During this break, I got the chance to read for fun again, something I haven’t done a lot since signing up to be a student again in August. I read the book Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter, and it opened my mind to the global world of recycling. Adam grew up as the son of a scrap dealer in Minneapolis, became a professional journalist and now lives in Shanghai.
The book explains what happens to our (recyclable) junk: e-waste, plastic, cars, metals, paper. It is not a pretty story, but it is efficient. Since our waste flows to the place where the biggest value can be extracted from it, and globalization made shipping from the west coast of the USA to China cheaper than shipping from California to Colorado, (think empty containers going back to China after delivering stuff) a lot of our waste ends up in China or other parts of the East. Cheap labor makes extraction and sorting of the valuable metals possible, something that would not happen here in the USA, where most of the waste would just end up in landfills if it wasn’t shipped elsewhere. Unfortunately, the extraction is not always done in a safe and healthy way, so there are two sides to this recycling story.
“Nothing – nothing – is 100 percent recyclable, and many things, including things we think are recyclable, like iPhone touch screens, are unrecyclable. Everyone from the local junkyard to Apple to the U.S. government would be doing the planet a big favor if they stopped implying otherwise, and instead conveyed a more realistic picture of what recycling can and can’t do.”
As an example, iPhone screens contain rare earth elements, that can’t be extracted from the glass. Paper cannot be recycled indefinitely. Plastic recycling is not very efficient either. Metals are different. Copper can be recycled indefinitely, but it is not always easy to get to the copper inside of a device or a cable. Thus the need of (cheap) labor, or (expensive) technology.
In the end, increasing the recycling rate isn’t going to save the world. We need to consume less, and waste less. Reduce, reuse, recycle: in that order. Or as Bea Johnson says in her book Zero Waste Home: Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. Junkyard Planet doesn’t give us answers, but it shows how the global world of recycling works. It is a very interesting read, if you are interested to know what happens to your junk after it leaves your recycling bin.