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Junkyard Planet

Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade

By Adam Minter
15-minute read
Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter

Full of visceral details and fascinating personal narratives, Junkyard Planet digs into the history and current state of the waste management industry. Through a riveting tour of the sites that take care of our trash, Minter argues that the recycling and reclamation industry, despite its well-publicized environmental hazards, represents the most logical and sustainable solution to offset the insatiable consumption of the developed world.

  • Anyone who’s ever wondered what goes on in recycling plants and junkyards
  • Anyone striving to lead a more sustainable life
  • People who want to know where their trash ends up

Adam Minter is a journalist and author based in Shanghai. He grew up in a family of scrap dealers and wrote extensively as a correspondent for various scrap industry publications before publishing Junkyard Planet.

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Junkyard Planet

Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade

By Adam Minter
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Contains 9 key ideas
Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter
Synopsis

Full of visceral details and fascinating personal narratives, Junkyard Planet digs into the history and current state of the waste management industry. Through a riveting tour of the sites that take care of our trash, Minter argues that the recycling and reclamation industry, despite its well-publicized environmental hazards, represents the most logical and sustainable solution to offset the insatiable consumption of the developed world.

Key idea 1 of 9

There’s a hidden, global network of recycling and reclamation sites that processes the waste we produce.

Most of us recycle. We separate our bottles from our cans, paper from cardboard, and we set it out on the curb to be collected.

But this is just one small step in the recycling process. The role we play in the recycling industry is small at best.

In fact, the recycling industry is dependent on a chain of actors, both large and small, who collect, sort and sell scrap and trash to each other.

The bottom rung is the individual scavenger, such as the panhandler who collects Coke cans from public bins. The products of this labor are then sold, for a profit, to processing and packing institutions such as junkyards and recycling plants. These then sell the bulk objects to companies that melt and transform scrap into new metal, paper and plastic.

The volume of accumulated material increases at each stage in the process – from the panhandler’s few cans to the millions of them sold to manufacturers.

In recent decades, this chain of supply has expanded beyond national borders to the point that, today, waste management takes place within a global logistical network that rivals that of the manufacturing industry: there are scrap metal processors in Southern China that specialize in extracting copper from American Christmas tree lights; there are entire towns in India that manufacture belt buckles from European scrap brass; and there are Chinese scrap dealers who spend half the year touring junkyards in the American South.

But what caused this shift? On the one hand, the migration of manufacturing from the main centers of consumption and, on the other, the advent of cheap transportation options.

Just look at the way in which the waste management industry took advantage of the trade imbalance between China and the United States. Because the US imports more from China than it exports, shipping companies began offering discounts to dealers wanting to ship scrap back to China on container ships that would have otherwise been empty.

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