Scrap that thought

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The sub­ject fas­ci­nated him for rea­sons sim­i­lar to why the re­cy­cling in­dus­try does, too: he’s at­tracted to sub­jects ev­ery­one as­sumes they know ev­ery­thing about.

“It’s the stuff people think is very black and white ... it’s al­ways more com­pli­cated than that ... and that’s what the scrap in­dus­try is for me.”

Re­cently back from a spate of book pro­mo­tions in Bri­tain, where he gave talks at the House of Commons, Cam­bridge, and the Royal So­ci­ety, Min­ter spoke to The Star at its Petaling Jaya head­quar­ters. “My wife’s fam­ily reads The Star,” he says with a smile.

Though based in Shang­hai (where he’s a cor­re­spon­dent for Bloomberg World View) he trav­els fre­quently, in­clud­ing vis­its to South-East Asia and Malaysia, where his wife’s fam­ily is from. He’s vis­ited e-waste re­cy­cling fa­cil­i­ties in Pe­nang, steel pro­cess­ing fac­to­ries in Thai­land and var­i­ous other sites in his ef­fort to con­nect the dots.

But what’s in­ter­est­ing is that wher­ever he goes in the world, it’s al­ways the same. Take In­dia, for ex­am­ple: “In­dia is far less de­vel­oped than China at this point. But the things I’m see­ing ... in In­dia right now, are the things I saw go­ing on in China 10 years ago.

“And it’s the same with Brazil, I’ve been there a few times in the last three or four years, and the same sorts of pro­cesses are be­ing used in the in­dus­try over there too.”

The re­cy­cling in­dus­try is some­thing that has evolved or­gan­i­cally – when you’re poor and have ac­cess to cheap labour, you do things a cer­tain way. And when you’re de­vel­oped and wages are high, that’s when mech­a­ni­sa­tion tends to hap­pen.

In his book, Min­ter de­scribes the Hous­ton Ma­te­rial Re­cov­ery Cen­tre, a gi­ant, whirring sort­ing fa­cil­ity that uses in­frared sen­sors to ma­chine­gun plas­tic bot­tles off speed­ing con­vey­ors.

China is mov­ing in that di­rec­tion. Man­ual skilled labour used to cost about US$100 (RM332) a month; now the same Chi­nese scrap­yard worker makes US$800 to U$900 (RM2,660-RM2,990) a month.

“Now China is start­ing to bring in the same kinds of tech­nolo­gies that are be­ing used in the United States, the Euro­pean Union and Ja­pan.”

The out­siders

Min­ter is lucky. He gets into a lot of places be­cause he’s been cov­er­ing the in­dus­try for years. His back­ground helps, too: “They as­sume, and cor­rectly I think, that I’m go­ing to give them a fair hear­ing.”

Trash isn’t the sex­i­est of sub­jects. So on the whole, it isn’t sur­pris­ing that it took some­one like Min­ter to fi­nally un­cover this amaz­ing story about how an in­dus­try built on un­der­dogs has given rise to a vast and ef­fi­cient in­fra­struc­ture through which so­ci­ety re­dis­tributes raw ma­te­ri­als and mod­er­ates the need for de­struc­tive re­source ex­trac­tion.

Un­for­tu­nately, the main­stream jour­nal­ists that do lock onto it are usu­ally hun­gry for the other end of the stick – ex­posé-style pieces about the ex­ploited “hud­dled masses”, or how the West is dump­ing all its waste on the de­vel­op­ing world.

While it’s true that the re­cy­cling in­dus­try isn’t pretty, still, as Min­ter says: “The sit­u­a­tion is far more com­pli­cated than the way it is usu­ally de­picted in these very sim­plis­tic news sto­ries.

“People are not be­ing dumped on. They’re not even be­ing ex­ploited.

“In fact, if any­body is be­ing ex­ploited it’s the Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans fool­ish enough to sell this stuff to the Chi­nese and In­di­ans, who then turn it into new prod­ucts and sell (it) back to them!”

A lot of re­ports are just flat-out wrong, he says; they miss all the sub­tleties. And it’s ex­actly this sort of sub­ject that Min­ter loves tear­ing apart, dis­sect­ing all sides of the story: “The re­cy­cling in­dus­try is not black and white. It’s very grey. It’s morally com­pli­cated, so I wanted to bring that out.”

Min­ter ad­mits that the in­dus­try doesn’t do it­self any favours.

It’s no­to­ri­ously closed off, but there’s a rea­son for that.

Min­ter’s Rus­sian-Jewish grand­fa­ther started at the bot­tom of the chain, pick­ing rags off the street in Galve­ston, Texas be­fore run­ning his own scrap­yard in Min­nesota.

And there are two char­ac­ter­is­tics that Min­ter’s grand­fa­ther shared with other typ­i­cal “grub­bers”, people who rum­mage through trash for valu­ables. The first is the stigma at­tached to mak­ing a liv­ing out of garbage.

The sec­ond is that most people who deal in junk tend to be from marginalised com­mu­ni­ties, of­ten im­mi­grants and the poor.

It’s the same the world over, says Min­ter. In the United States it was the Ital­ians and the Jews; in Shang­hai, it’s the An Hui people, who come from the poor prov­inces. In other words, it’s a job of­ten re­served for “out­siders”.

“People can be in­se­cure about be­ing de­picted cor­rectly, be­cause of the stigma at­tached,” Min­ter adds.

The fu­ture

He gets a kick out of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists com­ing along and say­ing that we re­ally need a re­cy­cling in­dus­try.

That’s be­cause in his view, the in­dus­try has been mas­sive for decades, and it’s not driven by green war­riors preach­ing about re­cy­cling.

That’s not to say house­hold re­cy­cling isn’t a good thing – it’s just that good in­ten­tions don’t turn old beer cans into new ones.

No, this bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try ex­ists for one thing, and one thing only: money.

“The only rea­son why there is a re­cy­cling bin is be­cause some­body wants to make some­thing new out of it,” he says.

The re­cy­cling in­dus­try wasn’t built on virtue, it’s a by-prod­uct. It ex­ists be­cause smart people like the late Leonard Fritz (whom Min­ter sees as one of the in­dus­try’s great he­roes) saw a way to make money out of garbage, and be­cause a con­tin­u­ing de­mand from con­sumers means there will al­ways be a de­mand for cheap re­sources from man­u­fac­tur­ers in places like China.

And as the prices of com­modi­ties and raw ma­te­ri­als rise fur­ther, so too will the re­cy­cling in­dus­try grow.

One of the big­gest chal­lenges in the in­dus­try is the cost of ex­tract­ing re­cy­clable ma­te­ri­als from non-re­cy­clable sources, and this is largely a de­sign prob­lem.

At the mo­ment, com­pa­nies like Ap­ple de­sign for the con­sumer, not for ease of dis­as­sem­bly fur­ther down the line.

But Min­ter be­lieves that as more man­u­fac­tur­ers con­sider re­tain­ing some of that value from their waste by re­cy­cling their own prod­ucts, they will even­tu­ally have that “light bulb mo­ment” and de­sign prod­ucts that are eas­ier to take apart.

This may not have hap­pened yet, but the re­cy­cling in­dus­try is evolv­ing. It is not as clean and green as most con­sumers might like to think, but as Min­ter says, the worst re­cy­cling is still bet­ter than the best min­ing, drilling and clear-cut­ting.

Junk­yard Planet is pub­lished by Blooms­bury Press. You can find out more about the book and its au­thor at http://shang­hais­

What’chu gonna do with all that junk: Small frag­ments of im­ported au­to­mo­bile scrap be­ing sorted at Jun­long Metal Re­cy­cling in Foshan, China. — ADAM MIN­TER

With his back­ground, Adam Min­ter cer­tainly knows what he’s talk­ing about in his new book, Junk­yardPlanet, on the global bil­lion-dol­lar trade in trash.

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