Kong skyscrapers.

"When you tell people half the copper in China comes from recycled resources, they are flabbergasted and they are fascinated because they tend to think - at least Americans and Europeans tend to think - of this as a niche industry," Minter says.

"I always think of it as this hidden backstory of globalization. We all think of the PC that's assembled (in China) but it all comes back. And how you take it apart is as compelling and important a story in globalization as how you put it all together."

According to Minter, the neat piles of old newspaper and empty cans in recycling bins outside suburban houses in the West are just a tiny part of a global industry that turns old into new. And China is at the center of it.

China's industrialization and economic modernization sparked huge demand for raw materials. And while the mining industry boomed, so did the scrap business.

In the 1980s, Chinese entrepreneurs started to see potential in the US junk. They began buying scrap stateside and shipping it back to China. There, all that copper, steel, aluminum and plastic could be melted down and sold to factories that used those materials to make new products destined for the US market.

It's this story that's at the core of Junkyard Planet, although Minter also travels to other Asian scrap hot spots, like India.

A trashy tale

Scrap is not an industry free from controversy. While the green movement champions recycling, the process of breaking down a product to access the raw materials is often less than green.

"Recycling is a morally complicated act," Minter says.

"We all like to think that if we take a Coca-Cola can and we throw it in that green bin, suddenly, we have received expiation for that original consumerist sin, it's going to green heaven, but it's not that simple. You haven't just put that bauxite back into the ground. All you've done is send it back into a less energy-intensive process," Minter says.

"There is a cost to consumption, no matter if that consumption comes from recycling or comes from virgin materials. I always say: 'The worst recycling is still better than the best mining'."

Minter says China's demand for scrap has shaped the industry for the past 30 years. And China will continue to be a major influence - but perhaps for a different reason. As Chinese buy more, they are also throwing out more, creating the type of waste that was once shipped in from the US and Europe.

"The most recyclable material in the world is automobiles and China is now buying more cars than anybody," Minter says. "The US exports a lot of automobile scrap to China. If China is producing its own (automobile scrap), then there is going to be a lessening of the demand (in China). And then the question is: What does the US do with its scrap? What does Europe and Japan do with it? China's consumers are about to be a very disruptive force in that market."

One thing is for sure - this scrapyard kid from Minneapolis will be keeping a close eye on just what happens to the world's junk.

Contact the writer at belletaylor@chinadaily.com.cn.

 A trashy tale

Adam Minter says China's demand for scrap has shaped the industry for the past 30 years and will continue to be a major influence. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily 12/01/2013 page5)