walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Junkyard Planet_, Adam Minter

I'll just start with the obvious: this is an amazing book. It is absolutely worth reading. There might be something written in another language that covers the same ground, but I know of nothing like this in English, and I read a lot of books about what happens to stuff when we're done with it. Minter quotes several of those books.

Minter comes from a family that ran a metal scrap business, and that is, overwhelmingly, his perspective. He pokes his head into a municipal recycling facility and sees paper and plastic sorting, but his heart isn't in it. At all. And he's shockingly ignorant of the rise of used goods in the United States in the last 10-15 years. If you want to know how to get stuff you are done with to the next best location, don't ask him -- even if all his friends do.

He has spent a large fraction of the last 15 years covering the scrap metal trade to China, and the globalization of the "waste" stream in general. He mentions Africa in passing, but spends no time there. He does describe a visit to India, and supplies a nice explanation of the shipping realities that tie India to the Middle East, rather than the US. The detail on China is great: he covers plastics recycling, electronics reuse/refurbishment, dismantling and so forth. He describes where the materials feed into new products. He meets, interviews, and conveys a nuanced sense of the personalities in the various industries.

It's amazing to me that in the description of auto shredding (the Huron Valley and Omnisource facility descriptions are absolutely incredible, particularly the interaction between tax and customs policy in China and what kind of mechanical sorting is worth doing here in the United States), he notes that under $2 in coins is found in a typical shredded automobile. Those suckers are gone over very, very carefully, if that's all that is left.

The way Minter thinks about environmental and health concerns is marginally better than many activists: he's at least thinking about it in a compared-to-what sense. But that is the weakest element of the book. For a guy who did such a great job drawing together the obvious, but until now largely ignored, parallels between the United States a hundred years or so ago and China now, when it comes to scrapping, he really failed to think through the implications for policy. While he does a nice job of describing the difference in how China at the national level chose to handle Wenan's (there's supposed to be an apostrophe in there) plastic recycling vs. Guiyo's e-waste processing (shut-it-down-and-scatter-it vs. concentrate-and-upgrade), he applies no gloss whatsoever to whether that implies that China learned something from the former, or whether the two situations were different in some salient way that justified different responses, or if it was Just Random.

Minter does mention a couple instances of mining existing US landfills (I think Huron Valley mining for previously landfilled SNF), without ever getting into the national policy mess associated with extractive industry (we still have built-in incentives for mining virgin ore, despite all our efforts to limit extractive industry due to environmental impacts). But it's nice to see these mentioned; I expect that to grow over time, if we get better at processing.

In any event, it's a great book. Obviously, I always have complaints, but this is an enjoyable read and tremendously useful information. I look forward to reading more by Minter in the future.
Tags: book review
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