Junkyard Planet


The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” could have been coined with me in mind.  Once I drop my trash and recycling into the bin and haul it to the curb, I rarely think about it again.   Only as my son, 3.5, began to beg me to talk about garbage and recycling trucks most nights as a bedtime story did I have to literally answer the question “Where do garbage trucks go?”

Initially, I told him the trash went to the “junkyard.”  Which is true to a certain extent. However, I knew it wasn’t the full answer, so I checked out a book from the library that I had heard about last year.

I first heard about “Junkyard Planet,” by Adam Minter, after NPR had an interview with the author. No less than 3 of my friends sent me a link, knowing I’m green-info junkie and love reading.  However, I hadn’t listened to the segment, so I didn’t come to the book with much knowledge beyond the dust jacket blurb.

Minter’s book reads like a detective novel, criss-crossing the country and globe searching for the resting place of a variety of suspects: plastic, paper, various metals, e-waste.  The author grew up around the scrap business has a decade long career reporting on junk. The resulting detail, characters, and in-depth knowledge, not to mention his great prose, makes this mystery story a delight to read

As we all know, Americans produce a lot of waste.  Minter puts it like this “The richer you are, and the more educated you are, the more stuff you will throw away.”  Not only trash, but also recycling, needs to leave your house.  The stuff you throw away still has some value, but extracting that value from the “harvest” of your recyclables takes effort.

Furthermore, the value still left in that harvest depends on an ever-shifting confluence of factors. How costly is it to process the material?  How far do you need to ship the materials? How pure is the feedstock? (Feedstock refers to the type or raw material material used to supply a demand: such as paper, metal, types of plastics).  In answering these questions Minter starts to get to the heart of the recycling worries that often linger on the fringes of green-minded do-gooders everywhere.

Is everything I recycle ultimately going to China?

This is one of the main questions I had when I picked up Junkyard Planet, and although Minter doesn’t mention Salem, MA specifically, the ways he tracks recycling leads me to conclude that even if my paper and metal stays local, it’s likely some portion of my plastics, e-waste, and any old car I’ve had has definitely taken a slow boat to China.

Certainly, one of the best reasons for reading this book would be to get a description of what recycling looks like in China.  Minter paints a picture of the industry that has grown up around U.S. discards.  He details a vivid picture of the people and places involved, both workers and owners, countryside and cities.

This part of the book was gritty and uncomfortable to read, and not just because of my role in the process.  No, the most uncomfortable part is that there are no definitive answers for what to do about the current exports, from an environmental or human rights standpoint.

Would legislation help the situation? Certainly, but as Minter points out, the issue isn’t even the most important problem for China right now.  And, if not China, then it’s likely another developing nation would quickly leap forward to make money off American excess, or worse, virgin materials would be mined leading to further environmental degradation and higher energy expenditure. There are more factors at play than I wanted to know, but being more informed helped me to understand how my choices contribute to this problem.

In the final chapter of Junkyard Planet, after leading us through long, grimy journey Minter closes with an extremely important takeaway for those of us who love to recycle, and want to get more people to recycle.

“Nothing – nothing – is 100 percent recyclable, and many things, including things that we think are recyclable, like iPhone touch screens, are unrecyclable… Everyone would be doing the planet a very big favor if they… conveyed a more realistic picture of what recycling can and can’t do.”

When it comes to the the three R’s, the most important one of them is the first – Reduce. Endeavor to buy only what you need, and to share what you can.  By all means, of course, continue to recycle in every way that you can. Use the resources that are out there on the web, including our own at GreenSalem, as well as others such as those at Earth911, one of the most comprehensive websites for how to recycle anything, but make it a priority to reduce first.

As for what I’ll say to my son when he asks “Where do garbage trucks go?”

I’m planning to start telling him we need to think of more ways to make less garbage and recycling, even if it means fewer trucks.

Would you like to read more by Adam Minter?  He blogs at ShanhaiScrap, and his work can be found in TheAtlantic, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Business and more.

Another excellent review of this book can be found by Erica Grieder at the Wall Street Journal.

This post originally appeared on GreenSalem.com


Book Review: Serve God, Save the Planet

Serve God: Save the Planet – A Christians Call to Action.

by. J. Matthew Sleeth, MD.

Hey all!  I read this very enjoyable book and wanted to share it with you.  I think it’s particularly useful for Christians who are interested in Green stuff to have a book they can hand to their skeptical, or simply overwhelmed, friends as a useful and enjoyable handbook to say – Hey – I don’t agree with everything he writes, but this guy covers all the basics you might want to know about Creation Care.  This book is engaging, thoughtful, well written, and most of all – easy to read.  (Important when giving people books to read – unless you know they want a challenge.)

Check out this quick review – which I cut and copied from my Good Reads account.

I enjoyed reading this book as a Christian response to “going green.”  The author is a very engaging writing who used a lot of personal anecdotes, and well as, I think, sufficiently reminding U.S. Christians that they are rich simply by dint of being born in the US – doesn’t matter what quintile you fall into.  You can’t get out of this, so you’ve gotta engage it. 

I like how the author didn’t shirk from the “hard stuff” (eg: population control), and provided specific ways to reduce your carbon footprint etc.  I like how he related first world actions directly to our third worlds brothers and sisters – I think this is the most important point that Christian sustainability and green advocates need to make.  Putting aside the (unfortunately somewhat) more controversial topic of global warming for now, we absolutely must address “our” own selfishness that allows us to ignore others suffering and lack of most basic resources like water and food – in our own favor of exotic foods and belief that our money is ours to spend as we will on whatever will make our lives most convenient, enjoyable, and ‘cool.’

Overall I thought he presented a very balanced portrayal of all the aspects that make up “saving the planet,” Energy, Food, Materialism… etc.

All that being said: two things bothered me; the author is certainly no Biblical scholar and interprets several Bible passages in a literal way which many theologians agree should not be interpreted as such. I, of course, applaud his use of many verses and having a Scriptural base for his position on the environment, however I wish he hadn’t overstepped his own knowledge by wading into theological territory.

Going back to my introduction however, I do wish he had addressed his unique position in being a person who, no doubt, earns a fair bit more than most/all of his readers and has had that cushion of wealth to fall back upon as he was making lifestyle accommodations – even ones that ended up saving him more money.  Even if he had discussed more often the difference between people in his own income bracket, that would have been nice.  I’m not saying numbers, I’m just saying he never really acknowledged that yes, all U.S citizens are privileged but he (and family) are particularly privileged.

Rereading Kurt Vonnegut

Interpreting Dystopian Literature in light of Christianity

In high school my favorite authors were Kurt Vonnegut and Orson Scott Card.  Science fiction and dystopian literature seemed edgy and profound at the time, and I’m still drawn to those categories.  I was fairly good as suspending my belief in reality, something my teacher impressed on my freshman English class saying it was necessary for reading Animal Farm.  He emphasized that we must overlook the implausibility of talking animals and he repeated this every day for about two weeks.  A bit of a priggish ninth grader I concluded that because I understood him the first time, I must be smart.   Also because I had read the book in only two days.  I suppose I was priggish and an overachiever.  This also bolstered my view that reading Vonnegut (as well as Heinlein, a little Asimov, Atwood, and Huxley) was my duty to my intelligence.

This year I’ve reread some Vonnegut – Welcome to the Monkey House, Man without a Country, and latest, DeadEye Dick.  I’d like to make it known that I wasn’t actually as smart as I perceived myself.  For all my knowledge that pigs couldn’t talk in Animal Farm, I also literally accepted the concept of Ice Nine in Cat’s Cradle, unaware that it might be a metaphor.  I often confused the man Vonnegut with his narrators, who spoke from the first person perspective.  A great deal of this confusion was due to the straightforward tone of the narrators as well.  I still operated under the assumption that people who could look you in the eye probably weren’t lying.  All of his narrators looked you in the eye, therefore they must represent Vonnegut.

So this time when I reread DeadEye Dick, I paused with a chuckle at the introduction in my (Dell, $3.95 US 1982) copy, a chapter full of disclosure, containing a few paragraphs explaining the main symbols.  Afterward I went on to read a tale of woe and sadness about a boy who commits an accidental murder in his childhood and doesn’t outlive the ignominy until the whole town is destroyed by a neutron bomb.  As Vonnegut himself said, “The crime he committed in childhood is all the bad things I have done.”

Freud would have had a field day with Rudy Waltz, protagonist.  Practically every psychological trauma he had could be chalked up to mother, “a cold and aggressively helpless old bat” or his father “a fraud.”   Psychologically though, I’m pretty sure it’s accurate to say that what we do, whether with intention or not, follows us around our whole lives – defines us, names us just like Rudy Waltz a.k.a. DeadEye Dick.

Why would a teenager like this book, me at 14 or 16 or whenever I read this for the first time?  Emotionally something must have resonated with me; after all at 16 I read emotionally first and foremost.   It’s somewhat easy to feel alone as a teenager, to feel as though already you’ve made a mess of things if you aren’t the most popular,smart, or athletic person. But Rudy has made a spectacular mess, a mess he’s always figuratively cleaning up after.   It’s nice to think there are people who have mucked it up worse than you have – that social comparison thing again.

But I’m not 16 anymore (thank God), and there’s more to reading comprehension than emotional identification with the main character.  There is understanding, interpreting, and evaluating. So I understand that Rudy committed a crime he can’t seem to walk away from, and that it defines him.  Rudy’s conclusion has then been to hold everyone at arm’s length, to become a neuter.  Neuters make no impact on anyone elses life; they live invisibly.  Although Rudy operates almost wholly under this paradigm, I can’t.  Although he holds that some people live a full life, and then die figuratively…


…meanwhile literally existing, I can’t accept this either.  Yet I can agree along with him, that simply by living, harm is done ecologically or relationally.  Yet we must strive toward good. I love life, and want to see good days, therefore I turn from evil and seek peace and pursue it.   The evaluation I make, that Rudy doesn’t, is that this pursuit of good is done through people and through community, and that it outweighs the bad being performed simultaneously.

Plenitude: A Review

After you’ve boarded a thousand odd books sometimes one more is just another flight into charted territory to visit family. Due to its resemblance to hundreds of already consumed pages of reading, the book is forgettable.  You enjoy it, in the way that you enjoy your mother’s spaghetti.  Comfort food.

Other times you awake in the middle of the book astonished; “This is brand new,” you say, startled.  You become excited. The ideas are novel, the concepts nearly foreign.  It’s like traveling for the first time to another country, like the drive away from the airport into a new city, wide awake and alert for the smallest deviation from the expected. I experienced this with Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle, with Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

So now, with Juliet Schor’s Plenitude.

I have read books about Simplicity before, particularly from a Christian perspective. I have read plenty of articles about how the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer.  I have read a handful of books about farming and dozens of articles about recycling.

Somehow, Plenitude bundles all of these concepts up into something grander, replete with economic explanations of the United States manic consumerism and graphs to illustrate particular points of the ecological footprint which rivals Bigfoot and all his family at this point.

The premise is simple enough, unlimited continual growth is impossible, ecological and social demise are brought on by constantly changing fashions and increasing need for more brand driven stuff.

And unlike some people who keep you hanging till the end of a lecture of book to reveal the answer, Schor places her four “Fundamentals of Plenitude, ” the solution, in the introduction.  They are:

New Allocation of Time – Finding ways to exist outside of “the market” by creating “multiple sources of income and support, as well as new ways of procuring consumption goods.  Concretely, what this means is a moderation in hours of work.”

Diversify and Self-Provision- This covers everything from growing your own food, to bartering, or using Craigslist.  Whatever causes you to go outside of the “Business of Usual” of picking up goods at the cheapest price regardless of manufacturing practices.

True Materialism –  “An environmentally aware approach to consumption.”

Restore Investments in one another and our communities – The premise behind this one is that people are what will “bail you out” when the times are hard, not corporations. So we need to invest in people.

From these fundamentals Schor proceeds to provide statistics and the sources of her information, which she has used as a foundation for her solution. She speaks, like Wendell Berry, of the limits of the earth when we don’t reinvest in things like soil preservation.  She also cites some rather fantastic technological innovations going on right now, to remind us simplicity is not regression to Luddism.

In all, the book, though published in 2010, seems a response to the ongoing Occupy Wall Street, the attempts to curb carbon emissions, and the unemployment.  It’s oft repeated denigration of “Business As Usual” should help us to think about whether a better economy is just more jobs and more stuff, and more about long term sustainability.

 This video, narrated by Juliet Schor, is the book in a nutshell.

Neil Postman and Ludacris

Educate yourself *about* TV, but don’t attempt to educate yourself *with* TV.

I had a really great high school teacher named Mr. Wallingford.  At least, Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death (published 1985) would have thought so.  This is because Mr. Wallingford taught my 9th grade Civics class and my 11th grade American History class about television commercials and all their wily ways and how to analyze exactly what they were saying to us with all of their smiles, smirks, lighting and camera pans.

The premise of Mr. Postman’s book lies one step beyond the communication mantra, “The medium is the message,” or in other words the form of a message dictates it’s content.  In Postman’s book he declaims in chapter one, “the medium is the metaphor” or that the way we process things becomes the way we think about them. Television has so saturated our communication style that we are now unable to think without images, and our thinking is emotionally laden and driven by trivial, banal (an oft repeated word within the book) and amusing detail.

Which is why I would present this book to youth along the same time that they read 1984 and Brave New World.  For myself, this was that 9th grade class, flush with the emerging knowledge that I could read and analyze books.  (Looking back at some of these essays of course, I smile at my own simplistic rhetoric and jarringly obvious attempts at ethos, logos, and pathos.)   But get it through your brain child, you’re not in charge of what is being thrown at you, and even should you attempt to censor your own television viewing, and your own magazine reading, and choose whatever news sources you consume you’re still being spun a web of entertainment and perspective.

I’m talking to my younger self, and I’m talking to my emerging adulthood self here at the same time.  And even should I know what is good for me, or educational now, I often choose instead to listen to “My Chick Bad” by Ludacris, to the detriment of my own brain cells.  It’s entertaining, and analyzing his implicit assumptions about women’s work and what they should be paid for (apparently pole dancing?) as well as attempts to discern his specific iambs do little to make up for the simplicity of language and the fact that it’s only four minutes of music shortening my attention span.

Work Conflict and Adult Development

Last week I’ve finished my classes for the semester.  The more intellectually enjoyable of these was a Psychology of Adulthood and Aging class which used this textbook by Stacey Whitbourne. During the chapter on Work and Leisure the author discusses the some of the various tensions which exist between home and work life, which fall into two categories.  At the time, the class had a lively discussion about what constituted the “worst job.”  And it’s always fascinating to see that one person’s worst job, is another person’s idea of heaven.

Another concept was that of the spillover model, proposing that attitudes and behaviors associated with one domain (work or home) have an effect on the other.  The second postulated interaction is the role strain model, stating that work and family involvement are inversely related.

I’m not sure I would define as “strain” in terms of a “split.”  Since in life, an inevitable amount of strain is not only likely, but desirable.  The strain of lifting weights leads to strengthened muscles after all.  However, a role sprain could indicate some unnecessary torque that required an evaluation.

The other notion of role strain I dislike is that it pits “work” and “family” as two self contained spheres which shouldn’t mix, and if they do, they are somehow doing a disservice to the other environment.  The only inevitable result of this is conflict.  Conflict, again, is a necessary aspect of life, at least according to my new hero, Georg Simmel, who believes that it’s the balance of superordination and subordination that each person experiences within his relations with the world.  And the only way to destroy a relationship is to withdraw completely from it.  Furthermore, any entirely harmonious group will not partake in any kind of life process. (p. 12. Coser. 1965)

The role strain model also seems to carry the implicit message that it is necessary to divide time either equally between work and family, or that one should focus solely on one domain at a time.  I protest! Not possible!  Not only not possible, but implausible, for no one can be completed by the necessarily somewhat impersonal work relations they undergo on a daily basis, nor the intimate and cloying family relations that occur from the stifling assumptions of people who know you so well they want to change you. (As I once aptly read in Coelho’s The Alchemist. )   Yet, simultaneously, these are the same people that take your work for granted on a daily basis, gloss over your most admirable qualities, and nitpick your insignificant faults. And stop laughing at your jokes.

Perhaps one of the most dissatisfying experiences of this (and well, all) semesters now where I’ve balanced work and life is the dizzying and saddening realization that I can’t do everything I want.  (And not just in a Rolling Stones kind of way), but in that, there will not be time in life to complete all possible pathways.  This is what I would more consider a time strain.  Or, as I was summarily told by my husband, the problem of my own humanity, with which I need to come to grips. 

It seems that the older you get the more you understand the delicate balance of choosing what activities to engage in.  The classes have taken up about 20 hours of my weeks lately, work another 40, and various necessary commitments most of the weekends, and that meant there wasn’t time to look for a couch for our apartment until now.  But, with the end of class, and a lessening of strain, I assume I’ll have a place to sit aside from the bed and the kitchen table fairly soon.  Which will cut down on back strain.  Ha.

Notes on “Notes”

In a blog who’s mission is bounded by the desire to observe and report on culture and to promote regionalism, reading a book entitled “Notes Toward a Definition of Culture” seems de rigueur. Half the time ideological opponents find themselves debating topics they haven’t fully defined and making muddles because they’re talking about two different things.  To this end, defining a debate topic should be a premise, not an afterthought.

TS Eliot’s essay, written in 1949, thus begins by laying the basic groundwork for his belief in what ‘culture’ is.  Moreover, he believes the aim of culture is different for an individual, a class, or a society.  Culture is neither synecdoche (where a part stands in for a whole, for example, using the word “culture” as shorthand for “art” or “music.”), nor is it an achievable “goal” in and of itself, since it is merely a byproduct of actions. Note that a certain culture cannot be intentionally aimed at; merely eliminating some wrongs will change culture, but it is not possible to predict the culture that will emerge.  It is always possible to disintegrate what is, but not always possible to build what is not.

In his conversational critique of what could be termed ‘social reform’ he navigates through several sticky webs of rhetoric that accurately apply to 2011 as well as 1949. Here is a brief summation of three of his five points which relate to topics this author ponders frequently.

If there is an attempt to supply “mass culture” to a society it’s end result is to supply no culture to society.  Regionalism, friction, and disagreement are necessary for any culture to survive.  Certainly though there are plenty in the US who ‘get all het up’ about “Pressing 1 for English” and attending “multiculturalism’ seminars.  Fortunately the flip side of this is that sociologists have been able to finally distinguish what it is that makes “white” “American” culture.  (See, Stuff White People Like. And this Dunkin Donuts website.  Yes, my tongue is firmly planted into my cheek here.)  Seriously though, this desire for distinguishment (and some semblance of unity) is what is leading to a heightened emphasis on Small-Marts, and the “locavore” movement of late.

Next he states a fact not always perceived or admitted: that culture and religion are firmly bound up in one another.  In order to preserve culture one must preserve religion, “culture is the incarnation of the religion.”  Here he points out the embarrassing English fact that dog races and bishops have a lot in common.  In New England I would substitute the Red Sox juxtaposed with Catholicism slash Puritan sects (Congregationalists).  On the surface you may say, those two things are nothing like each other.  Yet since religion is what protects from boredom and despair, and if this is manifested in culture, I think the link becomes clearer with the Red Sox (or more generally baseball).  Preservation of Religion is what provides the link to older culture (this can hardly be argued in the face of Catholicism and it’s contributions to art, education, social programs, philosophy etc. in view of the last 1900 years).  Rootlessness does no good for plants, lack of religion does no good for culture.

Finally, let’s briefly discuss his with attempts to extricate the Education System from taking on the role of well, everything.  It shouldn’t be taking on the role of the family, the role of the church, and the role of culture imparter.  Although he agrees that education is desirable, it cannot produce happiness or equality or culture in and of itself, and therefore we must be careful not to fall into the role of believing it to be a panacea.   Unfortunately I often fall into this trap of believing in better educational systems with better “goals” in mind.  Certain literacy should be basic, but certain uniformity should not. (re: friction)

There’s a lot more tucked into this little essay, however, for now I’ll return it to the Beverly Public Library so that you can read it and argue with me.