Interview: Adam Minter

The Shanghai-based writer on China's multi-billion-dollar waste industry

Recycling is not just a green issue, it’s also a multi-billion-dollar global industry. As he releases a new book on the subject, journalist and author Adam Minter talks to Time Out about why the United States and China are getting their hands dirty

Adam Minter remembers his grandma waking him up early as a child and driving him to garage sales across Minneapolis, where they lived. They would go digging through cigar boxes and old trunks searching for treasure. ‘Find the value – that was scrapping,’ says 43-year-old Minter today in Shanghai, where he’s lived for the past 11 years reporting on the global recycling industry, which generates around 500 billion USD annually – landroughly equal to the GDP of Norway.

This month Minter publishes his debut book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, a 15-chapter collection founded on tireless research, personal anecdotes and family history. Minter relays the macroeconomic forces that keep American and Western waste flowing East, alongside touching vignettes from the traders and peddlers he meets in China along the way.

Minter was raised in junk, so to speak. His great-grandfather, Abe Leder, arrived in Minneapolis from Russia in the early 20th century and founded the Leder Brothers scrap company. Subsequent generations also took up the trade, but Adam wanted to play guitar and write. In his late 20s he met Kent Kiser, editor-in-chief of Scrap Magazine. It was the early ’00s and China was America’s key scrap market – Kiser soon had Minter on a plane to the re-emerging power.

Minter is a fast-talking wit with focused blue eyes. As he tells his story we can’t help but inspect him for dirt, signs of a life spent in scrap, but there’s not a speck. ‘I remember visiting my first Chinese scrapyard [Shanghai Sigma, in 2002] and thinking: “Wow, something really extraordinary is going on here,”’ he says, eyes flashing. (Minter is so passionate about scrap he got married in Las Vegas during a scrap industry conference). ‘Seeing all the American scrap there, I felt like I’d closed the circle.’

To give a sense of scale, China generates more rubbish than the exceedingly wasteful United States – roughly 300 million tons per year, says Minter, compared to around 250 million tons in the US. Still, China’s infrastructure programme is dependent on American scrap metal. Take copper, which is needed to build any sort of electronic device; 50 per cent of China’s copper comes from recycled resources, and of that 70 per cent is imported. Of those imports, 50 per cent comes from the US. The process of breaking down, recycling and reforming these goods into new products to be exported to the West is hardly glamorous, but Minter declines to portray the workers as helpless slaves or exploited drones.

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‘One of the first things I learned was, when you see images of factory workers in situations where it may appear they’re being taken advantage of, it turns them into – and I don’t like this term – “the other”. It dehumanises them, it disrespects them,’ says Minter. ‘From the beginning I was curious about who these people were. I really wanted to give some dignity to these people and take away this image of them being somehow enslaved.’

One opportunity came last January, when US raconteur Mike Daisey performed segments of his monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs on US radio show This American Life – a piece that contained fabricated stories about child labour and injured workers at Apple’s Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. Minter was one of the first people to publicly call him out.

‘I’ve been to well over 100 factories in this country and I’ve been to far worse places than Foxconn. Daisey’s allegation that [Foxconn was] using 12 and 13 year olds was just a huge flashing light that something was not correct there. You don’t want 12 year olds working on an assembly line where hi-tech goods are made because it’s precision work, they don’t have the attention span,’ says Minter. ‘In his mind and in the minds of a lot of labour activists this is automaton work that anyone can do. It says a lot more about the observer than it does about what is actually going on.’

That’s not to say Minter hasn’t seen horror. In the book he documents lung plasticisation in Wenan, lead poisoning in Guangdong and acid baths done by hand in Guiyu. ‘The worst conditions I’ve seen in general are in paper mills,’ he says. ‘They are hot sticky environments, wherever they are… I always think of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, he never feels inferior to men generally but he felt inferior to coal miners. I couldn’t last ten minutes in there and they’re doing ten or 11-hour shifts.’

So is Western activism helping improve these conditions in China? ‘It has raised consciousness and made a huge contribution in getting the global recycling industry to talk about it,’ Minter says. ‘But you also have to be truthful and when you’re not truthful you risk distorting government and public perception. For example, the same people who uncovered the electronics trade in China in the early 2000s, they have subsequently formed an NGO and they are now lobbying to have most used electronic exports [to China and the rest of the world] banned from the US’s used electronics market. That’s not the solution, but they’ve got a lot of credibility in the media,’ he continues. ‘I used to think their hearts were in the right place and I’m not so sure any more… whose masters are being served? These jobs are good for China and I don’t want to see them die off.’

According to a recent US International Trade Commission study, roughly 80 per cent of America’s e-waste is currently repaired, dismantled or recycled domestically. The remainder cannot be processed in the States, but can in China, where microchips are extracted by hand. ‘If it stays in the US it almost always gets shredded,’ says Minter. ‘My opinion is it should go where it can have the maximum lifespan, which is usually Asia and the rest of the developing world. I think export [from America] is the way to go and yet there are going to be some dark consequences, because at some point that stuff’s got to be recycled.’
 
So can Minter imagine a scenario where China has stopped growing (its growth is already slowing) and cheap labour dries up? ‘About five years after moving to China, I started hearing the phrase, “Who will be the next China?” I went on this wild goose chase… but Vietnam is too small and India is chaos,’ he says. ‘Unless the Chinese economy collapses [demand] won’t go away. From an environmental standpoint, the best thing to do is just keep using your stuff for as long as you can.’

Adam Minter will be speaking at Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade at Glamour Bar on Sun 9 March

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