Adam Minter

The country is at the center of the international scrap recycling universe, and the environmental impacts aren't always pretty.

Much of America's recycling ends up in China. And that's not such a bad thing, according to a fascinating new book by Shanghai journalist Adam Minter. In Junkyard Planet, Minter describes how China came to be the center of the international scrap recycling universe.

Every day, container ships arrive in China's southern port city of Shenzhen, carrying pallets packed with scrap metal, plastic, and paper, all of the material that the rest of the world, and the United States in particular, can't or won't reuse. China turns the world's cast-offs into goods it sorely needs. For example, aluminum from automobile scrap gets melted and exported to Japanese car makers. Scrap plastic might end up as plastic "lumber" used to manufacture backyard decks.

"I think of it as the hidden back story of globalization," Minter tells me in an interview. Cargo ships leave China packed with goods – electronics, clothes, toys, home appliances, shoes – for sale in the U.S. After they unload, those same ships take scrap and other materials back to a country that is "desperately short of metal resources of its own," writes Minter. The cycle "amounts to a carbon-neutral boat ride to China."

Workers strip stickers from fruit baskets imported into Wen'an from Thailand.

The environmental impact of the leftover products, the toxic sludge that ends up in China's landfills, was vividly described in the 2011 documentary Beijing Besieged by Waste, directed by Jiuliang Wang. The film depicts the abysmal life of Beijing's landfill scavengers, rural migrants who eke out a pathetic existence at the hundreds of dumps that circle Beijing. Images of cows and pigs rooting through brown sludge for something to eat could make a vegetarian out of anyone.

In his book, Minter describes the recycling industry in the city of Wen'an in Hebei province, where employees breathe fumes from plastic being burned for recycling, where the river is choked with algae and waste, and where even an old cemetery is being destroyed to create more room for landfills. Wen'an was once famous for its peaches and fragrant soil. Today it's a wasteland.

Minter's story does not paint a picture of an environmental idyll, by any means. He sees China’s recycling boom as the third-best choice among environmentally positive actions. It would be infinitely better to reduce consumption altogether. "I use the metaphor of the planet as a terminal patient," says Minter. "Recycling is a miracle drug that can extend its life. So the best waste management – the ability to extend the lifespan of the patient – will extend our consumption for a little while longer."

Still, China's recycling industry is so efficient, Minter says, that "by the time a load of Chinese trash arrives at a landfill, very little that's reusable or recyclable is left in it."

"But is this lifestyle sustainable?" Minter asks. "I think no."

A characteristic large-scale Foshan recycling business devoted to the hand-sorting of imported shredded automobile scrap. (Courtesy Adam Minter)

Without Chinese junkyard laborers, the problem would be even worse. China would have more mining and more deforested land, Minter says.

And if the knowledge of sludge-filled landfills and burning plastic fills people with horror, Minter says, he has a solution: "stop buying so much crap in the first place."

In 2005, Sigma moved into a new Shanghai factory that employs as many as eight hundred hand-sorters.

All photos courtesy of Adam Minter.

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