Book Review: Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter

China Airborne was the 30000 foot view of Chinese development and this book is the view from the ground floor, in the dirtiest and grimiest part of Chinese capitalism. And this isn’t the theoretical capitalism we as Americans usually love to talk about, the capitalism of skyscrapers and modern technology and even exploitation or inequality, in the same vein that we discuss Darwinian evolution as an elegant solution. No, this is the capitalism of pointy elbows and competition at its dirtiest, the ugly evolution from one miserable state to a slightly less dismal state. This is the place where Chinese workers are rationally choosing industrial pollution and toxic fumes for horribly low pay because it beats subsistence farming. And they only get that kind of work to feed America’s consumerism for Christmas tree lights that are thrown out in the millions of pounds every year. It’s where we say “greed is good” and everyone nods.

Minter is at his very best when describing the history of scrapping cars, which had hit epidemic proportions in the United States in the 70s. Buying new cars every year and having no way to dispose of old ones, Americans took to simply abandoning their cars on roads or in lakes. Until someone invented a machine that could shred cars into little bits, cleverly evolving water displacement and magnets that could separate and harvest the metals for reuse. It was so successful that the scrapping industry hit a milestone in 2007 of clearing the backlog dating back to the 20s of old cars. And true to this ugly capitalism, Minter is willing to blame Americans, Japanese, and Europeans for their endless consumerism and their cultures of throwing stuff away. Of course, he doesn’t shy away from pointing out that Chinese scrappers could buy respirators and gloves for their workers so they don’t have to barehand copper wire scrap out of sulfuric acid baths, but no, thanks, they’ll buy Rolexes and Lexuses instead.

But hope is not lost. Minter also points out that they used to do this in Taiwan too for $100 a month salaries. As the country developed to $500 a month salaries, Taiwanese workers moved to offices in big cities and given new options, categorically refused to return to the drudgery of industrial work. China’s population is large enough that they can keep this truck going for decades at least, but you do see the transition happening there too. And of course, a big part of this is incumbent on the Chinese government. If they ever decide they’re tired of the corruption and the filth and the exploitation, the rule changes to end the most abusive practices are readily available. In fact, there’s an interesting point that sometimes the Chinese government purposely isn’t cracking down on bad practices because they want to keep it confined and restrained in one place. Sure, the Guiyu e-processing plant is a monstrous polluter, but one semi-legal factory, even if it might be the dirtiest factory in the whole world, is better than lots of illegal factories littered across northern China. At least for now.

Minter’s final point is that recycling isn’t an ideal solution. Consuming less is far more important. He illustrates this point with some experiments that show the paradox that people who think they’re recycling actually consume more resources and their overuse is often greater than any possible benefits of recycling. Selling your old electronics to impoverished peoples is a better reuse than scrapping it for a new device.

My only criticism is that Minter doesn’t really get into why other countries export their recycling to China, only that it does and contributes greatly to trade imbalances. He basically ignores the history of industrial pollution problems in the US and especially Japan, which contributes to the throwaway rather than use until it dies culture. But it’s not a huge problem since the focus is mostly on Chinese scrapping culture.

Overall, the book is a smooth and quick read. I walked away feeling like I know a lot more about scrapping and trade at the low levels of the supply chain, which I consider a sign of a good book.

This book as a food is a hot dog. It’s dirty and it’s unhealthy, but damnit, it’s delicious and it’s a food that’s part of our cultural life as Americans. And you should know how it’s made. Highly recommended.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *