Recycling has become a way of life for many of us in the United States. My family has a big blue recycling bin that we roll out to the front curb every Thursday. It’s filled with newspapers, junk mail, and plastic, metal, and glass items. What we don’t recycle is Christmas tree lights because we don’t own any. But more on that later.
I’ve heard of people who are skeptical of recycling. Does it ever really get recycled, or is it all just thrown away like regular garbage? As a middle class American, I never questioned this and continued to recycle anyway. I felt it was a civic duty like voting and being nice to others.
Adam Minter, on the other hand, has asked these questions. In his new book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (Bloomsbury, 2013), he sheds light on just what happens to recyclables in the US.
Most go to China.
Minter has lived in China for a decade, but grew up in the scrap metal trade. His grandparents and father had a junkyard in Minnesota and Minter spent a lot of time there. He even thought about taking over the family business. Instead, he started writing about the scrap metal business, which took him to China for the first time last decade.
My favorite part of the book is when Minter travels around the US with a Chinese man name Johnson Zeng. Based in Vancouver, Zeng spends six months of each year traveling across America from junkyard to junkyard. And what does Zeng do when he finds scrap metal? He snaps photos and sends them to Homer Lai in China. Lai, an expert on scrap metal, tells Zeng what he should buy and for how much it should cost.
This system has made millionaires of these two men. And they aren’t the only ones. Hundreds of Chinese businessmen do the same thing every day. What the US throws out, China can use in construction projects.
And back to the Christmas tree lights. When Americans recycle them, most of these lights end up in China, where women pick through them for the copper bits that are needed in China’s mass development boom. Recycling copper from Americans’ Christmas tree lights is cheaper than mining for copper in China. And the process of harvesting recyclables for metals and plastics is hazardous to the workers and the environment, often deadly so.
So after reading this book, I’ve learned that recycling isn’t really the answer. It’s better than just throwing these items in the garbage, only to be dumped in landfills.
The real solution is to stop buying so much junk in the first place.