Junkyard Planet – Adam Minter – Book Review


JunkyardPlanetGoodreads blurb: When you drop your Diet Coke can or yesterday’s newspaper in the recycling bin, where does it go? Probably halfway around the world, to people and places that clean up what you don’t want and turn it into something you can’t wait to buy. In Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter—veteran journalist and son of an American junkyard owner—travels deeply into a vast, often hidden, multibillion-dollar industry that’s transforming our economy and environment.

Minter takes us from back-alley Chinese computer recycling operations to high-tech facilities capable of processing a jumbo jet’s worth of recyclable trash every day. Along the way, we meet an unforgettable cast of characters who’ve figured out how to build fortunes from what we throw away: Leonard Fritz, a young boy “grubbing” in Detroit’s city dumps in the 1930s; Johnson Zeng, a former plastics engineer roaming America in search of scrap; and Homer Lai, an unassuming barber turned scrap titan in Qingyuan, China. Junkyard Planet reveals how “going green” usually means making money—and why that’s often the most sustainable choice, even when the recycling methods aren’t pretty.

With unmatched access to and insight on the junk trade, and the explanatory gifts and an eye for detail worthy of a John McPhee or William Langewiesche, Minter traces the export of America’s recyclables and the massive profits that China and other rising nations earn from it. What emerges is an engaging, colorful, and sometimes troubling tale of consumption, innovation, and the ascent of a developing world that recognizes value where Americans don’t. Junkyard Planet reveals that we might need to learn a smarter way to take out the trash.

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Anybody who has ever been to a mall or to any IT Park would have surely noticed separate colored plastic waste baskets with a green one marked as the ‘Recycle Bin’, and most of us would have also probably used it as well, even feeling a little good about ourselves for ‘having done some good for the planet’. But how many of us have ever stopped and wondered where all that ‘recyclable waste’ actually goes to, what happens of it, does it have a way of ever finding its way back to us in a different form? And these are probably some of the questions that Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter answers, although not quite in as straightforward a manner as I have suggested above.

The author himself grew up in a metal scrapyard in America and his association with scrap therefore began at a very young age. He, however, did not join the family business and instead moved into journalism and given his precedents it therefore quite naturally followed that he started reporting and writing about scrap. This book is the result of his travels to various scrapyards around the world, from America to China, from metal scrapyards to towns in China which are probably the biggest handlers of e-waste, and so on.

While this book chronicles what essentially remains a lesser known industry, that of the processing of scrap material of various items, to me, the major takeaway from this book (and this is something that the author emphasizes in the last chapter as well) is that while recycling as a concept is important, what is more important are the two R’s preceding recycling, Reduce and Reuse. And while this important tenet of the three R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – is very critical for American consumers in particular, the day is not too far off when Chinese and Indian consumers will also have to be taught to internalize the same.

Given the development boom currently underway in China, and India nipping at its heels with initiatives such as Make in India, this part of the world finds itself in a situation with large consumer markets and in China’s case a large manufacturing hub as well. The result would be a large supply as well as a demand for scrap material of all forms. This book therefore assumes that much more importance in our part of the world for us to get a better understanding of junk, its processing and the various other facets of this business as well.

A refreshingly different, well researched and well written book.

Click here to purchase the book from Flipkart [Link] or Amazon [Link]

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A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers in return for an honest and unbiased review of the same.

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