Alum digs up dirt on global trash trade

Minter used his familial knowledge of the waste-processing business to write his book.


By Sean Pierre

Journalist Adam Minter (A.B. ’93) is fascinated by junk.

The Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View, Minter wrote the book Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, detailing the relatively unknown yet vast trade of recycled consumer products around the world.

Incorporating a decade’s worth of research, the book, released last month, chronicles the growing globalized transport of post-consumer waste—waste that’s estimated to be worth $500 billion by Bank of America. The book also explains how certain individuals and entrepreneurs profit from this global trash trade.

In a phone interview, Minter noted that in writing the book, he sought to reveal “the hidden story of globalization.”

“We all know the story of how we have globalized certain things such as the iPhone, but I want to show that the way that our recyclable waste is disposed of is done in a system almost as complex but certainly just as important as [that of iPhone manufacturing],” he said.

Minter sought to dispel many of the myths associated with the waste processing industry.

“People, based upon the pictures that [they] see in the mainstream media, tend to think of recycling in China as dumping and exploitation, but it is much deeper and more important economically than that,” he said.

Having grown up in a family that owned a waste-processing business, Minter later used his first-hand experience in the industry to investigate waste-processing plants in both China and the United States, as well as to develop amicable relationships with many of the workers. “We tend to think of [the workers in the industry] as both objects of pity and slaves. But as someone who grew up in the industry can say, this is simply not the case.”

Instead, he said, many of the workers in the industry are doing so of their own free will in order to either feed their families or to pursue their own entrepreneurial goals.

After moving to China in 2003, Minter began to visit many of the recyclable-waste manufacturing plants across the country, where he became aware of the vast nature of this trash trade and started documenting as much of it as he could.

For example, he discovered that the majority of recyclable material that is transported to China from the United States does not come from individuals, but rather that 85 percent of material is generated in factories and other facilities.

As an undergraduate at the University, Minter always thought that one day he would write a book, given all of the writing that he did in his humanities classes. Junkyard Planet, his first book, reached number 117 on Amazon’s bestsellers list last week and made it onto Slate’s Best Books 2013.