Junkyard Planet and the fourth “R”

READ IT by Bruce Mason

Junkyard Planer by Adam Minter book cover

• According to Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, repair is the fourth “R” that fits perfectly with reduce, reuse and recycle.

“Virtually everyone knows very well that repairable items tend to be better built and longer lasting. And that’s what we really need if we’re going to continue being a consumption-driven society: longer-lasting goods,” says Minter, a veteran journalist and son of an American junkyard owner.

He is among the 5,000+ people taking part in the world’s largest recycling convention: ISRI 2015 Convention and Exposition, hosted by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. (Vancouver April 21-25) Among the featured speakers is former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Minter’s perspective is a first-hand view of the real global ground zero. His book is a journey into the vast, often hidden, industry that’s transforming the global economy and environment, from back-alley Chinese computer recycling operations to high-tech empires. And he has a great deal to share about smarter ways to take out the trash.

Stressing that recycling is only marginally better than landfills, Minter explains, “Recycling requires vast amounts of energy and water – aluminium and paper are two examples – and nothing is 100% recyclable.

“Most plastics can only go through the process once or twice. Paper, five or six times. As for metals, they can be recycled endlessly, but there’s always some lost in the process,” he adds.

Putting materials into the correct recycling bin is only part of the equation. Getting them into the hands of manufacturers who are going to utilize them is equally important.

Recycled automobiles are an amazing environmental success story, Minter notes. Deliver a car to a scrap yard and within a week or two it will be on its way to being transformed into a new vehicle.

We have a long way to go with other items – phones and pizza boxes, for example. “Apple tells us they’ll take an iPhone back for ‘responsible recycling.’ That’s true, up to a point. They don’t tell us that phones, like most electronics, are difficult to separate into components,” Minter reports.

“Try segregating plastic from the metal – can’t be done. And iPhones that can’t be repaired, upgraded and sold for re-use, are shredded. A combination of magnets and other technologies pull out metal. The rest – especially the glass and plastic – is destined for the landfill and incinerator. When a company offers recycling, consumers should ask how and how much. Conservatively, for iPhones, it’s below 50%.”

Pizza boxes are loaded with problems – grease and bits of food waste raise recycling costs and lower paper quality – but it’s not a big deal in Asia and other developing regions. Pizza boxes are fed into paper recycling lines in China, Malaysia and India, to name a few, Minter explains. “Sacrificing some quality for higher recycling rates is a trade-off that folks in rich, developed countries haven’t considered,” he adds.

“So nobody – especially an environmentalist – should feel as if they’ve somehow done the environment a big favour by tossing something into a blue bin. If you really want to do the Earth a favour, reduce your consumption,” says Minter.

Minter is well aware that’s a hard task. “I don’t want to do it, either. So what’s the solution? I’m not sure there is one. But France is working on laws to require companies to tell consumers how long replacement parts will be available for their purchases; a fine idea and a really good way to start lengthening product lifespan.”

In the meantime, Junkyard Planet – now available in paperback – is an engaging, colourful, sometimes troubling true story of consumption, innovation and the ascent of a developing world that recognizes value where so-called developed nations still do not.

For more information on the conference, visit www.isri.org Scroll down and see ISRI Events on the right. Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

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