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