Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Interview: Adam Minter on the Junkyard Planet

Interview: Adam Minter on the Junkyard Planet

Journalist Adam Minter has written a fascinating account of the global rubbish and recycling industry. I recommended his book, Junkyard Planet, as one of my top 'development books' of 2013. Here is part 1 of an interview I am conducting with Adam via email, and below the text a couple of captioned images of the global junk industry taken from Adam's blog, Shanghai Scrap, with his permission.

PB: One of the things that particularly struck me in your book is just how global the recycling trade really is. Consumers, cheap labour, multi-millionaires, shipping costs, the rising middle class in developing countries, the cost of commodities, and the desire everywhere to make a profit – all affect and are affected by the industry.

In a way it is a key example of the globalisation of the world economy. It’s an industry that almost all of us are impacted by, but which most of us know very little about. Although your family was involved in the trade, were you also surprised by the scale and interconnectedness of it?

AM: The scrap industry that I grew up knowing in the Minnesota was largely a local business. That is, we bought scrap from factories within 100km from us, and we sold to factories (with a few exceptions) within 1000km of us. That started changing in the late 1980s, when Chinese traders began to show up at our scrap yard in search of items that none of our customers in North America wanted — things like electric motors, Christmas tree lights, and other items that are labor intensive to recycle. That was a big shift for me and my family. Suddenly, demand from overseas was starting to create a market for things (electric motors for example) that had been rusting in North Dakota farm fields for decades, in some cases.

Still, it's one thing to feel the market demand, and another thing to travel to China and see it. In 2002, I walked into my first Chinese scrap recycling business, a massive operation that employed 600 or so women sorting shredded American and European automobiles. The volumes measured in the thousands of tons per month. I couldn't believe it. [fold]

And yet it wasn't until 2008, and the global financial crisis, that I felt I truly appreciated the inter-connectedness of the trade. When Lehman collapsed, American demand for consumer goods collapsed, and then Chinese demand for raw materials to make those goods collapsed — and with it collapsed the global scrap markets. One pin, if you will, came out and the entire reason for recycling, as well as the entire global recycling economy, ground to a halt. I must admit, I didn't see that coming, but ever since I've had a profound appreciation for just how dependent the process of globalisation has become on scrap of all kinds.

'Late morning, October 29, 2002, I walked into a warehouse in Shanghai’s Baoshan District and snapped this photo. I’d been to plenty of US scrapyards, but this was my first Chinese one. The workers were sorting bits of shredded US and EU automobiles; next door, furnaces were melting the sorted aluminum into new aluminum for export to Japanese car manufacturers.'

'This March 2013 image was taken in Mandoli, a small village roughly 90 minutes from Delhi by car. In it, two men are dipping circuit boards into an acid bath (contained in the various blue plastic barrels) for the purpose of extracting – in effect, dissolving – the copper from the fiberglass. Later, they’ll use another chemical process to refine the copper out of the chemical soup they’ve created.'

You may also be interested in