Junkyard Planet

  • by Adam Minter
  • Narrated by Stephen McLaughlin
  • 13 hrs and 5 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

When you drop your Diet Coke can or yesterday's newspaper in the recycling bin, where does it go? Probably halfway around the world, to people and places that clean up what you don't want and turn it into something you can't wait to buy.
In Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter - veteran journalist and son of an American junkyard owner - travels deeply into a vast, often hidden, multibillion-dollar industry that's transforming our economy and environment. Minter takes us from back-alley Chinese computer recycling operations to high-tech facilities capable of processing a jumbo jet's worth of recyclable trash every day. Along the way, we meet an unforgettable cast of characters who've figured out how to build fortunes from what we throw away: Leonard Fritz, a young boy "grubbing" in Detroit's city dumps in the 1930s; Johnson Zeng, a former plastics engineer roaming America in search of scrap; and Homer Lai, an unassuming barber turned scrap titan in Qingyuan, China. Junkyard Planet reveals how "going green" usually means making money - and why that's often the most sustainable choice, even when the recycling methods aren't pretty.
With unmatched access to and insight on the junk trade, and the explanatory gifts and an eye for detail worthy of a John McPhee or William Langewiesche, Minter traces the export of America's recyclables and the massive profits that China and other rising nations earn from it. What emerges is an engaging, colorful, and sometimes troubling tale of consumption, innovation, and the ascent of a developing world that recognizes value where Americans don't. Junkyard Planet reveals that we might need to learn a smarter way to take out the trash.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Must read! He puts beauty into the scrap industry

This book is a must read for anyone who has ever bought anything or thrown anything away. Adam Minter is a talented writer whose vivid descriptions of the industry bring the people and economics of scrap to life. It is as artistic as any novel with an important message that any American should hear. I will never look at my trash can the same way again.
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- Radulove06

Interesting delve into a largely hidden industry

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes, great insight into something that affects all of us, but which few of us know anything about.


What did you like best about this story?

It's like a look behind the Wizard's curtain, to look at the inner workings.


Any additional comments?

Aside from the occasional headline or TV news story disclosing how our waste ends up in a developing nation to be sorted by children, I don’t generally think about what happens to my rubbish, recyclables or otherwise. The only other time I think about it is when I’m reviewing the list of things I’m allowed to throw in my recycling bin, which is decidedly lacking.

So this book provided a fascinating insight into the global trade in junk. And by that I mean anything that can be recycled in some way, whether that be direct reuse, or stripped for materials.

The scrap trade is now global, and Minter explains why those headlines about our waste being shipped to China, or India, or other locations with cheap labour, is actually a good thing (without that cheap labour it would end up in landfill). It’s an eye-opening journey through everything from the technology used by US recyclers to how the Chinese government is dealing with the growing pollution caused by an essential industry.

Not that the book was without issues for me. It focuses on a few materials (mainly metal, notably copper), with some others getting less attention (plastics) and some none at all (paper, fabric, glass). It is also heavily biased on two countries, the US and China. Some others are mentioned, but most only in passing.

Then there’s the simple notion of reducing demand. If we want to help the planet, and put an end to some of the polluting caused by the recycling industry, we need to stop buying so much. I get that, I do. Equally, Minter doesn’t address the fact that we can’t. Things don’t last forever, modern devices aren’t designed to for a start, and should I deny myself a faster, better, sometimes more energy efficient device because I want to stop the waste?

What about the world economy? It’s built on consumer power. We saw what happened when money got tight and people stopped buying so much: the world economy collapsed. The factories in China stopped producing and the scrap trade itself took a nose dive.

Then there’s the issue of re-use. Just because I’ve finished with a device doesn’t mean someone else can’t get a lot more out of it. That’s true, to a point. The book even describes Chinese dealers turning up their noses at phones only five year’s old. Yes we can send devices to developing nations so they can have access to things they may not otherwise have if they had to buy new, but eventually they’ll end up on the scrapheap, it’ll just be in a different nation. Out of sight and out of mind.

It’s a complex issue and there are some points that are a simplification too far. To be fair, he does also discuss the need for manufacturers to be held accountable, and to make devices that can be repaired, upgraded and, finally, disassembled easily.

And that’s before we get to some of the weird parts, such as when we spend a chapter in the passenger seat of a guy visiting scrapyards in the US, which doesn’t seem to add much, simply retreading many of the same points raised elsewhere.

Having said that, it will definitely open your eyes and make you look at the world a bit differently. It’s a thorough examination of modern consumer culture and will make you question things.

Stephen McLaughlin does an excellent job narrating this, so well you could believe he was the author.

The core message of this book is simple: reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s better do things in that order rather than toss something into your recycling bin and assume you’ve done your part. Sustainability is an issue that has been becoming more prevalent, but disposing of things, as this book shows, isn’t always so bad. We just need to try and do it responsibly.

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- Lee

Book Details

  • Release Date: 12-11-2013
  • Publisher: Audible Studios for Bloomsbury