This is good news for the planet: in 2012, recycling 46 million tonnes of US paper and cardboard saved more than a billion cubic metres of landfill space.
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that environmental concerns usually motivate the companies (big and small, in every corner of the world) that get into the recycling business. They’re after the cash, which is fair enough.
Minter, a journalist and the son of a Minneapolis scrapyard owner, takes us on a fascinating tour around the world of recycling. China, where he’s based, makes numerous appearances.
The country’s rapid economic growth makes it one of the leading players on the international recycling stage. It processes vast amounts of imported recyclable commodities. In 2012, for example, it produced 5.6 million tonnes of copper; 2.75 million of this came from scrap and 70 per cent of that was imported, mostly from the USA.
The results of this dependence on recycling aren’t always positive. Minter takes us to Wen’an county, near Beijing. It’s home to thousands of family-owned plastic-recycling workshops, and an area once famed for its delicious peaches and rural vistas is now choked by pollution. He also takes us to Guiyu in Guangdong province, where the recycling of electrical goods can sometimes have troubling health implications.
Minter doesn’t ignore any of this, but he stresses that it’s only part of the picture. In many ways, the Chinese obsession with making the most of the global recycling industry pays dividends. On a worldwide scale, he believes, the system can work rather well – a rare instance of a sustainable option also being a profitable one.
Not that he’s blind to an obvious truth: recycling is always the poor relation of reducing consumption or re-using existing products. One of his interviewees explains that many Japanese workers use drill bits a few times then discard them. When they arrive in China, the bits don’t have to be repaired or recycled – they can simply be sold on as perfectly serviceable tools.
Another of his sources has calculated that a quarter of the computer hard drives sent for recycling or refurbishment in the USA have had less than 500 hours of use; they would have continued to work for a very long time. This is one sorry example of how we ‘fetishize the new and upgraded’. We want this year’s model, and throw out last year’s for no good reason.
There’s even an argument that making recycling so commonplace can have regrettable consequences. Experiments have suggested that when we go to wash our hands in a public toilet and see a recycling bin, we feel free to use more paper towels.
That’s food for thought but, all told, recycling (at both domestic and industrial levels) can be an eminently worthy practice. Minter introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters who are involved in this global enterprise: the scrap metal processor in southern China who imports huge quantities of discarded Christmas tree lights from the USA; the Chinese scrap buyer who spends six months out of every year zooming along US highways; and Leonard Fritz, born in 1922, who started out hunting for scraps of metal in Detroit and ended up with a large, successful company. It’s the intimate nature of this book – the human tales, well told – that makes it so enjoyable.
Recycling has been a constant in human history and has always been dependent on entrepreneurial talent or technological advance. The USA was once littered with abandoned automobiles. There are still too many out there, but these days, you can shred a car at the touch of a button and this, as Minter puts it, ‘sure beats ten hours chopping up a car with a pickax’.
Should the recycling enterprise be quite so unabashedly global, and so utterly dependent on market forces? These are important questions, but reliable answers stem from an understanding of how the present system works. In this regard, Minter’s book is important.
Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter, Bloomsbury Press, £18.99