Book Review: Adam Minter – Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade

Adam Minter – Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

Waste not, want not. Minter’s tour of the global scrap and recycling industry is fascinating. He grew up in the industry, as the son of a scrapyard owner in Minnesota. As Minter got older and learned the business (and dealt with his father’s messy personal life), he discovered a whole world based on turning trash into treasure, and parlayed that into a journalism career, based in Shanghai. The amount of creativity and hidden efficiencies he finds are a source of optimism. A dreary-sounding dirty job turns out to be vibrant, innovative, and highly globalized.

At the same time, Minter is realistic about his industry. There are some shady goings-on in the circuit recycling and scrap metal industries in China, including corruption, dishonesty, and worker mistreatment. On balance, the ingenious ways entrepreneurs find to reduce, reuse, and recycle waste are good for the environment. But there are still some problems, especially in China. While these abuses are almost certainly greener than shutting down these industries would be, there is room for improvement.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, the most effective way to make sure people are responsible environmental stewards is to allow them to make a profit, and allow them to be creative. As in so many other policy areas, progress happens from the bottom up, not the top down.

Minter recently published a sequel of sorts, titled Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.

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