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Adam Minter follows your garbage to China

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.

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).

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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.