Junkyard Planet
Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade
Adam Minter
Author Minter thinks that there should have been a huge celebration in midyear 2008. Why? Because the price of scrap metal reached a new high and old dead cars that had been littering America since the early years of the 20th Century were finally being brought in to scrapyards for purchase and melt-down. Before that, it wasn't worth people's time to go out and find rusted bodies in the garages and the fields and rivers and lakes and hidden behind barns.

Thus just before the fall of Lehmann Brothers junkyards were finding themselves overwhelmed with these hulks. One of Minter's friends ran a steel mill not far outside of Detroit. He reported that during that summer the lines were backed up seven hours just to get paid off for a smelly old ancient rusted-out, windshield-cracked, flock-smelling, floor-board warped, hood-smashed Oldsmobile, Dodge or Chevrolet (or Hudson, or Packard, or Edsel).

"It's funny for sure," writes Minter.

    But it's also astonishing, when you think about it: eighty years after the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford's assembly line, American's finally managed to clean up a backlog of junked vehicles --- and they did so in part because steel mills in Bangkok needed raw materials to make new cars and refrigerators for people in Southeast Asia.

It should have been celebrated, because for years cars were littered everywhere in the countryside. In the 1920s, one million cars a year were being abandoned. One of the engineers from General Motors opined that in 1970 "Americans had abandoned between 9 and 40 million automobiles in fields, open bodies of water, and city streets." New York City alone counted 70,000 automobiles and trucks left to rot on its streets, leaking gas and oil, and as a habitat for rats and mosquitoes.

Few knew the dimensions of the problem, and even fewer knew that the problem was about to be solved. First by the invention of a new type automobile shredder. It was small and revolutionary: instead of pounding your old VW bus to a flat hulk, it nibbled it to death in mini-bites. It required far less power and far less investment than the old mega-shredder, so your locally-owned junkyard could afford it.

The second change took a few more years to develop. That is, the great maw of China. Growing as wildly as it was and is, huge amounts of scrap steel, copper and aluminum were needed to change that nation into a consumerist society just like ours.

Junkyard Planet tells of all the junk that we manage to create --- both here and in the rest of the world --- but it also tells the story of the awesome growth of China as a behemoth that leads the rest of the world in the consumption of "steel, copper, aluminum, lead, stainless steel, gold, silver, palladium, zinc, platinum, rare earth compounds, and pretty much anything else labeled 'metal.'"

For instance, take copper. China produces some 5,600,000 tons of it a year, and more than half is made from scrap. Which, the author assures us, is wonderful, because recycling means fewer holes in the ground.

    Even the best copper ore deposits require one hundred tons of ore to obtain one ton of the red metal. What would the environmental cost of all that digging be? Would it exceed the environmental cost of recycling the developed world's throwaways? What's worse?

Junkyard Planet could have been a fetid nightmare swamp of statistics, but fortunately Minter has too many funny stories to tell. About his family who made their way by buying and selling "junk" in Minneapolis. About travelling through America with a buyer from China who deals in shipping containers of copper wire, or scrap steel, or aluminum scrap --- varying in value from $10,000 a container to over $100,000.

About visiting steel (or aluminum or copper) recycling centers in China, and being booted out of the ones that are suspicious of reporters or anyone else who could get them in trouble with the local authorities. About the wildly varying price of a ton of a variety of metals (buyers will often consult the "London fix" immediately before making an offer).

And about the poisoning of the children of the Chinese city of Guiyu, considered to be one of the most polluted in the world, with an alarming rise in incidence of lead poisoning.

And the tiny facts that make the book so entrancing:
  • It is estimated that every car to be shredded will contain $1.65 in loose change, dropped in the seats or under the carpet. This works out to about $20,000,000 in cash a year "just waiting to be recovered" in the United States alone.

  • In Shijiao, China, scrap-metal processors recycle some twenty million pounds of Christmas tree lights a year ... mostly from the USA. They are bundled and sold in "hay-bale-sized blocks of 2,200 pounds each."

  • Aluminum to be recycled is denoted as "Tata," "Toto," and "Tutu." High grade brass is called "Loose Honey."

  • Plastics has its own language, although not as poetic as aluminum or bronze: PP, PE, ABS, PVC, Polypropylene, Polyethylene, and one that sounds scary enough to ship to mainland China PDQ --- Acrikibutrile butadiene styrene.

  • Gold recycling may not be limited to third world countries. There are videos on YouTube on "how to refine gold from electronic waste" using volatile, dangerous chemicals. These videos get thousands of hits a day, so somebody "at the end of your cul-de-sac might be doing it too."

  • Scrapyards have their own smell, which Minter has found all over the world. It's "tangy like metal and thin like a wire."

One of the high points of the book may also be one of the most disturbing. It is estimated that China is home to 60,000 scrap-plastic shops. Most plastic recyclers are located in Wen'an County, China. Langfang competes favorably with Guiyu as being one of the most polluted, smelliest, most chemically disgusting places on the globe. According to Minter, the main street is "incomprehensibly dirty," well pockmarked because of the unrecyclable plastics being burned, illegally, every night.

"Twenty years ago it was bucolic --- an agricultural region renowned for its streams, peach trees, and simple, rolling landscape." The people who knew it back then sigh when they recall the fragrant soil, the fishing, and the soft summer nights. "The frogs and crickets were so loud they drowned out human conversation,"

    back before the development of the plastic recycling trade plasticized the lungs of men in their twenties, way before multinational companies did business in Wen'an so they could say their products were "made from recycled plastics."
Minter knows the price of this. He was a part of it. His family did junk, and he watched as little junkyards were bought out of business and large international corporations moved in. China was leading the way because of the lax laws and the massive number of laborers willing to work for practically nothing.

He sees it all as a matter of supply and demand. You and I have little use for old Christmas tree lights. But find enough of them so they can be baled and you can sell them to someone far away who has the know-how and the man or more likely, woman power to strip the wire, get rid of the plastic, and melt down the residuum to make a block of copper.

And why does it pay at all? Because it is less expensive to send it to Guiyu than to a plant in Texas. It's all those container ships.

They arrive at a California port bearing thousands of consumer electronics to be shipped around the United States. Since the ship will be going back to China half-empty, it pays the ship owners to drop the price of sending bundles of Christmas tree lights west to be stripped and melted down.

As Andrew Blackwell noted in a book recently reviewed here,

    The result is that we don't really buy our electronics from China after all. We just rent them and then send them back to be torn apart.

--- Irving Spivak
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH