When we dutifully place our bins of plastic, aluminum, paper and cardboard out each week we are not so much recycling as simply sorting out the reusable from the garbage. It's the easy first step in a complicated $500 billion international industry that employs more people than any other business except agriculture on our beleaguered planet. From discarded lawn chairs to TVs, cars to water meters, Christmas lights to laptops, everything we throw away has a market — and that market is mostly in China.
Nobody knows the business better than author Adam Minter, the son of a scrap man from Minneapolis. Minter, the Shanghai reporter for Bloomberg's World View blog, has been chasing the recycling story across the world. In "Junkyard Planet," he has written a well-researched narrative, although a bit too weighty with facts and figures, with no shortage of reminders on our heartbreaking wastage.
Although China's voracious appetite for raw materials such as copper fuels the scrap trade, the destination is not just Asia. In 2012, the United States exported more than 46 metric tons of scrap metal, paper, rubber and plastic to 160 countries for a total value of $39.2 billion.
Scrapping provides valuable employment abroad, although the working conditions are often deplorable. Plastics can end up in places such as China's Wen'an County, a dead zone where nothing is "green" and the prevailing odor is that of burning plastic.
Other countries benefit from the redistribution of expensive products tossed away by the West. Minter reports that "Egypt's "Twitter Revolution" of 2011 didn't take place on new iPhones (which most Egyptians can't afford), but rather on five- to 10-year-old desktop computers and monitors that were exported from the United States and elsewhere.
Recycling is on the rise around the world. (One exception: newsprint. As physical newspapers diminish in size and frequency and the use of electronic readers increases, recycling rates have fallen. In 2002, we recycled 10,492 tons of newsprint. Nine years later, that number was 6,615 tons.)
The increase in recycling is a good-news, bad-news story. Reusing copper, aluminum, titanium and other metals reduces mining in places like Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where there are large deposits of copper ore. But recycling is dangerous, dirty work and often leads to unsafe working conditions.
Minter encourages people "to think about what it means to recycle, and make smart choices as a consumer before you buy that thing you'll eventually toss out." In the end, placing that bin on the curbside is only outsourcing the end result of our consumption.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of three books, most recently "The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River." He lives in Illinois.