Asia Briefing: Where there’s muck, there’s brass – mostly in the East

‘Junkyard Planet’ lifts the dustbin lid on China and the global trash trade

Recycled computer motherboards for sale at a roadside stall in the Tianhe district of Guangzhou, Guangdong province. PHOTOGRAPHER: BRENT LEWIN/BLOOMBERG

Recycled computer motherboards for sale at a roadside stall in the Tianhe district of Guangzhou, Guangdong province. PHOTOGRAPHER: BRENT LEWIN/BLOOMBERG


It’s an odd sort of compliment to say a book is a load of rubbish, but Adam Minter’s terrific Junkyard Planet is just that – a lot of rubbish.

Living in China you see assorted elements of the €400 billion (at least) waste business at various stages – the containers full of plastic bottles in the docks or the ground-floor shopfronts filled with e-waste in small towns all over the country.

Only agriculture employs more people. Going from town to town covering political or environmental stories here in China, you will often find yourself taking tea with an interviewee in a room filled with discarded toys, or next to a house full of electric plugs, all awaiting washing, dismantling and preparation for being picked up by the regional scrapyard person.

It is postmodern cottage industry, where the volumes are high and the margins are as tight as can be.

What Minter does is bring the whole thing together. If you can get beyond the title, reading this book about the way scrap works around the world is a truly rewarding and insight-filled experience.

The basic exploration within the book is to follow e-waste and plastic and other things the rich West casts away and see what happens to it when it arrives in developing countries for reprocessing.

Minter is a China-based journalist and the son of a US junkyard owner and he tells the tale in an engaging and thought-provoking way.

It is particularly interesting given the recent debate about pollution in China. Beijing argues that the West outsources its pollution by making all the consumer goodies that everyone loves in China.

The irony of watching these dolls and watches and circuit boards come “home” to China to be separated in a skip is savage.

As Minter points out, using nothing at all is better than recycling something, regardless of whether it happens in the East or the West. At the same time, in 2000, 74 per cent of China’s demand for copper was met by scrap.

But, after reading Junkyard Planet , you will never separate your rubbish in quite the same way again.

Junkyard Planet is published by Bloomsbury Pres s, £18.99

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