Aside from the occasional headline or TV news story disclosing how our waste ends up in a developing nation to be sorted by children, I don’t generally think about what happens to my rubbish, recyclables or otherwise. The only other time I think about it is when I’m reviewing the list of things I’m allowed to throw in my recycling bin, which is decidedly lacking.
So this book provided a fascinating insight into the global trade in junk. And by that I mean anything that can be recycled in some way, whether that be direct reuse, or stripped for materials.
The scrap trade is now global, and Minter explains why those headlines about our waste being shipped to China, or India, or other locations with cheap labour, is actually a good thing (without that cheap labour it would end up in landfill). It’s an eye-opening journey through everything from the technology used by US recyclers to how the Chinese government is dealing with the growing pollution caused by an essential industry.
Not that the book was without issues for me. It focuses on a few materials (mainly metal, notably copper), with some others getting less attention (plastics) and some none at all (paper, fabric, glass). It is also heavily biased on two countries, the US and China. Some others are mentioned, but most only in passing.
Then there’s the simple notion of reducing demand. If we want to help the planet, and put an end to some of the polluting caused by the recycling industry, we need to stop buying so much. I get that, I do. Equally, Minter doesn’t address the fact that we can’t. Things don’t last forever, modern devices aren’t designed to for a start, and should I deny myself a faster, better, sometimes more energy efficient device because I want to stop the waste?
What about the world economy? It’s built on consumer power. We saw what happened when money got tight and people stopped buying so much: the world economy collapsed. The factories in China stopped producing and the scrap trade itself took a nose dive.
Then there’s the issue of re-use. Just because I’ve finished with a device doesn’t mean someone else can’t get a lot more out of it. That’s true, to a point. The book even describes Chinese dealers turning up their noses at phones only five year’s old. Yes we can send devices to developing nations so they can have access to things they may not otherwise have if they had to buy new, but eventually they’ll end up on the scrapheap, it’ll just be in a different nation. Out of sight and out of mind.
It’s a complex issue and there are some points that are a simplification too far. To be fair, he does also discuss the need for manufacturers to be held accountable, and to make devices that can be repaired, upgraded and, finally, disassembled easily.
And that’s before we get to some of the weird parts, such as when we spend a chapter in the passenger seat of a guy visiting scrapyards in the US, which doesn’t seem to add much, simply retreading many of the same points raised elsewhere.
Having said that, it will definitely open your eyes and make you look at the world a bit differently. It’s a thorough examination of modern consumer culture and will make you question things.
Stephen McLaughlin does an excellent job narrating this, so well you could believe he was the author.
The core message of this book is simple: reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s better do things in that order rather than toss something into your recycling bin and assume you’ve done your part. Sustainability is an issue that has been becoming more prevalent, but disposing of things, as this book shows, isn’t always so bad. We just need to try and do it responsibly.
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Audiobook copy of the book
Reviewed: 21st October 2014