We're all living on a "Junkyard Planet"

We're all living on a "Junkyard Planet"

By Editorial Staff, Resource Recycling

Nov. 15, 2013

If you think untangling your Christmas lights is a chore, what would you do with compressed 2,200-pound bales of them? Author Adam Minter takes a look at what's happening with those bales and plenty of other issues facing the global recycling trade in the new book "Junkyard Planet."

Moving from a cacophonous materials recovery facility (MRF) in Houston, to the notorious e-scrap processing town of Guyiu, to a former strip mine in northern Minnesota, the book places the global recycling industry in perspective. While written for general consumption, Minter's excellent reportage could be eye-opening for many in the recycling industry as well.

For instance, Minter follows those aforementioned one-ton bales of Christmas lights from a scrap dealer in North Carolina to the southern Chinese town of Shijiao where they are shredded into millimeter sized pieces and separated by a float-sink table: The plastic insulation floats and washes off to be dried and sold (and, in this case, made into the soles of slippers), while the sinking copper falls "into a basket, 95 percent pure and ready for remelting."

A great deal of the book is about the trade of recyclable materials to China, which is appropriate, as it's the primary overseas market for the vast majority of recyclables from the U.S. And the primary reason those materials are flowing to China is that country's insatiable need for materials to build its rapidly growing infrastructure.

For example, China controls roughly 43 percent of the world's copper demand. As Minter points out, if the Chinese aren't getting the copper from those Christmas lights – and manifold other sources – they're going to turn to other, possibly dirtier means.

"How do you want them fulfilling it?" Minter said during an interview with Resource Recycling at the 2013 E-Scrap Conference. "Do you want them fulfilling it in [e-scrap] recycling workshops in China or do you want them fulfilling it with [a] copper mine in northern Minnesota or another copper mine in the Amazon, in Brazil, or another copper mine in Indonesia?"

Minter spoke with Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air" program earlier this week. "Whatever you may think about exporting to Asia or doing in the United States, putting your phone in the trash is the absolute worst outcome," Minter told Gross when she asked if she should just throw her old cell phone in the garbage bin. "You're just losing the ability to get any recyclable value out of it."

One point Minter returns to regularly in the book is the less-than-perfect situations value recovery inevitably spawns. "Recycling is a dirty business and it always will be," Minter told Resource Recycling. "It’s a dangerous business. Cleaning up other people’s trash is not nice."

"Junkyard Planet," came out this week at booksellers everywhere. A full-length Q&A with the author will be published in the December issue of Resource Recycling. Click here to subscribe.

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