Waste Sorting: Willy Wonka-style!

We continue to take a look at Adam Minter’s debut book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (Bloomsbury Press, 2013).  Part 1 of our review was the topic of last week’s blog post.

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade begins with a trip to Texas to visit one of the largest sorting facilities for household recyclables in the United States. Minter describes the recycling facility as a “Walmart-sized space.” He likens it to “Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: conveyors of trash rush upward and release their cargo into spinning stars that toss it about in a manner that I can only describe as joyful, like popcorn jumping in a frying pan.” Machines and workers along the system of conveyor belts separate materials by type, which are then baled or packaged for shipment to processors and manufacturers.

Reuse and recycling require, as Minter notes, ingenuity and entrepreneurship. Most scrap and recycling businesses begin in “backpacks, pickup trucks, and perhaps a discrete backyard or two.” For instance, in Shanghai, where peddlers scrounge for cans and other recyclable items, Minter sees a migrant woman with a fanny pack filled with scrap money “presiding over a system that harvests recyclables from the trash.” Worldwide, the industry has grown, not for altruistic or environmental reasons, but because “somebody was short a resource, and somebody else with some ingenuity and entrepreneurship had an idea for how to provide it.”

Minter explores the stories of some of these entrepreneurs who have made recycling more efficient and feasible. Leonard Fritz began “grubbing,” or scrapping for metals, in 1931 in order to make money for school clothes. Fritz now owns one of the largest scrap companies in the United States, the Huron Valley Steel Corporation, which, in 2007, received over 1 billion pounds of scrap. Similarly, Alpert & Alpert in Los Angeles started in the 1950s when the company bought scrap from peddlers and sold to only three steel mills. They now ship billions of dollars’ worth of scrap to Asia. Minter also visits OmniSource in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which has some of the most expensive and high-tech metal separating equipment in the world, and Scott Newell in El Paso, Texas. Newell created the auto shredder and is now the supplier of more than 30% of the world’s metal shredders.

Minter travels through China, following various recyclables as they are sorted, processed, and reused or remanufactured. In describing this vast journey of recycling and the immense volume of resources that come from it, Minter shows that, while recycling is good, it is important to reduce and reuse first. “Above all, though, I encourage people to think about what it means to recycle, and make smart choices as a consumer before you buy that thing you’ll eventually toss out,” he writes.

For Minter, and for all of us, junkyards are a good thing—places where what might have become waste is re-imagined. This book will leave you contemplating where that plastic bottle and cereal box you throw into the recycling bin will go, and the numerous lives they may change along the way.

For more on Minter’s book, check out In Praise of Junkyards.

Photo credit © H Roe | iStock | Thinkstock

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