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Junkyard Planet

Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade
Written by: Adam Minter
Narrated by: Stephen McLaughlin
Length: 13 hrs and 5 mins
4 out of 5 stars (4 ratings)

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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.

©2013 Adam Minter (P)2013 Audible, Inc.

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  • Mark
  • 2016-10-26

Mixed Emotions

If you care about the environment and what’s happening to this planet, this book will give you mixed emotions.

I’ve often wondered what happens to all that glass, plastic, tin, cardboard and paper that we lovingly sort into different green containers. I’ve heard rumors that it gets shipped to China – that we pay them to take it off our hands, and then they just burn it or dump it in landfill.

Fortunately, that’s only partly true. The true part is that it IS mostly shipped to China.

This might seem like a terrible misuse of fossil fuel, to haul this cargo of waste so far across the sea, but it isn’t as bad as it sounds. Container ships filled with consumer goods arrive in huge numbers in Western ports. China sells vastly more consumer goods to the West than the West sells to China, and so these container ships would have to return to China empty. It makes sense to use these ships to carry recycled material back to where it can be used.

And what happens to it when it gets there? Well it isn’t dumped, and only a little of it is burned. Whatever recycled waste is shipped to China, whether it be cars, cellphones or Christmas tree lights, is intensively processed to extract as much value as possible. Pulled and picked to pieces in all sorts of ways – by hand, or using chemicals or with fire, by armies of low-paid workers. Then the raw materials go to Chinese factories to make more consumer goods for shipping back to the West. A virtuous circle? Or a vicious cycle?

The author tells of a factory containing hordes of female workers in blue boiler suits who spend their working lives sorting shredded metal chunks into piles: Steel, aluminium, copper. It sounds like hard, tedious work - and I’m sure it is, but these women have all chosen this work in preference to an even harder existence planting and picking rice in the paddy fields from which they migrated. So they get more pay for fewer hours, and their work turns our junk back into useful metals, reducing the need to scar the globe with more mines and smelting plants.

This is so far sounding pretty good, but there is unfortunately a big downside too. Some recycling industries are highly toxic, causing heavy pollution and serious harm to the workers’ health. Some of the processes used to process batteries and e-waste are horrendous, involving burning or the use of chemicals, and they have turned some Chinese (and Indian) cities into post-apocalyptic toxic nightmare zones.

So, even though recycling is a benefit to society in many ways, it also has a very depressing dark side. The famous 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, are deliberately placed in that order.

If you want to help to save the planet:

Firstly, Reduce = don’t buy so much stuff.

Secondly, Reuse = try to keep your stuff going. Repair it, don’t just chuck it away to buy the next upgrade.

Thirdly, Recycle = if you have to get rid of your stuff, recycling is the next best thing.

This is the message of this book. Interesting and enlightening. Pleasing and saddening. Mixed emotions.

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

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  • AxRob
  • 2016-02-29

Boring.Could not finish it

This book wasn’t for you, but who do you think might enjoy it more?

Someone who like repetition. It repeats the same points and gives different examples of the same scenario over and over and over again.

What could Adam Minter have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

Not be so condescending to individuals who recycle and explain how it is all handled

What do you think the narrator could have done better?

He was OK. Limited due to subject matter but added nothing

What character would you cut from Junkyard Planet?

NOt character driven

Any additional comments?

If he went into more detail about individual examples and not just repeat the same mantra of how business is wonderful, China is booming, blah blah blah

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • jesse wilkes
  • 2016-02-18

terrible narrator.

I was really disappointed by the narrator's performance. He sounded robotic and akward. I was really interested in the story, but the narrator made it impossible to sit through.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Anuwit
  • 2015-01-08

Fascinating, better heard than read

This is a fascinating account of an urgent issue. I'm recommending it to all my friends. I wanted to read the book, but didn't, and I believe audio is the best medium for an account like this. There is some repetition from chapter to chapter, which was good for me as I listened in chunks separated by weeks. The repetition also helps to connect the chapters, which literally go all over, as they must to convey the situation.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • L
  • 2014-11-22

Know more about your world

Everyone should know what happens to the stuff they buy and discard, and this is an excellent place to find out more. This whirlwind world tour of what happens to the stuff you throw out. The bottom line? REDUCE, REUSE, and don't rely so much on recycling. There are some surprises in there about recycling; he makes you feel like you've been along for the ride.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • colossus
  • 2015-09-02

A great look into the recycling industry

This was a very informative and eye opening look into the recycling and scrap industry. The author's experience in China gives us in America the reality of the consequences to our unsustainable over-consumption.

Because of this book I will reduce and re-use what I can, and only recycle as a last resort. I have looked up my local scrap yard and plan to recycle what I don't need. Thank you for this eye-opening experience!

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • AVIAD
  • 2014-03-09

Great Read

Would you listen to Junkyard Planet again? Why?

yes, it's well written and well read.

What did you like best about this story?

the non-nonsense approach. no "green" environmentalism, just the facts in a concise way. I am an environmental engineer, working in the biofuels arena and dealing with China.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • S. Yates
  • 2017-06-23

A close look at something many don't wish to see

Any additional comments?

A look behind the curtain, or behind the fence, of junkyards, the international industry of harvesting waste (mostly of the metal, paper, and plastic sort), and how that waste finds its way back into useful life. Minter grew up in a family that made its living off of a scrapyard, and his background paves the way for this book. While some details are surprising (largely because modern Americans are a consumer society with little interest in what happens to our discarded consumer goods), this is not meant as an expose but more as a history cum guided tour of the industry. This tour takes us from American scrapyards to China and the multiple small and large businesses that take every kind of valuable and reusable goods and materials (mostly metal, plastic, paper, and cardboard), and wrest from them precious metals and other bits that can be funneled back into China's massive manufacturing concerns. It was eye-opening to see what Americans try very hard not to see, to see how our consumer culture fuels this larger industry, and what it means for various countries, global economics, and ecology. Neat book, written in an accessible way. Recommended.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • sail
  • 2015-01-21

super interesting

very thought provoking and a great listen. flew through it!!
loved learning all the different factors that effect "trash"

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • DAVID RAMIREZ
  • 2018-01-03

Behind the curtain of recycling

Great insights into a trade that goes unnoticed by most Americans. Content was very well researched and lived by the author. I highly recommend it to anyone in business or anyone who wants to know the truth about recycling.

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  • Oros
  • 2018-05-30

Il offre une autre vision

J’ai adoré cette livre. Je pense autrement au déchets et recyclage maintenant. Je recommande vivement cette livre.