Christmas Lights Make Slippers In Global 'Junkyard' Economy
When you think of recycling, you probably think of cans, plastic bottles and newspapers. Well, think a little bigger.
There are businesses devoted to recycling metal, paper, plastic, oil, textiles, cell phones, computers, motors, batteries, Christmas lights, cars and more. The hidden world of globalized recycling and reclamation, and its impact on the environment and the global economy, is the subject of the new book Junkyard Planet by journalist Adam Minter.
Minter tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that as demand for raw materials grew in Asia, the amount of stuff being thrown away in developed countries, like the U.S. and Japan, also grew.
"And as that stuff grew," he says, "the industry that was devoted to collecting it, recycling it and, to a large extent, exporting it grew with it. So the employment opportunities and the wealth generated in the developed world and in the developing world has been extraordinary."
Junkyards are familiar territory for Minter because he kind of grew up in one: He's the son of a scrapyard owner and his grandmother's father was a junk peddler. Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View. He's covered the global recycling industry for more than a decade.
On how the southern Chinese town of Shijiao started recycling copper
It was originally, like a lot of these southern Chinese towns, a town where there weren't many employment opportunities other than agriculture. And so people in that town started going into scrapping. And what scrapping meant was you find stuff down at the port that's imported, say, from the United States or Europe. And a lot of times that's wire — useless wire that couldn't be recycled in the United States or the EU. So you bring it home and you basically set it on fire and from that you extract copper.
And when an economy is developing, you need a lot of copper. It goes into power cords, it goes into iPhones, it goes into decorative roofing. And so what was originally extracted from this material, including Christmas tree lights, was copper.
On how Shijiao became known for recycling Christmas tree lights
Christmas tree lights are an ideal basic product or commodity, if you will, for Chinese scrap recyclers to bring in. And the reason is that it's got very little copper in it, only about 28 percent for a load of Christmas tree lights. So in the United States, for example, where there's a lot of recycling of copper wire, the American recyclers prefer to recycle wire and cable that was generally more than 80 percent copper. So what they'll do is export this stuff to China where there's huge demand for copper — roughly 43 percent of the global demand for copper is in China right now.
... Now, they'll actually recycle the insulation off of these Christmas lights. ... It can be used in a lot of ways, but in Shijiao and at the plant that I profile in the book [the insulation from the wire] is actually transformed into slipper soles. ... So they'll shred the Christmas tree lights and they'll use a system that, basically, ... uses water to float out the insulation and it will be collected and they'll sell it to a slipper sole manufacturer.
On recycling as a circular economy
In the environmental groups, [they] talk about it a lot. ... If you think of buying a pair of Nike shoes in Los Angeles, it will come in a cardboard box. You'll toss that cardboard box into a recycling bin; that [box] will eventually make its way to China where [it] will be turned into a new cardboard box for Nike and shipped back to the United States, and the circle continues.
On how car scraps get recycled
One of the primary hand-sorting jobs that you'll find in both China and India is sorting shredded automobile scrap imported from the U.S. and the EU. The way that automobiles are recycled in pretty much every country ... is they're shredded into fist-sized chunks and then some of those chunks — that are various mixed metals — are shipped to developing countries for hand-sorting.
This is not an easy job to do because there's all kinds of metals in there and most human beings without extensive training and experience can't, for example, tell the difference between a hunk of zinc and a hunk of aluminum in their hand. And then to be able to do it quickly and precisely is even more difficult.
On large-scale car shredders
These are machines that can range from two stories to about five stories high, and they literally eat cars. It looks like kind of an evil rollercoaster: The flattened car will go up the conveyer and then it tips into this machine that has, depending on the size of it, two dozen 300-pound hammers roughly the size of large televisions spinning several times per second that just obliterates it into tiny pieces. Steam is coming off of it. It's just an extraordinary sight.
... When the car hits the hammers as they're spinning it literally feels like an earthquake. ... Depending on the size of the machine, they're capable of doing several hundred cars in a day.
On a Detroit recycler that collects pocket change while shredding cars
[Huron Valley Steel] can take, essentially, a big pile of copper, aluminum, plastic, glass and separate it into its individual components. And one of the things they've developed the capacity to do in recent years is actually to recover the pocket change that fell between the seats that was never recovered and went through the automobile shredder.
So when they took me through their plant a couple of years ago, I was standing beneath a conveyor and watching, literally, coins raining down from the conveyor. What they told me is that the average American automobile is shredded with about $1.65 in change in it, and they get a significant percentage of these cars and they are literally able to make money from these shredding cars.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When you think of recycling, you probably think of your cans, plastic bottles and newspapers. Well, think a little bigger. There are businesses devoted to recycling cars, oil, textiles, cell phones, computers, motors, batteries, Christmas tree lights and more. The hidden world of globalized recycling and reclamation and its impact on the environment and the global economy is the subject of the new book "Junkyard Planet" by my guest Adam Minter.
He feels at home in junkyards because he kind of grew up in one. He's the son of a scrapyard owner. His grandmother's father was a junk peddler. Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View. He's covered the global recycling industry for more than a decade.
Adam Minter, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ADAM MINTER: Thank you.
GROSS: So you write that the global recycling industry employs more people than any other industry on the planet, except agriculture. That is a tribute to the amount of stuff we throw away.
MINTER: It sure is. It's a tribute to the amount of stuff we throw away, and it's also a tribute to poverty and the lack of opportunities that a lot of folks in the developing world have to start their own businesses or find employment. You know, one of the things that I point out in the book is that this is the entrepreneurial opportunity of last resort.
If you want to go into the scrap business or any kind of business, this is a great business to go into just because all you really need is a burlap sack so that you can pick up plastic bottles, say, beside the road. And if you travel the developing world and just look out the window of your car, you're going to see a lot of people doing this.
And as the developing world develops, there's more and more trash and recycling for these people to pick up and sort through. And so it creates a tremendous opportunity.
GROSS: But you've got opportunities on both ends. You've got poor people sifting through things to see what they can recycle for money in return, and at the same time you have these, like, huge recycling plants that are very profitable for the owners.
MINTER: Absolutely. I mean, that's been one of the really interesting sides of the story for me to follow, both as somebody who grew up in the industry and somebody who now covers it from Asia. As Asia's demand for raw materials grew, at the same time the amount of stuff being thrown away in developed countries like the U.S. and the EU and Japan grew, and as that stuff grew, the industry that was devoted to collecting it, recycling it and, to a large extent, exporting it grew with it.
And so the employment opportunities and the wealth generated in the developed world and in the developing world has been extraordinary, and along with that has gone extraordinary employment opportunities, absolutely.
GROSS: I think it's fair to say that here in America, as big as the recycling industry might be, it's pretty much hidden from sight. And we really don't see what's happening globally because a lot of the recycling is happening in developing countries. So take us to a very small village in Southern China, which is now the Christmas tree light recycling capital of the world.
And let's start with just, like, what do you do when you recycle a Christmas tree light. Like what are you getting from it that's of value?
MINTER: Right. Shijiao is the name of the town, and it was originally, like a lot of these southern Chinese towns, a town where there weren't many employment opportunities other than agriculture. And so people in that town started going into scrapping. And what scrapping meant was you find stuff down at the port that's imported, say from the United States or Europe, and a lot of times that's wire, useless wire that couldn't be recycled in the United States or the EU.
So you bring it home, and you basically set it on fire, and from that you extract copper. And when an economy is developing, you need a lot of copper. It goes into power cords, it goes into iPhones, it goes into decorative roofing. And so what was originally extracted from this material, including Christmas tree lights, was copper.
Christmas tree lights are an ideal basic product or commodity, if you will, for Chinese scrap recyclers to bring in, and the reason is that it's got very little copper in it, only about 28 percent for a load of Christmas tree lights. So in the United States, for example, where there's a lot of recycling of copper wire, the American recyclers prefer to recycle wire and cable that has generally more than 80 percent copper.
So what they'll do is they'll export this stuff to China, where there's huge demand for copper; roughly 43 percent of the global demand for copper is in China right now, and so they'll use mechanical means now to extract it. So because the material's become so expensive, they don't want to have charring on the copper. That makes it more difficult to melt in a furnace.
But the other thing that happens is they want the insulation. You know, even 10 years ago there was no market for insulation, recycling of insulation from Christmas tree lights in China. but as the price of oil has gone up and as China's drivers get on the road and start competing for gasoline with Americans, the demand for oil has gotten very high. So now they'll actually recycle the insulation off of these Christmas lights, too.
GROSS: And how - tell me again how the insulation is used.
MINTER: Yeah, the insulation, it can be used in a lot of ways, but in Shijiao and at the plant that I profile in the book, at the beginning of the book, it's actually transformed into slipper soles. So they'll recover the insulation via shredding. So they'll shred the Christmas tree lights, and they'll use a system that basically uses water to float out the insulation, and it'll be collected, and they'll sell it to a slipper sole manufacturer.
GROSS: Wow, you just, you never think about those things. And it's just an example of something that's so hidden.
GROSS: You know, like a lot of people have slippers, a lot of people have Christmas tree lights. Who'd know that there was a connection between the two.
MINTER: That's one of the remarkable things. I mean, I've been covering this industry for 11 years, and, you know, every time I think I've seen it all, I'll come across a Christmas tree light recycling facility or a facility in India that, you know, if you get a - buy some pills in the United States in a blister pack, so most people know what these are, it's like a plastic pack with foil on the back, and you pop the pills out.
I've been to a facility in India that - where people are employed to basically peel the aluminum foil off the back of these things, and then that's recycled, along with the plastic. You know, one of the primary hand-sorting jobs that you'll find in both China and India is sorting shredded automobile scrap imported from the U.S. and the EU.
And the way that automobiles are recycled in pretty much every country, including starting to be in developing ones, is they're shredded into about fist-sized chunks, and then some of those chunks, which are various mixed metals, are shipped to developing countries for hand-sorting.
This is not an easy job to do because there's all kinds of metals in there, and most human beings, without extensive training and experience, can't, for example, tell the difference between a hunk of zinc and a hunk of aluminum in their hand. And then to be able to do it quickly and precisely is even more difficult.
So in the time that I've been following the hand sorters in south China in particular, their wages have gone from under $100 a month to in some parts of southern and central China, they're up to as high as $800 or $900 a month. And that's an extraordinary increase in wages over the course of 11 years. These jobs, these hand sorting jobs, especially in China, are actually a route to pretty good middle-class incomes by Chinese standards.
And thus you see more and more older people in these places and fewer and fewer younger people because they want experienced people who can do this work very well.
GROSS: You write, China is the largest exporter of new goods to the United States, but it's also the largest importer of American recycling. I guess that makes some sense. Like they're sending us all this stuff, and we're shipping back the used stuff we don't want anymore, kind of.
MINTER: Exactly, exactly, and it's, you know, it's the perfect example of a circular economy. And you start to hear this term circular economy in the environmental discourse. The environmental groups talk about it a lot. It's really simple, almost, to explain. If you think of buying a pair of Nike shoes in Los Angeles, it'll come in a cardboard box.
You'll toss that cardboard box into a recycling bin. That recycling bin will eventually make its way to China, where that cardboard box will be turned into a new cardboard box for Nike and shipped back to the United States, and the circle continues.
One of the things, probably one of the two most important things that makes that cycle possible is the fact that China is shipping so much new stuff to the United States in shipping containers. And to ship a container of stuff, say Nike shoes, from south China to Los Angeles, for example, costs about $2,400. But as we all know, if you just look at the trade balance figures, you know, it's - the U.S. isn't shipping very much stuff back to China.
So as a result, you have, at these container yards in Los Angeles and in Seattle and in New York, all these containers stacked up with nothing to go back in them. So the shipping companies actually discount what they call the backhauls, back to China, significantly because they need those containers back in China.
And so currently, and it varies a little bit, you can actually send a container of anything, really, but for our purposes a container of scrap metal or paper, from Los Angeles to China for around $300. That's compared to $2,400 to ship it the other way. So that's a strong incentive to send stuff to China.
But what's even more remarkable about that is if you take a look at what it costs to ship something from Los Angeles to Chicago, it's also more expensive than shipping to China. So to go by rail or truck from Los Angeles to Chicago right now is about $2,400 per container. So if it's only $300 to go to China, given the choice, you're probably going to send it to China.
And not only that, that means the buyers of scrap materials in China can actually pay more for them than the folks in Chicago. It's an incredible story of globalization that's largely hidden from view.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Minter. He's the author of the new book "Junkyard Planet." It's about the global recycling industry, and it's a huge industry. So let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Adam Minter. He's the author of the new book "Junkyard Planet" about the global recycling industry. He is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View.
You write that the most polluted place you ever visited, and you visited quite a few, is in Yunnan County in China, which in 2009 when you were there was the center of northern China's scrap plastics recycling trade. I think they've since stopped recycling, but there's still a lot of pollution there. So what did you see when you were there?
MINTER: Well, I went there with the intention of just trying to get an idea of what China's small-scale plastics recycling trade looks like. Most of the recycling of plastics in China, even to this day, is done by small family workshops. It might be something you do literally in your backyard or garage.
And I'd never really seen it on any kind of scale. I'd just seen one or two. So a friend of mine, Josh Goldstein, who's a professor at USC, he actually had an in to this county. It's not a place that's very friendly to foreigners, and so you really need someone to bring you in there. You're probably going to be escorted out, at least at the time we went, by the police, and I know that's happened to some people.
So we arrived in Yunnan not knowing exactly what we'd see and not expecting things to be as bad as what we saw. And initially we didn't get that impression. What we saw were just these very small shops. And what people do is they buy plastics in the morning, it might be taillights imported from Los Angeles, it may be the KFC containers from Beijing, any number of things that are plastic.
And they'll shred them into small pieces and then wash them, and then they'll put them in what are called extruders. That's just a machine that melts it back down, maybe put in some chemicals to help that along, and it's made into new plastic pellets. And if you see one of these, you say this is bad because more often than not there's no ventilation in these rooms where they actually do the melting.
And you'll see them washing the plastics in these caustic solutions to clean them off. You know, you see one, it's not that big a deal, but after a full day of touring these things and seeing, you know, that there are thousands of these in one place, and all of these people working in these facilities, one, are inhaling these fumes off of these plasticizing machines and, two, the actual caustic cleaning solutions, there's no water, you know, recycling system there.
There's no way to clean the water. So what people do is they tend to put the water from this - these processes, just toss it into the nearest river, waterway or just out the back door, you know, creating this horrible, toxic mess sort of across the county that's added on to a health disaster.
So it was a very strange experience because when we first got there, it was this feeling it's not that bad, but cumulatively over the course of 48 hours to see the scale of what was happening there and the impact on human health was absolutely horrifying.
GROSS: A lot of people are getting sick from the toxins?
MINTER: Definitely. Well, it's - you know, it's - there haven't been, so far as we know, any coordinated studies on the health of the people of Yunnan. One of the things that we did, and this was Josh Goldstein's idea, my friend from USC, is we actually went and sought out a doctor in the town. And we found one.
And I recount this in the book. He was one of the famous barefoot doctors of Chairman Mao's era. As he explained it, when he first became a barefoot doctor, people were dying from waterborne illnesses. This would've been in the '60s and '70s. You know, you get dysentery. These are the things that, you know, are very common in developing countries where you don't have good sanitation.
You know, as Yunnan developed in the early '80s, and the plastics business started in Yunnan in the early '80s, he started seeing less people dying from dysentery and waterborne illnesses and more people dying from strokes, as he described them to us. And he didn't describe them as strokes. We eventually sort of figured it out it was strokes.
But people would start having strokes in their 50s. And then you got into the '90s, and you saw people starting to have strokes in their 40s. And then by the time we got there in 2009, he was seeing people having strokes in their 20s and 30s. And the cause of the strokes, and again there's no epidemiological data on this, the studies haven't been done, but his feeling, and, you know, you only need to spend a few hours there, the feeling of anybody who goes there is the health effects of the plastics recycling industry.
And more likely than not, what was happening was that people working in these plastics workshops, where they're literally standing over these hot cauldrons of melting plastics, were plasticizing their lungs, to an extent, and those were causing strokes there.
GROSS: Whoa. So Yunnan County is no longer in the recycling business. Did the government shut it down because of the pollution?
MINTER: Well, the government shut it down. The new party secretary of Yunnan shut it down. Whether he shut it down for pollution purposes or for the desire to develop real estate we don't know. But the irony of shutting down Yunnan is that it's actually turned into a much bigger environmental problem.
What you had with Yunnan at a minimum was you had this sort of very discrete, though very large, area that had these polluting industries. By immediately shutting it down, you didn't shut down the demand for the plastics that were being produced by Yunnan County. That demand continued on.
And so what happened after, you know, what amounted to a several month disruption in the Northern Chinese plastics business is that these businesses relocated, and they relocated to other parts of Northern China and are continuing on as they had. So in effect you're now polluting whole new areas instead of keeping Yunnan, you know, sort of this discretely polluted area.
Now just to be clear, I'm not advocating that they should allow these businesses to continue, but what a lot of people think who have worked on these issues is that the solution isn't to just do blanket shutdowns. These - the demand for plastics from China is going to continue. There is going to be demand for imported plastics and China's plastics.
What you need to do is actually take the time, effort, money to educate the people who are running these businesses on proper protocols, perhaps actually subsidize them so that they can get the correct technologies, which are not very complicated, to do this in a way that doesn't damage their health and the environment.
But that's much harder to do, and, you know, within China's political system, you get a lot more credit, at least off the bat, that you just shut down this horribly polluted area than you do for, say, a 10-year program to turn a badly polluting industry into, say, a mildly polluting industry, even though that's probably the right thing to do.
GROSS: I've seen photographs in very poor countries or very poor parts of countries where very poor people are basically scavenging, going through like piles of, like, computers or other junk, looking for things that they can sell. And it's a - it's just a very sad sight to see because it's the environmental - the environment there is disgusting. The people look like they're exposing themselves maybe to unhealthy toxins.
GROSS: And I'm wondering if you've seen sights like that and if you could tell us about that side.
MINTER: Yeah, I have seen it. I mean, I've seen trash scroungers. In India in particular is somewhere you'll see that. You know, in terms of the electronics, and these are very well-known photos that I think you're talking about. You see them a lot out of Nigeria. And they tend to be taken out at dump sites, and these are people who don't have a lot of other employment options. And so, you know, they're going to recover what little is left in those devices.
You know, I don't know what the solution to that is, and I don't feel good when I see that. I mean, these are really horrifying sights. I've seen it in India, not Nigeria. The one thing I do want to caution people about when they look at photos like this is that they don't necessarily tell the whole story of what's going on.
Now I'm not excusing anything, but images like that tend to suggest, I think, that this is the state of affairs in a place like Nigeria, but the actual data on what goes on with the recycling of electronics in Nigeria actually tells a different story.
In 2011, the United Nations Environmental Program actually decided they needed to get a handle on just how much developed-world electronics were being quote-unquote dumped on Nigeria. And what they found was that 91 percent of the electronics imported from - into Nigeria from places like the EU and the U.S. actually were being reused and refurbished. It's a developing country. Only nine percent of the material was ending up in dumps, being recycled in that way.
Now it's horrifying to see it happen that way, but it does speak to a bigger issue, and that is that when materials go to the developing world, people are, generally speaking, going to try and find the highest, most lucrative value out of those materials. In Nigeria, for example, where everybody now wants a TV and a computer but not everybody can afford a new one, that highest value is reuse.
But it does also raise the question of, you know, at some point those imported TVs and computers are going to need to be recycled, and right now Nigeria doesn't have the recycling infrastructure to do it. So what you're seeing at the dumps is the result of that, and it's horrifying.
GROSS: Adam Minter will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Junkyard Planet." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Adam Minter, author of the new book, "Junkyard Planet." It's about the often hidden world of the global recycling industry. And it's full of surprises about what happens to the stuff we recycle. Minter is especially interested in junk and recycling because his family owned a scrap metal business in Minneapolis. He's been covering the global recycling industry for more than a decade, and is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View.
One of the questions about recycling is what to do with your e-junk - with the computer that doesn't work anymore, or a device that you think has become obsolete because you bought a new one and you don't need the old one anymore. What are some of the reasons why recycling computers and devices is so complicated?
MINTER: It's complicated in part because of how it's been depicted and misunderstood in the developed world. When Apple asks somebody to or tells somebody that they'll recycle their phone for them, what that tends to mean is that a phone that's, you know, more than two, three years old will be sent to a facility that Apple contracts, and that phone will more likely than not be shredded into small parts and then separated out via magnets and other mechanical means that can extract the plastics and some of the precious and non-ferrous metals from it. And that's a very efficient way to destroy the phone. But the actual percentage that can be recovered from it in terms of the recycled materials is relatively low.
If that phone is exported to a developing country - and I specifically mean developing country, a place where people need phones and can't often afford new - more likely than not, that two, three-year-old iPhone is going to go right into use, sold through a reuse market and continue to be used for many years by people who can't or aren't interested in buying new. When it comes time to recycle that phone in the developed world, they also - developing world - they also can do, can recover much more that can be recovered in a shredder, and that's because they're going to hand-disassemble a lot of it. Those individual components will be sorted out. You won't lose any of the plastic to shredding. You can put the plastic case to one side and the glass to another.
More than that, much of the circuitry on the circuit board can be actually separated. And if there are reusable chips in there - you'd be shocked at how many of the chips in an iPhone or even a 10-year-old Nokia that can be recovered and put into new applications - that reuse value will be taken up. Now the means by which this is done isn't always clean, and it certainly doesn't conform to U.S. health and safety standards. But in general, you would have to say that there is still a higher environmental recovery than there is if you run that through a shredder, so it's a very complicated moral calculus.
GROSS: You know, explain to me why I'm not supposed to put my old cell phone that I'm done with in the trash with everything else.
MINTER: Right. I mean, whatever you may think about exporting to Asia or doing in the United States, putting your phone in the trash is the absolute worst outcome. One, you're just losing the ability to get any recyclable value out of it. But two, there's issues of batteries. There's issues - which can leach into landfills. There's issues of lead. Sometimes, I believe, mercury might be an issue in some electronic products. All of that will potentially leach into the landfill. The big issue, I mean we spend a lot of time in this industry talking about mobile phones, but the big electronic recycling issue right now is CRTs - cathode ray tubes - which we all know as televisions and computer monitors. Those contain significant amounts of lead because a television screen, a traditional television screen is made from leaded glass. Well, tossing that into a landfill is essentially tossing lead into a landfill and you don't want to do that. And, you know, it's still, I believe, legal in some states to do it and that's just, you know, it's an environmental crime from my perspective.
GROSS: Would you describe for us, like, the most amazing recycling plant that you have visited?
MINTER: Yes. That is a company called Huron Valley Steel in, outside of Detroit, Michigan. And Huron Valley Steel is a really interesting company. What they decided to do in the mid-1960s, when the United States - the American countryside was scattered with American automobiles that couldn't be recycled. And in the early '60s, people started shredding them, and they would use magnets to pull out the steel. And then everything else left over from that car would be tossed into a landfill. Huron Valley Steel Company in the mid-'60s said we want to get that other stuff out of the car. We want to get the copper and the aluminum; we want to figure out a way to sort it. And so they developed technologies to do so.
So they can take essentially a big pile of copper, aluminum, plastic, glass and separate it into its individual components. And one of the things that they have developed the capacity to do in recent years is actually to recover the pocket change that fell between the seats in a car that was never recovered and went through the automobile shredder. So when they took me through their plant a couple of years ago, you know, I was standing beneath a conveyor and watching coins raining down from the conveyor. What they told me was that the average American automobile is shredded with about $1.65 in change in it and they get a significant percentage of these cars, and they are literally able to make money from the shredded cars. It's just absolutely extraordinary to see it happen.
GROSS: Have you seen one of those shredder machines that can shred a car? I remember when cars were compressed into like a big pancake.
GROSS: But it's hard for me to imagine what it's like to shred a car.
MINTER: Yes. I have seen many shredders. I've seen them all over the world. And, you know, these are machines that can range from two stories high to about five stories high. And they literally eat cars. It looks like sort of an evil roller coaster, you know, the flattened car will go up the conveyor and then it tips into this machine that has, depending on the size of it, say two dozen 300-pound hammers, roughly the size of large televisions spinning several times per second, that just obliterates it into tiny pieces. You know, steam is coming off it. It's just an extraordinary sight. And I've, you know, I love to take people to these things. I've never taken somebody to an auto shredder who wasn't just absolutely gobsmacked by the scale of the machine and what it's capable of doing.
GROSS: That must be a really noisy process.
MINTER: It's very noisy and - I mean, when you climb into the control tower of an automobile shredder, you're almost certainly wearing ear protection. And when the car hits the hammers as they're spinning, I mean it literally feels like an earthquake, I mean it's just incredible. And, you know, and you think about one of these machines, you know, depending on the size of the machine, I mean they're capable of doing, you know, several hundred cars in a day and it's just incredible.
GROSS: Before you were married, would you take dates to car shredders?
MINTER: I took my wife, Christine, to a shredder in Indiana and, you know, she married me not long after that. I'm not sure if it was because of the shredder.
MINTER: But I'd like to think that the scrap business played a role.
GROSS: My guest is Adam Minter, author of the new book "Junkyard Planet," about the global recycling industry. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Your family has been in the recycling business, the junk business, scrap metal. What's the best word?
MINTER: Well, my grandmother called it the junk business. I, you know, I tend to think of it as the scrap business.
GROSS: Describe what your family's business was like when you were growing up.
MINTER: Sure. My family started out in the business in the early 20th century. And by the time my father got into the business, it was a scrap metal business, and he separated from his uncles who had the business dating back to the early or mid-20th century. We were a scrap metal business. We probably recycled, when I was young, probably about 50 cars a day. And by recycling, that meant we flattened them. We would take aluminum cans and I would stand on the can machine weighing cans as the hobos brought in the cans. It was, like most of the scrap businesses in the United States, a family business, and so my grandmother would actually be the person who ran the scale most days of the week. So you would have these, you have this 95-pound little old Jewish lady dealing with these, you know, large semis coming through with all kinds of recyclables on them and dealing with the truck drivers. It was a very tight-knit business and it was very characteristic. It was a Jewish scrap yard.
GROSS: So when you were growing up, who did your family's business sell to?
MINTER: We would sell to one - North Star Steel was the only steel mill in the Twin Cities and they would buy all our crushed cars. So that would go to a steel mill and they were the only steel mill, really, for several hundred miles. For the non-ferrous metals - by non-ferrous metals I mean copper, aluminum, brass, zinc, these are the things you can't attract by a magnet, you could send that stuff by truck all over the United States. I know that a lot of our consumers were in Chicago, but we also sent material up into Canada, so we were exporting at a very early stage. And then, I can remember quite clearly in the 1980s, we started exporting to Asia. It started out with exports to Taiwan. And then in the mid-'90s, when China really started developing its hunger for non-ferrous metals, we started exporting to China.
GROSS: That must've changed the business a lot, to start exporting to China.
MINTER: It was fascinating because all of a sudden all of these things that didn't used to have value suddenly had a market. So it increased the profitability of scrap recycling businesses across the United States in the mid-'90s, and the scrap recycling business in the mid-'90s went into a golden age of sorts that lasted until the 2008 economic crisis. The scrap business in the United States had never seen such good times because China needed so much material and that brought the price up for scrap for all kinds of, whether it be cardboard, but especially for metals.
GROSS: So your family had a car crusher?
MINTER: Yeah. We had a flattener, we called it - not a - a flattener car crusher. And what we'd do - and this doesn't happen now - you'd buy the cars. And I remember my father would put out price sheets for the cars and it was, you know, a small car like a VW Beetle, I think you'd pay 20, 25 bucks for. And what you'd do with the car is you'd pull out the radiator because it has a lot of aluminum. It's an aluminum copper radiator, so that has separate value. You'd take off the catalytic converter, if the car had one, because it has platinum or other platinum group metals in it. You'd take off the tires and anything else that's really easy to get value out of. And then you flatten it and you'd stack it onto a truck - I don't remember, maybe eight to 10 high, and ship it off to North Star Steel where the car would be shredded.
We were relatively small. I mean there are scrap yards - there's about 300 automobile shredders in the United States today, but those are multimillion-dollar machines. And so, you know, we were - if you will - poor junk. The scrappers that could afford those were rich junk. So we could afford the flattener. And our costs were low enough where it was possible for us to pull off the radiators and some of the other stuff and then send it along the line.
GROSS: Would you have cars come in that were obviously in really bad accidents and you could see that somebody was really hurt, maybe there was even like, you know, blood on the upholstery?
MINTER: Yes, we did. I was just thinking about this the other day. I remember it was Halloween and we received a car that had been involved in a murder suicide of sorts, and the back seat was in a condition I don't really want to describe. But it was a bloody mess. And, you know, what do you do in that circumstance? You know, you set the car aside, call the police department or, you know, just to make sure they know that, you know, that they've had the chance to look at this. And then you take it and you crush it. I mean there's no time to be sentimental about it. You know, we had another instance - see it's people, people are very funny about junkyards. I remember very clearly we had a guy come in with a brand-new BMW and a camera crew and he wanted to see the BMW crushed so he could film it and then let us keep it for the scrap value. That happened as well. It's very, you know, junkyards, very strange things happen in them.
GROSS: What kind of protection, if any, did you have in the business? Did you have like the equivalent of junkyard dogs?
MINTER: We did have junkyard dogs. And I - we stopped with the junkyard dogs in the late '80s. But I actually, you know, I love junkyard dogs and I try and take pictures of them at every junkyard I go to. And believe it or not, it's a real phenomenon. I was just in Ningbo, China and I took a picture of a couple mangy junkyard dogs. But we did. We had Dobermans run around the scrap yard at night, believe it or not. And then there would be a security system in the office. But, you know, there's a lot of theft that happens out of these, out of an open scrap yard. It's big and it's easy to get into and so that was always a constant problem.
GROSS: So the Dobermans weren't on a chain or anything, they were just loose?
MINTER: Yeah. So at night, I remember we had these big kennels and I can't remember how many we had in there. I want to say there were three or four. But at night, when the gate was closed and everything, my father would open up the kennels and the Dobermans would be running around the scrap yard at night. And then my father would come in in the morning and, you know, he was one of the few people I guess the Dobermans didn't want to attack. He'd call them and they'd get into their kennel and I would start business.
GROSS: When you remember back to when your family's scrap metal business was in its prime, what's the most cherished object that you found there, that you kept?
MINTER: Yeah. I know the answer to this right away. It was a - it came in one afternoon. My grandmother spotted it. It was a Great Northern Railway sign that would've hung beside, like, a station somewhere in the middle of Montana. It's a big sign with a ram on it. It was just wonderful. It's a wonderful collectible.
GROSS: You still have it?
MINTER: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Where is it?
MINTER: It's actually in storage in a relative's basement right now, but, you know, if and when I get back to the U.S., that'll be the first thing that goes up on the wall.
GROSS: When you look at the global recycling business and you look at, you know, employment and environmental problems and all the environmental good that's being done, as well as the toxins that are being released, what are some of your biggest concerns?
MINTER: I'm generally concerned that China, as it begins to start enforcing its environmental laws - which it should do - and as it begins to start raising environmental standards, is not going to be sort of the destination of last resort for recyclables from places like Europe and the United States. Now, let me explain why that's a problem.
I think they should raise these standards, but if there isn't a China to send this stuff, it's going to end up going into landfills and incinerators in the United States. And I'm not sure that the political will exists in the United States to start, you know, basically what will need to happen is subsidizing the development of sort of high-tech recycling infrastructure to replace the hand labor and the means of recycling that were accomplished overseas.
So that's the big concern. I mean, China doesn't want to be the destination for low-grade recyclable imports forever, but if they stop being that, it's going to put a lot of pressure back in the developed world to really step up. And I'm not convinced that the developed world is ready, capable, or even interested in stepping up and investing the kind of money that's going to be necessary to do that.
But I really want to be clear: I'm not advocating for sending things to Asia because it can't be done in the United States. It's just a general concern that this may be the trend that's about to happen.
GROSS: Something that I really liked about your book and about talking with you is that you're very concerned about the environmental issues, the economic and social issues, the health issues pertaining to recycling and the global recycling business. At the same time, I think because your family was in the scrap metal business, and still is, that you see a certain beauty in junk and in everything that we discard.
MINTER: I do. And I think there's a tremendous dignity in doing this kind of work. One of the things that's troubled me over the years as I've covered this is that the way this industry is depicted in a lot of mainstream media is depicted as the dregs, that these are not good jobs, that this is worse than the kind of recycling we do in the U.S. in green facilities. But, you know, my family came to the United States and made its living doing this. My grandmother, you know, cleaned scrap plumbing on the steps of her father's house to pay for her brother's bar mitzvah. You know, we tried to treat our employees very well. And when I travel, you know, to junkyards in Asia or, you know, in India, I very much see it through that framework, that there's dignity to this kind of work, that there is dignity to reusing and finding a way to recover value from what other people don't want.
It's not something to look down upon, but it's something to be celebrated. And despite all of the problems with the industry - and they're rife - you know, I still argue that, you know, the world's a better place for these junkyards. But more than that, you know, I like to argue that, you know, the very worst recycling I've seen is still better than the best copper mine you'll ever see dug in a hole, you know, in Tibet, you know, the best oil well you'll see, you know, being drilled off the South China Sea, the best clear-cut forest. That there is - you know, we live in a very complicated world, and this business is one way, maybe, to disentangle some of it.
GROSS: Adam Minter, thank you so much for talking with us.
MINTER: I really enjoyed it.
GROSS: Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View and the author of "Junkyard Planet." You can read the introduction on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Ann Patchett's new collection of essays called "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.