Third-Best Option

“Recycling is better—I won’t write “good”—for the environment…Placing a box or can in a recycling bin doesn’t mean you’ve recycled anything, and it doesn’t make you a better, greener person: it just means you’ve outsourced your problem….if that realization leaves you feeling bad, there’s always the alternative: stop buying so much crap in the first place.” — Adam Minter, in “Junkyard Planet”.

JunkyardPlanet cover

If Adam Minter has a main point in his fascinating new book, it might be this—recycling isn’t a free lunch. While better than putting material in landfills, there are costs associated with recycling that can’t be ignored. And if he has a second major point, it is probably that the huge, billion-dollar global scrap trade is driven nearly entirely by market forces. You can put your newspapers or plastic bottles into a recycling bin, but if market conditions aren’t such that profits can be made, then that material will often wind up in a landfill. And, in a tremendous number of cases, it is conditions in China, and other developing countries, that allow those profits to be made.

Along the way, he has some truly amazing stories. As the son of a scrapyard operator, and a journalist for trade magazines in this field, he seems highly-qualified to tell these tales, and his stories about what happens to our trash and recycling are fascinating. A very-short version of some salient and interesting points—In 1970, there were 40 million abandoned cars in the U.S., so many that President Nixon referred to the problem in one of his speeches. Despite all the recoverable metal in old cars, they just can’t be melted whole. For one reason of many, even 1% copper melted with steel will ruin the properties of the steel. So, they had to be disassembled and sorted prior to being melted, and in the U.S. it just didn’t pay to do so. Then, about 1970 machines were invented that shredded cars, which turned them into fist-sized or smaller chunks, whereupon magnets could pull out the steel. Suddenly it became profitable to recycle old cars, but it took until 2008 to clear the backlog. Likewise with electric motors—for decades in the U.S. it wasn’t economical to repair them, and it also didn’t pay to take them apart for recycling, so they piled up in scrapyards by the millions (or were landfilled).

According to Minter, in 1970 there were 40 million abandoned cars in America. An economical way to recycle all of those metals had yet to be invented.

According to Minter, in 1970 there were 40 million abandoned cars in America. An economical way to recycle all of those metals had yet to be invented.

Then, everything began to change with the advent of the truly global economy of the 1990s, and the rise of China as a manufacturing power. All of the shipping containers that brought goods from China to the U.S., and the ships that brought them, had to return to Asia for their next loads. Since they had to make the trip anyway, shipping rates from the U.S. to China were (and are) extremely cheap, in many cases much cheaper than moving material between cities in the U.S. Suddenly, scrap began to flow to China, to be recycled with low-cost labor and used as raw materials for goods that would end up back in the U.S. Labor rates were low enough in China that it also paid to sort all of the material from shredded cars that wasn’t steel (SNF in the parlance, for “Shredded Non-Ferrous”), in addition to repairing or disassembling old electric motors. The same economics held true for other recyclable materials as well, and according to Minter, 46 million tons of scrap metal, paper, rubber, and plastics are exported to China and other developing countries every year.

Huge container ship off of Santa Barbara, CA., likely headed back to Asia.

Huge container ship off of Santa Barbara, CA., likely headed back to Asia.

Other points that I found extremely interesting—whereas materials are sorted by hand in China, some U.S. companies have invented automated lines to sort materials such as SNF. One way they do it—by making water heavy enough (with the addition of salts) that aluminum floats. That’s pretty amazing. And who knew that used Christmas tree lights are exported to China by the 2,000-lb. bale, or that industries exist in China to remove insulation from scrap wire of all sizes, whereupon both the metals and the plastics are reused? Who knew that recycled electronics are disassembled by hand and their computer chips reused across Asia, in everything from scrolling signs to toys, or that just one city in China recovers 6.5 tons of gold, per year, from e-waste? I’ll stop here, but the book is chock full of such material and insights.

Neighborhood recyclers in Shanghai, of the type Minter discusses.

Neighborhood recyclers in Shanghai, of the type Minter discusses.

But, back to the bent of this particular blog, I see two big takeaways from this fascinating book. One– as Minter writes repeatedly, recycling is the third-best option. Reducing consumption is best, and reusing (and repairing) is second-best. Only then comes recycling. Minter describes the pollution caused by recycling in places like China, where acids, solvents, and caustic solutions are dumped on the ground or in rivers, and where electronics of all types are sometimes burned to recover metals. Because of this, Minter writes, recycling is a “morally complicated act”, and an act that isn’t a “get-out-of-jail-free” card that offsets the consumption of wealthier societies. In some instances material can be recycled in a more environmentally friendly manner in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, but, paradoxically, the hand-sorting methods used in poorer nations actually recover more usable material per ton of scrap.

And my other takeaway, well, two really—first, the book reaffirms my feeling that we aren’t going to come up with some economic system anytime soon that replaces markets; markets are just too powerful. Amazingly powerful. Rather than tilting at windmills trying to replace them (there are thinkers and groups out there whose main focus is to “replace capitalism”, though I’m not sure with what), we need to bend markets to our advantage. Given that, if we can make it more expensive for the extractive industries (via taxes or regulation to protect the environment), it will increase profits on the scrap, reuse, and recycling side of the equation, and spur activity there.  As Minter so clearly shows, where money can be made in recycling, it will be made. And despite the fact that recycling has its problems, it’s better than open-pit mines and even more oil and coal extraction.

As for how to clean up the recycling industry, there probably aren’t any magic bullets here. As with every other issue surrounding sustainability, it will involve a combination of education, public opinion,  regulation, and enforcement. And in the poorest parts of the world, it will eventually depend on economic development. While we need to be careful about growing the economy, in some parts of the world economic development will clearly bring a wide variety of benefits (related post: “Hang On, Indeed“). If you have to dump solvents in a river in order to feed your family, then you’re probably going to choose to do so.


The extractive industries: never good for the planet. Despite its problems, recycling is a better option.

The extractive industries: never good for the planet. Though recycling isn’t perfect, it’s a better option. Bingham Canyon Copper Mine, Utah. I’m not sure there’s any way to “reclaim” sites such as these.

So, in the end, recycling is still a good thing when the broad scheme of things is taken into account. But, as Minter so clearly shows, when it comes to how we deal with the material we throw out, there’s room for improvement on all fronts. And for all of us in the wealthy parts of the world, we need to keep in mind that recycling, while good, is still the third-best option. It’s better to repair and reuse, and better still to reduce consumption.

Image Credit, abandoned car: Creative Commons by smswigart at
Container ship: Creative Commons by MikeBaird, at Image has been cropped.
Chinese recycling carts: Creative Commons by David Barrie, at Image has been cropped.
Copper mine: Creative Commons by Loco Steve, at Image has been cropped.

2 thoughts on “Third-Best Option

  1. Paul Dupoise

    Interesting article. Looks like repairing and continuing to operate our 20+ years old cars is contributing a little for the environment, but I and my old cars will not go forever. V/r Paul

  2. Taborri Post author

    Ha, a good way to look at it, Paul. No doubt you’re doing your part in the repair and reuse category! -t

Comments are closed.