Addressing E-Scrap Overseas with ‘Junkyard Planet’ Author Adam Minter

April 25, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good and we’re so honored to have with us today, Adam Minter, he’s the author of Junkyard Planet, welcome to Green is Good, Adam! ADAM MINTER: So glad to be here, thanks for having me on! JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey Adam, your book junkyard planet, which I’ve read, and I’m a big fan of yours already, we’re so thrilled to have you on, you know, your book is just lighting up the world right now, you were just on the other night on the show Vice, I saw you on Vice, I’ve given your book to many friends and colleagues, everyone seems to love it. It’s an important topic. It’s a growing issue around the world. But before we get into talking about your book, Junkyard Planet, can you share a little bit about your journey your story Adam because it’s fascinating how you even came to become one of the most important thought leaders of our team on this topic, how you grew up and how you got to this place to start with. ADAM MINTER: Sure, sure I’m happy to. The short of it is I’m a junkyard kid. I’m a 4th generation scrap recycler if you will from Minneapolis. My great grandfather came from Russia, Russian-Jewish immigrant, wanting to be a vivillon believe it or not, a song and dance man, he made a couple mistakes along the way. One, he got off the boat in Galveston, Texas, there wasn’t a lot of options so he did what a lot of people do when they can’t do anything else and he started scrapping in Galveston in the early 20th century. Scrapping for rags, eventually made his way up to Minneapolis and founded the business that became several businesses but one of which I grew up in, working closely with my grandmother and my father. So I really have scrap in the blood, and I’m genetically related to the industry. And I grew up in the industry getting to know its ways of thinking and getting to know the people and characters in it and in my mid twenties I was still working in it but I was starting to get restless. Like a lot of family businesses there was some conflict there. It came to be time for me to leave. And one of the things that I had wanted to do in college and I didn’t do because I went into the business was be a writer. And so I did what a lot of people think about doing and sort of held my breath and jumped and became a freelancer. That eventually took me to China. I was working as a freelancer in Minneapolis. But I got the opportunity to go to China to freelance a couple of assignments. And I thought I might as well go now. Because if I don’t, I never will. And I got to China and one of the assignments I had was to take a look, this was 2002, take a look at what was going on with recycling in China. Kent Kiser the editor of Scrap Magazine, which is ISRI’s magazine, said you know we’ve got a lot of members doing business in China now. And none of us know why. They knew there was demand, but they didn’t know what was going on. So with a few contacts I went and I started poking around Chinese scrap yards. And that quickly became a beat. It was a great time to be doing it because that was when the exports from the US to China were really growing. And I developed it into my own beat. I was the only person over here reporting on that. And after a few years it came to be time to write a book. So, that’s the short sort of edited version of the story. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, and so let’s jump into it then. And for our listeners out there, Adam has written Junkyard Planet. It’s available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and all great bookstores around the world. Also you can look at Adam’s website which I’m on right now: ShanghaiScrap.com, ShanghaiScrap.com, it’s a wonderful website. I’m on it, look at it and learn even more. But read his book, Junkyard Planet. Adam, talk a little bit about what you share with us in the book. And like I said, I read the book end of November early December after a friend and a colleague shared the book with me. You talk about globalized recycling. What does that mean to you, and what should it mean to our listeners. ADAM MINTER: Sure. Well I think a lot of people when they hear the words “China” and “recycling” they get some very specific ideas and I think images in their mind. You might think of sort of Chinese farmers squatting over surfboards that are on fire and that kind of thing. And there is some truth to that but it’s a far more complicated story. And for me the story of globalized recycling in a way is just the backside of the story of globalized manufacturing. As we all know the recycling industry is, in effect, a raw materials industry when we get down to it. If we’re just looking at it as business. It competes with the stuff that’s dug out of the ground or cut down in forests or drilled for from oil platforms. And so, when we think about manufacturing say in China, or Malaysia, or Japan or Korea. All of these various manufacturing apparatuses, these factories they need raw materials to make these products that they send back to the US or send all over Asia. So for me globalized recycling is really the industry that supplies that to them. I mean, depending on what the material is, for example in China, half of China’s copper supply comes from scrap copper. Now, try to make them guess that 50 percent of its copper that comes from scrap, they’re in big trouble and so are we. Everything that we want to buy, everything from copper pots, to iPads, to the wiring from our homes is all that more expensive. It’s not available at all. So its really supplying that stuff that gets supplied back to all of us. It’s a manufacturing industry. And that to me is what globalized recycling really means. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And then you’ve also created the term “circulatory economy” is that what it also means in terms of globalized recycling, going in one circle, pulling out the scrap of the copper, then going back into new airplanes, and new hospitals, and new infrastructure to build the Chinese, or India, or other economies that are now emerging around the world? ADAM MINTER: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, that to me is one of the most fascinating aspects of covering this industry from China all of those years, was really seeing how China, which in many cases especially on the east coast, is very resource poor. So what China did and it was sort of a conscious decision in certain places to do this: they said look, we’ve got a great port but we don’t have any iron, or we don’t have any copper. So where can we get it. So they went and they looked first of all at the United States. Because the United States only uses about 60 percent about what it tosses in the proverbial recycling bin. The other 40 percent has got to go somewhere. Some of it will go to the landfill. But the rest of it is going to be exported. So China, they made this conscious decision. They said hey, instead of spending all the money and time opening up copper mines, let’s bring that stuff in. And that’s another meaning of globalized recycling. Because what the Chinese did is they said hey, it’s not getting recycled in the United States, we can do it. And we can not only recycle it, but we can build our own economy on it. And that’s a very, very important, and kind of overlooked story. We got into that a little bit the other nice on Vice. Of course it’s a much deeper story than what you can do in a 15 minute television segment. So, it’s very very important. JOHN SHEGERIAN: One of my favorite stories in your great book, Junkyard Planet, is the story from China. And I can’t pronounce the province or the city’s name appropriately. Shijiao? But the recycling Christmas Tree Light story. Share with our listeners the story of recycling Christmas tree lights in China. Versus countries like the United States and how we fall down, and how they really have accomplished this task and how they make it look in China. ADAM MINTER: Sure, that’s a great question. It’s a really fun story. The town you are thinking of is a town called Shijiao. It’s in Guangdong Province which is where a lot of scrap actually flows. Guangdong is probably the number one scrap import province in China. Let me explain how I got to this. I started traveling US scrap yards when I was doing this book and I started seeing Christmas tree lights in US scrap yards. And to me this is fascinating it’s a neat antidote to tell in the book, I wanted to know first of all why this stuff is being exported and not recycled in the United States. And the answer sort of dub tails what I was just talking about. American recyclers because Americans throw away so much, the US recyclers have the choice to get the good stuff. So if you’re a wire recycler, it could be Christmas trees or power lines whatever it is, in the United States a recycler only wants to recycle metal or wire that is about 80 percent copper. Anything less than that, it’s not worth it to them and it gets exported. Well Christmas tree lights are on average about 28 percent copper, and then there’s plastic, and glass, and a little brass in there so that stuff goes to China. Because China has such strong demand they’ll take that stuff that’s going to require more to extract from. So when I looking for how this is recycled I ended up down in Guangdong. In northern Guangdong Province in this place called Shijiao. And I got down there thinking I was going to see one recycling factory which specializes in this. Which is true. The factory I went to see imports about 2 million pounds of American Christmas tree lights per year. The thing that astounded me was that it was only one of, they said, 10 or 11 factories that do similar volume. So think about that. Conservatively estimated this is a small town in China that recycles approximately 20 million pounds of American Christmas tree lights per year. They’ve been doing it for years. And what’s interesting about it is that they used to do it in the way that we sort of associate with low tech Chinese recycling. Which is very efficient, you take a can of gas, and a lighter, and you set that pile of Christmas tree lights on fire. And you get smoke, and then when the smoke’s gone, you’ve got copper. Funny thing that’s happened on the way to globalization, and that’s Chinese people started buying cars and the price of oil started going up. So all of a sudden there was an incentive to start recovering that insulation. That’s interesting. So what they did, and what your listeners who know a little about the recycling industry, they’ll know about shredding wire and using various means once you shredded the wire you can use various mechanical or liquid means to separate the insulation from the copper. It’s a little bit like canning for gold, really. The insulation’s light, the copper’s heavy, one flows in one direction, the other flows in another. The neat thing is when you recycle wire in the United States there’s no market for it. Americans don’t like recycled insulation. So if you go to a company, a big American wire recycler, they are going to take that shredded insulation that’s recovered when you recycle wire in the United States, and it’s going to go to a landfill or an incinerator. But in China, they’re actually recycling it. And the factory that I described in the piece, in Junkyard Planet is actually in the first chapter, they actually take that insulation and they sell it to a factory that makes it into slipper soles. And that’s a reuse that simply wouldn’t happen in the United States. Why doesn’t it happen in China, well there’s two reasons. One there’s just huge demand for low cost plastic. The second reason is a little more difficult, and that is mixed insulation isn’t’ real high quality plastic. So, you can’t really sell that in the United States because American manufacturers are very quality conscious and they want to know precisely what they’re getting. For better or worse Chinese manufacturers aren’t as quality conscious and so they’ll take that mixed plastic and say, well we can make something from it. So it’s one of the messages of the book, you know we all like to recycle but it’s not always so black and white or black and green. There’s always a little bit of a grey area there about how you feel about these things. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so true and what a great story and how you show the difference between China and the United States. I just thought after I read that chapter I was hooked and I just went right through the whole book it was amazing. For our listeners who just joined us now we’ve got Adam Minter on, he’s the author of Junkyard Planet the new book which is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, I’ve read it, I loved it, I also recommend it to all of my listeners out there. He also has a wonderful blog, www.ShanghaiScrap.com. It’s really interesting and remember Adam has DNA in the scrap industry. So when he’s writing, he’s writing from really someone who has huge generations of experience, and he gets to see the other side because he lives over in Asia. You touch on so many other issues of recycling. But scrap metal is really to me the major platform that you cover. Can you talk a little bit about why? Why scrap metal why is that such a platform of topic with all its subsectors? ADAM MINTER: Yeah. Well I mean part of it was just an authorial choice, when I was thinking about how to write this book there was a moment there thought well, I should a chapter on paper and a chapter on cardboard and a chapter on Styrofoam, but that’s just going to get unwieldy you know. So the way you’ve got to do it is you’ve got to pick one thing and really follow it because in a certain sense, the way that metal is recycled the way that paper is recycled the way that plastics are recycled, they all have sort of the same demands and the same issues come into play. Obviously there are going to be differences. But I wanted to show the globalization of this industry and you can do it that way. So, there were two other factors at play. One metal, especially non ferrous metal is something that I know very well. Two, by weight, probably the most recycled product on the planet, most people don’t think about this, is the American automobile. You know from reading the book I talk a lot about automobile scraps. It’s hugely important. And then the third reason was, I really felt I needed to address this issue of e-scrap, e-waste, that so many people think about these days, is they’re not thinking about their home recycling bin but they’re thinking about recycling. In the e-scrap issue it touches on plastics, it touches on a lot of issues but ultimately to me it bears the closest relationship to the non-ferrous metal recycling industry so for all those reasons I decided you know, we’re just going to stick very closely to metals in this book and as you know there’s a chapter that concerns itself directly with plastics and I do address paper a couple times. But those are the reasons I wanted to stay with metals. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And then, since we’re going to stay with metals, talk a little bit about the car scrap business. And talk a little bit about recycling cars in the United States vs. China and India. And give again, show the paradoxes and differentials of recycling cars in all those three different countries and how you’ve relayed it out in your book. ADAM MINTER: Right. Well, I thought, first of all for me, I thought I knew something about car recycling until I started digging into archives and looking at the history of them. And one of the most fascinating things about it is if you look at records from environmental agencies that we have believe it or not in the United States in the 1950s and 60s, what were the big issues they were dealing with? For many of them, the number one issue on their agenda, the number one environmental problem in the United States at that point, was what to do with abandoned automobiles. Because they simply couldn’t be recycled. The price of labor in the United States had gone up too much. And the steel mills didn’t want cars coming in that had copper in them because that weakens the steel, so what was happening we have estimates that by the late 1960s there were as many as 40 million US automobiles abandoned throughout the United States countryside. I believe it was New York City alone in 1969 or 70, 20,000 cars were abandoned on the streets of New York City. Nobody knew what to do with these things. To me it’s a little bit parallel a little bit to the e-waste problem. What was eventually devised was the automobile shredder. The idea was pulverize the car and then magnets and other technologies to separate things out. And that’s how we do it now, and it’s relayed in the book. In 2008 if you talked to industry professionals who are involved in automobile recycling, they will tell you that it was only in 2008 that they feel that they feel that the backlog of American automobiles that were out in the countryside abandoned and everything else finally got cleared up and we were current. That’s amazing to me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is amazing. ADAM MINTER: Anyway, it’s just incredible. But if you go back further, if you go back to the 20s and 30s, there weren’t enough cars in the United States. And the price of labor was cheap enough where people could really take these things apart by hand and recycle the individual components and reuse them much more. It’s what World War II, after World War II went the price of labor went up and Americans got rich and simply didn’t want to recycle as much. And that’s somewhat the parallel of what’s going on in developing countries. If you go to Cuba or Mexico, you’ll see a lot more cars on the road that are older—why—because the price of labor is still cheap enough there there’s an incentive for people to repair these things. Now if you go to China, China’s in a very interesting position right now. Because China is the world’s number one car consumer right now. They buy more cars than the United States even. And that I believe happened in 2009. So, they haven’t started throwing away cars yet at the volumes at the United States does yet, but they will. Their cars are going to go through the same cycle. But what’s interesting, is when Chinese cars wear out at this point, they’re not being recycled. What happens to them is they start moving west into poor provinces where they’ll be repaired and refurbished. Much like you’d see in a Cuba or a Mexico or an India. Once they’re done in the western provenances they start moving south. And there’s this fascinating, massive trade of used cars now moving out of China into India and into Africa if you can believe that. This poses a problem for the automobile recyclers in China because starting about 4 years ago the automobile recyclers said we’re going to make a lot of money here shredding Chinese automobiles. So you had Chinese recyclers spend tens of millions of dollars in some cases, building US and EU style automobile shredding operations. And those shredding operations, these are giant shredders, are completely underutilized maybe they’ll run two to three days a week now. Because all of those cars that they were planning on, they didn’t think that those cars could just easily move into India and Africa. So it’s a very very interesting and, unsettled, I don’t mean unsettling, but unsettled, it’s a good, green, story in a way. The Chinese people are too practical. They don’t want to see their cars shredded they want to see them reused. That’s not a green thing that they’re doing, it’s green in the sense that it’s dollars obviously there’s always more money in selling something for reuse than recycling. So that’s what’s going on it’s absolutely fascinating. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is fascinating and you know Adam we’re just about out of time for today but we’re going to have you back and for our listeners out there, I want you to read Adam’s book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, it’s chock full of the kind stories he just told today with regards to car recycling in China vs. the United States, Christmas tree recycling in China vs. the United States and everything that’s going on in regards to globalized recycling, and what he calls the circular economy. Adam, it’s an honor to have you on. So our listeners should please to go to Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com and other fine bookstores to find Junkyard Planet, ShanghaiScrap.com. Adam Minter, thank you for your brilliant book, your thought leadership on the important issue of recycling, and you are truly living proof that green is good.