Books | Trash of the titans

A review of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, by Adam Minter.
Written by Jenna Marotta, Columnist (Books) on

If you're in a public place playing a '90s radio station, the song "Ironic" by Alanis Morissette will almost certainly cause an esoteric tiff. Rain-soaked weddings and fly-filled wineglasses, many claim, are actually misidentified examples of Murphy's Law. 

In his first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (Bloomsbury Press, $26, out Nov. 12 and excerpted here), author Adam Minter likewise sends brain cells scattering when he outdoes even the anti-Alanisites with his thesis: "recycling" isn't technically recycling.

What we eco-conscious sorters do is harvest. "Recycling is what happens after the recycling bin leaves your curb," Minter writes in the introduction. "It's an act of faith."

Commence with the revelations.

Here's a second wrong assumption I made: every environmental book is also an argument for why America sucks. Although Minter has lived in Shanghai for the past decade, he is the son of a Minneapolis scrapyard owner and savors the "tangy like metal" scent that once filtered through his grandmother's office.

The title Junkyard Planet encapsulates how Americans are stereotyped in the international community -- selfish yet innovative, petulant and sage, wrong but right. Dear World, stop throwing glasses at our stone house!

(Also, Junkyard Planet sounds like an inevitable stateside reality TV network, home to TLC's Hoarding: Buried Alive, A&E's Storage Wars, and half of the History Channel's offerings).

Apparently, I made my third mistake back in pre-K. "If your first priority is the environment, recycling is merely the third-best option in the well-known pyramid that every American schoolchild learns," Minter writes. "Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Like most Americans, I don't like the first verb, so I do my best to practice the second one." For years, I gave all three equal weight.

More than anything else in his 15 chapters, Minter wants readers to understand that while junkyards are eyesores to most of us, their presence around the globe is perfectly OK. "For all of its problems -- and they are rife -- the world would be a dirtier and less interesting place without junkyards," he writes. In other words, scrapyards are a much better alternative to landfills and burnt trash that wafts skyward in chemical candles.

Reading Minter is like getting punched by an atlas. But not punched in the gut -- punched in the ego. You'll look sheepishly at your passport after perusing through all the (male) names, numbers, and nationalities he met with (at more than 100 scrapyards on four continents) to satisfy both his book contract and personal narrative.

At the beginning of the book, Minter has a kids-eye view of the junkyard -- it's all discarded Christmas tree lights and banged-up Matchbox cars. Each visit is a layover between fast food restaurants, plus a chance to make more messy footprints.

Although Minter does most of the debunking, we know what will eventually fills his reporter's notebook -- exploitation, pollution, recession, sickness, poverty, underhanded business practices, unsafe working conditions, vague legislation, and reusable products no one wants to reuse. The climactic Erin Brockovich scene occurs in the town of Guiyu, part of the Chinese province of Guangdong.

After a bit of eyebrow-raising prose and moments of questionable am-I-or-am-I-not journalistic ethics, Minter settles in as a reliable first-person narrator with passion and a pedigree of writing for respected newspapers and magazines (Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic). He's the opposite of a know-it-all -- he has hunches, but plays a know-nothing for our behalf.

I most appreciated the novelty of Junkyard Planet's subject. No, not trash -- the author. Every scion of a family business that I've known has either run away or surrendered to paternal pressure. Minter is a happy exception.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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