Junkyard Planet

  • by Adam Minter
  • Narrated by Stephen McLaughlin
  • 13 hrs and 5 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

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.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

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.
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- Mark

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

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- Robert A. Lupella

Book Details

  • Release Date: 11-12-2013
  • Publisher: Audible Studios for Bloomsbury