Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There is something viscerally appealing to me about the scrap business. It combines admirable aspects of two seemingly diametrically opposed political bedfellows: the environmentalists and the self-made anti-regulation millionaire entrepreneurs. This delicious irony is part of what makes this book fun to read. The author also writes very well, sprinkling what could be all dry industrial stuff with light, amusing anecdotes.
I found it fascinating to read the details of how scrap is processed and recycled or reused, both here in the U.S. and overseas. There are whole factories, even towns, extremely specialized in all sorts of scrap, often whimsically named, like Honey (mixed brass), SNF (Shredded non-ferrous – i.e. everything that isn’t steel that comes out of the car-munching machines), Christmas tree light cords, lithographic plates, radiator ends. China is the main location for most such places, but they appear all over the world. The author does a good job of showing how these less-developed countries are cleaning up America by paying for our scrap. China is the reason we no longer have streams clogged with abandoned cars. The reuse and recycling means less mining, less clear-cutting of forests, and less oil drilling to fulfill the global needs for more metals and plastics and wood.
He also punctures the arrogant balloon of those who decry the “dumping” of our scrap on China and other poor countries where working conditions are so poor. The Chinese don’t even understand the term. They see our scrap as a bounty that would otherwise go to waste, much as you or I might view a wealthy neighbor who bought a new car every year and never bothered to trade in the old perfectly functional one, just abandoning it on the street with the keys in it. As bad as the working conditions and environmental controls (or lack thereof) are in China, India and other places documented in the book, the people who work there consider the jobs vastly superior to the subsistence farming or begging they would otherwise be doing. A factory job is a good job there, and no more unhealthy than their alternatives.
The one big gaping hole in the book, in my opinion, is the author’s omission of any mention of scrap dealers’ role as fences. The author is the son of a junkyard owner and clearly a big booster of the industry as a whole, lauding its role in the greater environmental scheme of things. But here in the Bay Area on any given day maybe one-third of all freeway metering lights are non-functional due to copper thieves, who can only profit by having a scrap dealer willing to turn a blind eye. When I was in the FBI we busted several scrap dealers who weren’t just feigning ignorance of the stolen nature of the products they took in. They were actively and knowingly fencing computer parts stolen directly from warehouses, directing the thieves what to steal next, or certifying as destroyed circuit boards that they actually sold to third-party dealers, who then competed with the mainframe manufacturer who was paying to have the old boards destroyed. The author portrays the scrap dealer as a victim of all kinds of crooks — employees who steal, customers who walk in with aluminum cans filled with rocks, and so on. Perhaps true, but those same dealers are at the same time paying thieves to steal copper wiring or computer parts. It’s a dirty business in all senses of the word.
It will take some patience to read the entire book, because it does become rather repetitive. The author reintroduces the same characters several times, and hammers on his main points more often than necessary. By the fifth time you’ve read that the scrap worker is better off doing that job than on the farm where he came from, you want to say, “Yeah, yeah, I got the point the first four times.” Still, there are gems that pop up throughout the book, so stick with it to the end. The car shredding machine history and the coin tower are good examples. The one stylistic cavil I have is the author’s constant use of “-sized” as a universal modifier. On one page you are likely to read of things that are “sports-arena sized”, “toddler-sized”, and “suitcase-sized.” Still this peccadillo did not diminish my enjoyment of the book. The main takeaway is that we Americans are incredibly wasteful, and the scrap businessmen at all levels are incredibly resourceful in finding ways to reuse or recycle that waste to the benefit of everyone.
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