05 March 2014

Minnesota junkyard boy far from home

Once upon a time, a long time ago in a classroom not too far from here, a young man was a student in a class I taught. He became a Shanghai-based journalist. (He is one of two Shanghai-based journalists I got to know when they were students, but that's a story for another time.)

The young man grew up helping to run the family business, a "junkyard" in north Minneapolis, not far from where my parents grew up, but that's also a story for another time.

Adam Minter started his career writing about the junkyard/scrapyard/recycling business in China. I had no idea there were specialized journals about such obscure topics. Goes to show what I know.

I caught up with Adam Minter a few years ago, when I ran into an article he wrote for The Atlantic. Then I found his blog -- about the scrapyard business in China. It seems he wrote enough episodes in his blog to convince someone (maybe Minter himself) to write a book about the topic. My friend Eric Johnson had just read it and mentioned it one morning. When I claimed acquaintance with the author, Eric loaned me the book the next day.
 Junkyard Planet, Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade was published last year. It's been noticed far beyond the scrapyard/recycling world and it's earned good reviews globally.

The reason it's been noticed is that this goes beyond telling stories about the entrepreneurs in China who have built a business dependent upon importing cast offs from the USA, Europe, and Japan (although those stories are often interesting).

Minter offers abundant data on the vast scope of the global trade in trash and the ways it is changing. He also explains the mysterious processes used to extract value from trash (like harvesting copper wire from discarded strings of Christmas lights which are sent to China in huge bales that fill many shipping containers).

But he forcefully makes that point that much of the value in trash from Japan and the USA comes not from recycling, but from reuse. Old cell phone screens become screens for hand-held video games. Discarded computer chips become the hearts of new game counsels. Discarded computers and monitors become affordable computers for Chinese homes.

In fact, Minter repeatedly makes the case for the importance of reuse and how reuse is more important for our futures than recycling.

Minter writes well. He circles his topics and keeps coming back to his main points. His data seems as complete as it would be for a term paper. Luckily, he doesn't write like a student. Junkyard Planet, Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade is an enlightening book. I encourage everyone to read it. It's important stuff. At least catch up with Adam Minter's blog, Shanghai Scrap or his Twitter posts, which you can follow on Facebook.

Have you read Junkyard Planet? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought about it.

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