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Adam Minter follows your garbage to China

Adam Minter

Few writers get their start in the scrap-metal world. But early on, Adam Minter saw a great story in his family’s north Minneapolis scrap business. As a boy, he sorted materials, watched his father cut deals, and sat by his grandmother’s side as she monitored employees and interacted with people who came in to sell everything from dead cars to metal shavings to aluminum cans — sometimes weighted with hidden rocks. The recycling industry has a long and fascinating history, propelled by necessity and innovation, poverty and piles of money, and savvy characters understand exactly how much money is hidden in our trash.

Minter ultimately left the family scrapyard and become a journalist. Today, he divides his time between Minnesota, Kuala Lumpur, and China, where he is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View. [He has also written from China for MinnPost.] As it turns out, you can take the boy out of the scrapyard, but you can’t take away the strange love the industry holds over its players. Minter is also a freelance writer for scrap- and recycling-industry journals, and has just published “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” (Bloomsbury Press).

The book examines the past century of recycling practices, following a Depression-era scrap-metal kingpin, the Minneapolis scrap scene, the environmental nightmare that e-waste has wrought on developing countries, and the emergence of Chinese scrap buyers. Those familiar recycling arrows, it turns out, represent a continuing circle in which Minnesotan consumers buy things that are made in China, toss the packaging and ultimately the products, and recyclable elements are shipped to China, where they become new products — that come back to Minnesota. Where it all goes, how it all works, and what kinds of problems come up along the way make “Junkyard Planet” an engrossing exposé that might make you squirm when you realize you, too, are part of the garbage continuum.

MinnPost: You grew up surrounded by people who made a living getting their hands dirty — and then studied philosophy at a prestigious college instead of going into the scrap business. How did your family feel about that?

Adam Minter: Well, I think every Jewish father wants his son to go into the family business. But there’s also a tradition of wanting your kids to go on to better things, especially if you had to scramble to achieve success. Then you hope your kid becomes a doctor or lawyer.

Courtesy of Adam Minter
The author’s late grandmother, Betty Zeman,
working in the office at the family scrapyard.

MP: Did you have any trouble jumping from a very hardscrabble sort of work to the — relative! — comforts of journalism?

AM: I worked in the yard from a very young age, doing things like separating copper parts from steel plumbing. If you saw a picture of a Chinese kid doing the same thing, you might cry ‘human-rights violation!’ But that kind of involvement in the work was just part of growing up in a family business. And it gave me a real comfort level in dealing with working-class people. There’s not that distance that exists between what you might call blue-collar workers and other people who haven’t done that kind of work. These are my roots and when I see scrap workers in China, I feel a kinship with them and a deep respect.

MP: On the money end of things at least, this is very much a man’s world [one section discusses how business deals might be wrapped up with a fancy dinner and a prostitute for dessert], yet your grandmother was right in there, and had a huge influence on you. Was she the only woman in the scrap business?

AM: She was the back office, the organizing principle, and the face of the business to a lot of people, and in family businesses, that’s not so unusual — everybody, from every generation, has to throw in. A lot of Jewish family businesses have a “Bubbe” or grandmother working behind the scenes. I have so many beautiful memories of her interacting with Minneapolis hobos who came in to sell scrap.

MP: Your family’s scrapyard [Scrap Metal Processors] is gone. Where was it?

MP: We were on North 2nd St. in Minneapolis, on a street that was scrapyard central since at least the 1930s. It was just a sight to behold, maybe 30 or 40 scrap businesses all in a row, maybe 95 percent of them Jewish-owned. It was mostly a retail, cash business in those days. The city bought the site and it’s now part of Van White Boulevard. It broke my grandmother’s heart to see it go. Now my family runs a small, indoor-only scrap business further north, and it’s not the same thing at all.  

MP: You know the business inside and out, and write about how many contacts you have in the business — and how much more money you could make doing scrap rather than journalism. You write, “Maybe I’ll change my mind one day.” So?

MP: Yeah, yeah. It’s always still there. But I have so many friends in the industry that, the moment I join the industry, they’d become competitors. And I’d much rather keep them as friends. I also don’t consider myself talented, in the way the people I write about are talented in the art of the deal. I certainly liked getting my book deal, but that’s about the extent of my skills in that area. Plus, I really like what I do now.

MP: You trace Minnesota’s connection to China through the recycling as well as the mining industries — a section of the book is devoted to the threats posed by mining in BWCAW. How closely are you watching the PolyMet Mining discussions?

AM: Very closely. I write about all the not-so-great aspects of the recycling industry, especially the horrendous pollution generated by our waste when it gets to China and other countries. But I wanted to point out in the discussion of the Boundary Waters that even the worst practices and impacts from recycling are better than the best practices in mining. I actually wrote about PolyMet for Bloomberg last week. The fact is, copper sulfide mining probably will happen at some point. But if we’re going to do it, let’s do it better than what PolyMet is proposing.

I’m really interested in the consumption end of these projects, because mining, and its impact on the environment and ultimately on human health, is a direct result of consumption. This isn’t just something the mining companies want to do. It’s something they do because our consumption creates a demand for it.

MP: So what do we do to change that? A lot of people would say it’s unrealistic to simply not buy things.

AM: I’m an American consumer; it’s in my genes. I want the next smartphone update as much as the next person. But I really put thought into the reuse piece of “reduce-reuse-recycling.” It comes down to simple ideas like, “buy it cheap, by it twice.” I try to buy better stuff that won’t need to be replaced so quickly. So, I’d much rather buy an android phone that can be updated than an iPhone that ends up being replaced and shredded when the next version comes along.

MP: You’ve written quite a bit about Apple’s shady recycling record. I get the feeling that you have some issues with the company.

AM: Well, I know Apple is aware of my work and they are not completely thrilled. But there are more sustainable ways to do things, and they aren’t making those choices. But they are listening.

One trend that gives me hope is Design for Recycling, or DFR; some companies are considering the recyclability of every component of the product and designing it with end-of-life recycling in mind. The electronics industry depends on rare earth materials, and those are getting rarer every day, so reuse has to become part of the long-term business plan. A lot has changed in the recycling industry even since I wrote the book, and some good things are happening. That gives me hope.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 12/20/2013 - 01:36 pm.

    I was finding Mr Minter engaging

    Until I reached this sentence: “I’m an American consumer; it’s in my genes. I want the next smartphone update as much as the next person.”

    What a stupid thing to say. We are in control of our preferences and can reason about them. If you want to meet your moral obligation as a person, understand the impacts of your choices (leaving aside that the “next smartphone update” is just a con to keep folks busy turning the earth into dollars). The disconnect is particularly galling as to the folks of supposed high moral sensitivity surrounded by their deeply destructive mineral-laden tech devices. We could consume a quarter of what we do, and lead much richer lives in doing so.

    • Submitted by Greg Christiansen on 12/25/2013 - 06:06 pm.

      Read a little further …

      Chuck Holtman is a little quick to condemn Mr. Minter, methinks. If he’d just bothered to read the few sentences that follow right after the ones he so self-righteously pilloried, he’d have realized that Minter shares his view. Let me quote them:

      “But I really put thought into the reuse piece of “reduce-reuse-recycling.” It comes down to simple ideas like, “buy it cheap, by it twice.” I try to buy better stuff that won’t need to be replaced so quickly. So, I’d much rather buy an android phone that can be updated than an iPhone that ends up being replaced and shredded when the next version comes along.”

      This sounds an awful lot like what Chuck meant when he wrote: “If you want to meet your moral obligation as a person, understand the impacts of your choices.”

      Chuck, next time you feel inclined to call something “stupid,” maybe read a little further, first.

      • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 12/26/2013 - 10:05 am.

        Greg – No, you are missing my point.

        Which is emphasized in my comment from several days ago, below, that perhaps you did not read.

        My point is that “reduce-reuse-recycle” is NOT enough. The first principle is DON’T CONSUME IN THE FIRST PLACE, absent your own careful justification, which rests on understanding the impacts of your choices and then evaluating your need and those impacts thru a moral frame. Then, where consumption is justified, the concept of “reduce-reuse-recycle” applies. Our society, even the environmentalists, jump right to “reduce-reuse-recycle” without any consideration of the moral imperative to limit consumption in the first place.

        As my earlier comment also makes clear, my criticism is not “self-righteous.” I am highlighting the moral obligation. I do not anywhere claim that I meet that obligation in my own choices. I am very aware of it, and try to meet it. That is not “self-righteous.” That is “doing my best.”

        Finally, I am not “condemning Mr. Minter.” I am objecting to a sentence that Mr. Minter spoke. OK?

        • Submitted by Greg Christiansen on 12/26/2013 - 05:44 pm.

          No, not missing your point.

          You declared Mr. Minter’s sentence “stupid” while conveniently overlooking the fact that he qualified it several sentences later. That’s not objecting. That’s uncivil and self-righteous pandering totally out of touch with the nature of the interview and Mr Minter’s book (which I read and that’s what brought me here) which is a careful argument for the connection between consumption and resource demand. You should pick it up. You might learn something.

          • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 12/27/2013 - 09:54 am.

            The statement was:

            “I will buy it, but I’ll buy a form of it that is more susceptible to reuse.” My statement is: sometimes we have to say no to buying in the first place. If you don’t think there’s a distinction there, then there’s no reconciling your thinking and mine.

            I’m sure I’d learn something if I read the book. I’m not sure of your point there, except to be gratuitously sarcastic, which is at odds with your own quickness to take umbrage at my use of the word “stupid” in civil conversation.


  2. Submitted by Paul Schoonover on 12/20/2013 - 07:36 pm.

    Stupid thing to say?

    So chuck, you’re not a consumer? Tell me, which technological device device did you use to comment that does not contribute to the world demand of copper/mining?
    Your short-sightedness makes me feel like a mining advocate. You miss the point completely. We are all consumers, but that does not mean that there are not better business practices and recycling principles that serve to not only lessen the demand for precious metals, but dictate it.
    Unless you are living in a cave, you are one of the folks “surrounded by deeply destructive mineral laden tech devices”. To suggest that Mr. Minter’s honesty and pro-active work is not a valuable service to the global community is ridiculously naive, and preventing you yourself from living a “much richer life”…

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 12/22/2013 - 10:01 am.

      Oh, come on Paul.

      Of course I’m a consumer. Every organism is a consumer. Some consumption is benign (apple, wool breeches). Some is destructive (iPhone, airline flight, NASCAR ticket). My argument is that each person has a moral obligation to make consumption choices in pursuit of his/her life’s goals in a way that is reflective of the impacts of those choices for the environment and society. Your argument, it appears, is that since humans, as organisms, must consume, there are no distinctions between types and levels of consumption and therefore there is no moral component to our consuming. I’m sorry, I think my position is stronger.

      Respectfully, I did not “miss the point completely.” I believe you missed my point completely. Environmentalists talk about conserving and reusing, but stop there. This unconscious framing is deeply incomplete. First, it is our obligation to minimize consumption consistent with the opportunity for all to lead a rich life. Then, as to the level of consumption this entails, we should conserve and recycle/reuse. Just because our ingenuity has reduced by 30% the amount of mining needed to support the hand-held device industry and the toxic exposure of folks in China doing our recycling for us, does not mean we now are free to consume those devices at whim and unburdened by a moral duty.

      Finally, you suggest that my argument is illegitimate because it was typed on a computer. Does my moral duty prohibit my being in a business that requires me to have a computer? Perhaps. My choices are as open to scrutiny as anyone’s. But it’s a non sequitur. The question isn’t whether I, as one hapless human being, am meeting my moral obligation. It’s whether there is a moral obligation. Don’t shoot the messenger.

      And I’m not saying anything about Mr. Minter’s “honesty and pro-active work.” I’m saying that if he meant the sentence that I quoted, he is wrong. And if he didn’t mean it, he is pandering to his audience and should hold it to a higher standard.

      • Submitted by Paul Schoonover on 12/29/2013 - 02:43 pm.

        What about the moral obligation of these mining companies?

        It is not my point that there is no distinction of levels of consumption. I agree that each person has a responsibility to make consumption choices based on their values. Thank you for stating the obvious. You then called Minter “stupid” after explaining his thoughtful consumption choices because they were not as righteous as yours.
        Your free-market capitalism argument that we as consumers provide the demand for these destructive mines is valid but it excuses the companies from any responsibility- where to mine and where not to, to strive to do it safer and cleaner, and to be accountable in the end. It excuses the permitting agencies from their responsibility of doing their jobs and having the courage to say “no” to these companies if they are not environmentally and economically responsible. It also excuses the regulatory agencies from their responsibility to make sure theses companies comply and are held accountable. It even excuses lawmakers from their responsibility to keep citizens and the environment healthy.
        Yes, we all can make personal choices that can and do make a difference. But it is these multinational billion-dollar conglomerates that lobby, spend, and manipulate the system to ensure that nothing ever changes and see that their coffers will be filled, regardless. Our personal choices represent a tiny fraction of what must be done to effect change in the big picture.

  3. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 12/22/2013 - 09:55 pm.

    Consumer obligations

    The mining company argument goes, “If you use electronic products, drive a hybrid car, etc, then you need these metals.” They then proceed to convince us that it’s economically viable to mine low-grade polluting metals, and they will add to the local economy, so we can buy more products, by providing X number of high paying jobs. (The number of jobs keeps going down because the size of the equipment used is now so gigantic, the mining process requires fewer people. But then we need more metals to build the equipment. Where does this end?)
    Anyway, during this current holiday shopping season, one can observe our mindlessly driven consumer society. It seems to me that we must start making not just moral decisions, but conscious and educated decisions about what we buy and the environmental and/or health impacts left behind by the products that we use and then discard.
    Perhaps we should all put Adam Minter’s book on our Christmas lists–as a wake up call, to help us start a new conscious consumer movement.

  4. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 12/22/2013 - 10:20 pm.

    Our waters are more valuable than metals

    The only thing I disagree with: “The fact is, copper sulfide mining probably will happen at some point.”

    Minnesota can chose its waters over the disseminated metals and 99% toxic waste of sulfide mining. To say otherwise is giving away the cummulative power of the people of Minnesota.

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