Here's part 1 of my interview with author Adam Minter (on the globalisation of the scrap and recycling industry), part 2 on China's role in this industry, and part 3 on India. In this last instalment, I ask Adam about junk and environmentalism:
PB: To finish, let's turn to the future. What do you think will be the biggest changes in the industry over the next decade? And how important and influential are environmental movements (the 'environmentally-minded consumer')? What role do individuals have in this vast global trade?
AM: The biggest change is already underway: the 'developing world' (whatever that means at this point) is now the world's biggest generator of electronic scrap (what some like to call, incorrectly, 'e-waste'). This is a long time coming, and not at all surprising; China, for example, is the world biggest market for computers and mobile phones, and those devices are starting to be recycled.
For better or for worse — and I argue for the better — the manner by which China and the rest of the developing world recycles those devices is going to set the standard for how our devices are repaired, re-used and recycled. In China, as I noted in an earlier answer, the state has already implemented the world's largest electronics recycling program (at a time when no US state has come close to achieving the same). There are problems with it, but the important thing is that they've started. Over time, it'll improve.
I think the other important development you'll see — and this is intimately related to the first — is that manufacturers are going to become more invested in the recycling of their products.
This is not a new development. Since 2005, Japan has required automobile manufacturers to take responsibility for the recycling of the most dangerous components of an automobile. As a result, automobile manufacturers have spent the last decade working closely with Japan's auto recyclers to develop safe and cost effective means of doing so, with benefits both for the environment and the bottom line.
We're starting to see something similar happen in China with electronics, and I think that trend is going to spill over into the EU, the US and other developed regions, if only because so many consumer electronics are manufactured in China. At the moment, I am aware of one very large consumer electronics company that is in the process of setting up an entire recycling business whereby it'll take back products and use them to source raw materials. There are rumors out there that other manufacturers are looking at the same.
It's worth nothing that these kinds of developments are a threat to many recyclers in the developed world who, for reason of marketing and philosophy, have long depicted developing world electronics recycling as 'primitive', if not environmentally destructive.
To be sure, unsafe conditions exist at many developing-world facilities, still, but that is far from the only reality, and those who insist on promoting it are either ignorant of the rapid changes in China and India or simply have their own business-based agendas that benefit from promoting an outdated image of developing-world recyclers. Increasingly, the developing world is a worthy, green competitor to recyclers in the developed world. That trend will only continue.
The global recycling industry exists regardless of the environmental movement and green consumers. It is, above all, a commodity business that competes directly with mining and other extractive industries to deliver raw materials at the cheapest prices. That will continue to be the case, with green consumers playing a secondary role to the market forces which make the industry possible in the first place. Good intentions and green consumers don't turn old beer cans into new ones: profit motives do.
The role of the individual in this trade is complex. Without consumption, of course, there would be nothing to recycle. And without recycling, the cost of the raw materials to make the things we like to recycle would be much higher. Recycling simply can't exist without our consumption. So, if you come at recycling from the perspective of an environmentalist hoping to reduce stresses on the planet's finite resources, I tend to think a more fruitful exercise is to skip discussions of recycling (after all, it merely enables more consumption) and start thinking abut how much you consume, and how to reduce it.