In Praise of Junkyards

Adam Minter is a journalist from a family of “scrappers,” so it isn’t surprising that his debut book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (Bloomsbury Press, 2013), explores the vast expanse of the global recycling economy. The result is an unexpectedly interesting tale that aims “to explain why the hidden world of globalized recycling and reclamation is the most logical (and greenest) endpoint in a long chain that begins with the harvest in your home recycling bin, or down at the local junkyard.”

Minter knows that the numbers can be astonishing— American consumers produce 251 million tons of trash annually, of which almost 87 million tons are recycled and composted. But he gives life to the recycling and scrap industry by introducing people who handle scrap—sorting, buying, selling, or remanufacturing—in the U.S. and China. As he introduces these people and businesses, Minter takes the reader on a journey from scrap men of the early 20th century to the boom of the 1960s American recycling industry and around the world, showing us the growth of the global recycling industry. Along the way, he explains what happens to the plastics, papers, and metals thrown into recycling bins and carts.

Minter is uniquely qualified to offer this perspective. Minter’s family owns a scrap yard in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Founded by his late great-grandfather during the Great Depression, the junkyard was a business born of poverty-driven ingenuity and a desire to find a way to earn a living for himself and his family. This entrepreneurship was passed down through the generations. Minter grew up in the junkyard, run by his father and grandmother, and the yard holds many special memories from his childhood. He notes that, like many of China’s growing recycling companies, “the world’s largest recycling industry—the U.S. one—was also born from self-interested motives.” Today, Minter is a journalist for Bloomberg World View, based in Shanghai, China.

Be sure to read next week’s post to learn what Minter discovered as he traveled throughout the U.S. and on to China for a global perspective of the state of waste and recycling today. And, to read more on global waste, see Global Waste Growing Fast and Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash.

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