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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2014

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Commentary: Piles of Junk: Can the Modern Scrap Business Be Sustainable?


Adam Minter, New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2013 (ISBN 978-1-60819-791-0).

Quickly, think of it. When is the last time you actually thought about what happened to that pile of newspapers you "recycled"? How far did it travel? And did you ever think much about the way in which it got to wherever it was going?

What about your old automobile? You may have sold it to someone else, or traded it in to a dealer for part payment of your new car, but what happened to it eventually? Where is the graveyard of old automobiles?

In 1969, in New York City, it was the streets. That year, 70,000 automobiles and trucks were abandoned in places where people lived. In 1970, the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel held a meeting at which it was stated that since 1955 Americans had abandoned between 9 and 40 million automobiles on streets, meadows, bodies of water, and any place else they thought people would not notice. The wide range indicated one problem with the estimate-we really had no real idea of how many cars were abandoned in this way. One thing people did know: It was a lot. They were scars on the landscape.

"By 1960, the abandoned automobile problem was a massive environmental crisis."1 So says Adam Minter, in a fascinating new book Junkyard Planet, which tells us the largely unknown story of the modern scrap business. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc., in 2012 the worldwide industry was turning over $30 billion. And the scrap business is one of the reasons those abandoned automobiles can no longer be found.

In the mid 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of the thirty-sixth president of the United States, was so appalled by the unsightly large junkyards one could see almost everywhere along the highway that she started a highway beautification program. It was no use, however, as there were simply too many cars being produced and abandoned.

Before 1950 or so, many of these cars were taken apart, and either parts were reused or the metal in the cars was separated and sold as scrap metal. But then, U.S. labor costs rose to such a point that it simply cost too much to take them apart that way. Some scrap yards developed large shears, which literally cut the cars apart. However, another problem loomed: As smelters and the steel they produced got more sophisticated, even the small amounts of copper in the metal caused problems. The business languished. Then a new technology, shredding whole automobiles, was developed. As Minter says, the fact that we don't have to pay attention to abandoned automobiles is "no small testament to whomever decided that the best way to recycle a car is to obliterate it completely."2 How that happens and its consequences form the meat of this very well-written and informative book.

By "obliterate completely" is meant almost that. Rather than trying to tear apart automobiles one at a time, the process has become industrialized. First, the automobiles are flattened, literally, into pancakes, which makes them easier to transport. This usually happens in the United States. They then are shipped to China, where they are fed into massive "shredders." These are huge machines that literally pound the metal in the automobile, using rotating mechanical hammers, into small pieces. "As the … car is pulverized, the pieces are ejected through gates and run over magnets that separate the 80 percent of a car that's steel from everything else."3

The environmental and sustainable development issues contained in this story are important, from the reduction of metals taken from the ground to the development possibilities the industry has provided in countries such as China and India. There is plenty of good news in this story, but also plenty of bad. The possibilities are there, but making a truly sustainable enterprise, one that will protect environmental quality at the same time as providing jobs and income to people around the world, is going to take important policy changes. Given the quantity of goods produced on this planet, and their environmental impact, it is something we must investigate carefully, and soon.

The issue is complex, as Minter makes clear. From the overall environmental perspective, as he states, "recycling consumes fewer trees, digs fewer holes, and consumes less energy than manufacturing from virgin materials (a recycled beer can requires 92 percent less energy to manufacture than one made from virgin ore)."4

But on the other hand: "Those same links connected the scrap processors to the manufacturers who turn scrap metal into the wire, cable, and infrastructure that's driven China's growth for twenty-five years. Guangdong's government, eager for foreign investment and cheap raw materials, encouraged the trade. Pollution was an afterthought."5 And: "As we watch, the shredded plastic is poured into metal tubs full of caustic cleaning fluids, and washed by turning metal strainers through the mix. Then it's spread out on tarps to dry. When the workers are done, the excess trash and cleaning fluid is gathered up, and either resold or tossed into a waste pit on the edge of town. Unless I am missing something, or visiting on the wrong day, there's no safety equipment, no respirators, hard hats or steel-toed boots; here, in fact, most of the workers-including Mr. Hu [the boss]-wear sandals."6

Minter also visits Wen'an County, where there is much plastic recycling. "Before long, the single-lane road is overcome with dust and garbage. Traffic is choking with trucks weighed down by refrigerator-sized bales of imported old plastic; on both sides of the road single-story one-room workshops are bathed in a swirl of dust."7

Plus: In Wen'an County: One company "[is] rumored to manufacture plastic bags from an ugly mix, including industrial-use plastics, which are then passed off as safe for food packaging. As the company men laugh at this, Josh [a Chinese guide who was accompanying the author] looks at me-and then joins in, ruefully."8

There is more: "The damage done by low-tech developing world electronics recycling is measurable. A 2010 study in Guiyu, China's biggest and most notorious e-waste recycling zone, revealed that among a cohort of village children under the age of six, 81.8 percent were suffering from lead poisoning. The likely source of the poison was lead dust generated by the breaking of circuit boards and the melting of lead solder." Also, 25 percent of newborns in Guiyu had elevated levels of cadmium.9

Still: "But for all of its problems-and they are rife'the world would be a dirtier and less interesting place without junkyards."10

Although the focus of the book is on the recycling industry, which takes the plastics and metals out of the "junk" so that they can be melted down and made into other objects, it also pays some attention to reuse, where chips, computer parts, and the like are taken from the trash and put to work in other devices. "In other words, the chip in my old Samsung might be extracted and then transplanted into a scrolling digital sign purchased by a Kansas diner to advertise the daily lunch specials. … That's better than shredding and recycling, it seems to me."11 According to a European-sponsored report, 70 percent of Ghana's import of used electronics, for example, was for reuse.

The success of the global "junk" trade is due to a number of factors, which indicate its strengths and weaknesses. A question to ask: Why is so much of the recycling done in China? Isn't it expensive and wasteful of energy to ship the material all the way all the way across the ocean to be recycled and made into products that then get shipped back again?

Here's the deal. Because of the so-called "backhaul," the Chinese demand for American recycling is tightly connected to American demand for Chinese goods. We import much more from China than they import from us, and therefore there is plenty of space in freighters going back to China. Rather than go back empty, operators of the freighters are happy to have cargo, even at a low price. So the scrap can be transported much more cheaply than would otherwise be the case-and this indicates why China is the recycling center for American scrap.

In China, also, the labor-intensive process of separation, necessary for any recycling to occur, can be done at fractions of the cost that it would take to do the same thing in the United States.

This is true not only for the huge "shredders" that literally tear flattened automobiles apart into little pieces, which then can be separated into the separate materials, but also for the much smaller family-run outfits that recycle plastic and small electronic devices. Hundreds of Chinese people will line up for hours at a central dumping site to take to their home workshops the raw material for recycling.

India, which does not export many goods to the United States, does export food to the Middle East. India does have a recycling industry, but using scrap from the Middle East, not the United States. Other developing countries, though they may have cheap labor, do not have a consumer goods industry that exports to the United States-where by far the largest amount of scrap metal is produced-and therefore cannot develop a recycling industry.

Minter points out that there are other, better, ways of dealing with the tremendous amount of junk that we produce, and that must go somewhere. First, obvious to all, is reduce. The less we consume, the less we have to deal with. Second, reuse. The chip that gets taken out of an old cell phone might not be useful in a call phone any more, but it can be used for a less demanding job, such as powering a sign advertising a diner's specials for the evening. Then, third, recycle, which is better than throwing things in a landfill, but which has its own environmental intrusions. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. That is the mantra that keeps appearing in Junkyard.

Since, in whatever ideal society we might envision, people are going to demand and therefore we will manufacture consumer goods, the question is, how do we balance the various parts of the intricate system of disposing of trash to allow for both development and sustainable environmental quality?

One thing that would help is thinking about their afterlife-a design issue. Currently, with almost no exceptions, products are manufactured with no thought of what happens when they have ended their useful life. If products lasted longer, that would help-although our current system encourages a new computer, smart phone, automobile, or what have you, every few years even when the current product is doing well.

It would also help if products were manufactured to be easily dismantled and recycled. But the opposite is now true. Take the new iMac Air, the superthin laptop that is no thicker than a pencil. Although it does use less material in its manufacture, the parts are so tightly squeezed together that it is almost impossible to break it down into its component parts. It is a device meant to be shredded, not repaired, upgraded, and reused.

Of course, this is the problem of our consumer economy. Minter does not dwell on this-except for constant repetition of his mantra "reduce, reuse, recycle"-but it is there to be explored. It is the purpose of the consumer industry to produce as many goods as possible, and therefore for its customers to be induced to buy replacement tablets, smart phones, automobiles, even when the items they replace are in good working order.

On the development side, there certainly is good news. This is an industry that has produced impressive fortunes for some, and relatively well-paid jobs for many. The men and women whom Minter describes in the shredding and other facilities are making wages that, though small by Western standards, are enough to allow former subsistence farmers to participate in the cash economy. Many workers said that they were sending money to their families so their children could go to college. The trash industry is one of the factors producing a Chinese middle class.

So much so, in fact, that an increasing amount of the cycle of production of goods to trash to recycling to more goods is internal to China, as people there demand and can pay for the kind of goods of which before they could only dream. Whether the Chinese will ultimately price themselves out of the business is an interesting question, as is that of whether another country will step up and take its place. As we have seen, there are many factors that must fall into place for this to happen.

On the environment side, it is a balance. A shredder, for all its environmental impact, is probably better-and Minter definitely thinks so-than an open pit mine. And it is certainly better than putting all that junk in a landfill.

On the other hand, one cannot deny the large impact on environmental quality and worker health, as noted earlier. China, of course, is well known for its lax approach to environmental quality-anyone who has traveled to Beijing can attest to that-but there are signs that this is improving. Whether it is improving enough for people to feel comfortable with the enterprise is an interesting question.

Part of this is cost, of course. It is obviously cheaper to ignore environmental quality; cleaning up this industry is expensive. Whether the cost will rise to the point where it makes no economic sense-and it is not going to work unless it does make economic sense-we do not yet really know.

Finally, there are the inevitable ethical questions. The reason much of this happens in China is because workers there will do dangerous nasty things for low pay and in the United States they won't. Although one can complain about environmental quality and worker safety in the United States-and we should, don't get me wrong-conditions in the United States are a paradise compared to those in many parts of China. Is this exporting pollution? Do we have any responsibility, since it is our consuming habits that produce the trash problem in the first place, to ensure that the workers who take care of our stuff are adequately protected? What is the role that American and other countries' corporations and governments play in ensuring a healthy life for the people who produce things for us?

There is a contradiction built into this. An important goal of sustainable development is to reduce the inequality that plagues our planet. The trash industry as described earlier has proven to be one way to reduce this inequality, yet it is that same inequality-in wages, working conditions, and trade balances-that drives the industry. It will be a big challenge to devise a system or systems that alleviate the gross inequality, improve the environmental quality and working conditions under which people live, and reap the benefits that this industry can bring. It is important that we do so.

In the end, although it is commercialization and money that are currently the drivers of this process, there are important policy decisions to be made. Are we as a global society comfortable leaving all trash cleanup to developing countries? No matter what efforts are made by the Chinese and other governments to clean up the process, it remains a dirty business, and leaving the status quo as is means that most of the trash cleanup is going to occur in poor communities that will inevitably have weaker environmental and worker protection laws than in the developing world. Are we comfortable leaving the inequalities in place that make this effort economically viable? Is this "sustainable" in the long run?

The answer to these questions is most probably no. Which means we must pay attention to the first two words in Minter's mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle. If we were to transform our consumer economy, where economic health depends on the sale of a great many goods, into one where fewer and longer lived products are produced, and those that are produced are more capable of being taken apart and components reused, we would be well on our way to a truly sustainable economy. And if we were to reduce the unsustainable inequality that currently characterizes our world, the "recycling" process detailed here would be less attractive, and therefore greater incentives would be in place to reduce and reuse, rather than recycle.

All of this sounds very ambitious. And it is. But it is no less than is necessary if we are to move the planet in a direction we all desire.


1. page 164.

2. page 164.

3. page 162.

4. page 6.

5. page 133.

6. page 153.

7. page 145.

8. page 149.

9. page 185.

10. page 11.

11. page 196.

Alan H. McGowan is the chair of the Environmental Studies program at The New School.

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