The Junkman is Your Green Future

Most of the talks I give touch on some aspect of my family background. But for plenty of reasons, I’ve skirted opportunities to go deeper (except in Junkyard Planet). But back in June, when I was invited to participate in TEDxBeijing, I decided to dig a little deeper. In part I did so because I’ve had people comment after my talks that I seem genuinely passionate about China’s scrap workers – yet I realized that I hadn’t left many clues about where that passion comes from. So that’s where this talk comes from, in appreciation for my brothers and sisters in all things scrap. I hope you enjoy it.

[November 20, 2015. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, the video is no longer available on youtube. But it is available on China’s Youku.]



Junkyard Planet Goes to China

I’m pleased – as in thrilled – to announce that the Chinese edition of Junkyard Planet has just been published. When I started writing the book four years ago, I always had a Chinese audience in mind. Nonetheless, for all kinds of reasons, there was never any guarantee that I’d reach that audience. So the fact that the book is now available in bookstores across the country is incredibly satisfying.


I’m quite eager to see the feedback, and I’ll share it with my blog’s readers as it comes. In the meantime, I’d be very interested in hearing what Chinese readers think of the translation. Please reach out to me if you’ve read it.

Anatomy of a Myth: the World’s Biggest E-Waste Dump Isn’t.

Let’s start with two photographs.

The first was shot by me in China’s Hunan Province. It shows a warehouse that contains roughly 5,000 old locally-collected televisions awaiting recycling. This photo only captures a portion of what is a big inventory, and a big operation. Every day more arrive. Most people outside of China have never heard of this place, mostly because it is indoors, and difficult for journos and activists to gain access to.


Next, a photo tagged “e-Waste – field of computers” that I came across while looking at a Google map of Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra, Ghana that everyone from the Guardian to Motherboard has called the world’s “biggest” or “largest” e-waste dump.


There’s nothing good or right in the Agbogbloshie photo. The pollution it depicts is nasty. But if you can get past the shock and evaluate the volume of e-waste in the image, it’s not much – especially compared to what we see in the China photo. Indeed, despite the parade of Agbogbloshie slideshows posted by media outlets over the years, there’s a curious dearth of images showing large volumes of e-waste at the site. Rather, the genre is almost exclusively devoted to pictures of laborers, oftentimes not even processing waste – see this useless and exploitative New York Times slideshow, or this more recent one from Motherboard. My long-standing suspicion has been that there aren’t any great volumes of e-waste at Agbogbloshie, and that most of the journalists and photographers who go there – having had no experience with developing world recycling – document their shock, but not what’s actually happening, frankly because they don’t know better.

This matters. Agbogbloshie has become a global symbol for what’s alleged to be a vast and growing environmental problem: the export of e-waste from the developed world to West Africa. Yet in recent years, academic and UN-sponsored research has shown that the problem is far more complex – and, in all respects, smaller – than what’s being depicted. In other words – we’re not talking about the world’s largest e-waste dump.

So what I’m going to do is show how somebody with actual experience reporting in and around the global recycling industry – especially in the developing world – looks at Agbogbloshie. My background is that of a journalist who has been writing about and photographing the industry for 15 years, and has visited hundreds of recycling facilities, especially in the developing world. In March and April, I visited Accra. Continue reading

Junkyard Planet – the Paperback.

I’m very pleased to announce that Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, was released in a paperback edition today, Tuesday April 14. I have a copy sitting beside me right now, and – as usual – Bloomsbury Press has done a terrific job packaging it. Like the hardcover, it contains 24 pages of full-color photos, as well as the original text (with a couple of updates). In other words: it’s the hardcover, only lighter, and a little cheaper!

To celebrate the release, my publisher, Bloomsbury Press, is giving away TEN copies on Goodreads to US readers. To enter, click here [this particular contest has ended, but …]. As for me – I’m giving away two SIGNED copies on Goodreads, in a contest open to Canadian readers. For that one, click here.


Junkyard Planet, the paperback, is available anywhere you buy books in North America, the UK, and Australia. If you prefer to order online, the retailers in the column at right (usual suspects: Amazon, BN, Indiebound, etc) can take care of it. If you lack access to bookstores and you’re living in a country where Amazon doesn’t deliver, I recommend Book Depository. And if you’re new to the book, click here for a sample of the reviews and a few of the interviews I did during the hardcover release.

Sixteen months on, I remain extremely proud of Junkyard Planet and its impact. For now, thanks to everyone who’s supported Junkyard Planet. It’s been an amazing ride, and I look forward to keeping you updated with plans for the next book.

The actual reason nobody’s interested in stealing your scrap metal, anymore.

On Monday the New York Times ran a very good portrait of a Detroit metal scrapper going about his business, scrounging for metal and seeking places to sell it. Business isn’t what it used to be, the Times tells us, mostly thanks to a spate of law enforcement measures that make it harder to fence scrap – especially copper wire and plumbing – from abandoned buildings. The proof is in the data: Detroit issued 222 warrants for scrap metal theft in 2012. This year, it’s issued “around 25.”

It’s not just Detroit. The UK’s Local Government Association points to the 2013 passage of a Scrap Metal Dealers Act as the reason that there were “only” 40,680 metal thefts in England and Wales in 2014, compared to 59,788 in 2013.  Likewise, last May the US’s National Insurance Crime Bureau [NCIB] revealed that insured metal theft had declined 26% between 2011 and 2013, from 14,676 cases to 10,807 – and it pointed specifically to legislation and law enforcement as the restraining factor.

No doubt, law enforcement has played an important role in restricting the easy options for metal thieves to fence scrap. But I’d argue the more important reason metal theft – especially copper theft – has declined over the last three years is embodied in the chart I’ve pasted below (click to enlarge). It shows the price of copper, dating back to its five year highs in early 2011 – and its precipitous, nearly 50% decline ever since (mostly thanks to falling Chinese demand). The price of scrap copper, including wires pulled from your home’s walls, is based on these prices:


At those prices, it’s probably still worth scrapping if you’re desperate – like the fellow profiled by the NYT. But for criminals who might have other options (including other options for selling it), the difference between $4/lb copper and $2.50/lb copper is probably big enough to make you think twice about breaking into an abandoned house to pull out its wiring. Continue reading

What Does San Diego Have Against Recycling, Free Enterprise, and the American Way?

For more than a decade, Gary Ries of Mission Hills, California, has spent his spare time earning money by picking recyclable cans and bottles from trash cans owned by the city of San Diego. Under most definitions, this is laudable entrepreneurship and everyone wins: Ries makes a few extra bucks, San Diego trucks a few less pounds of trash to the landfill, and, well, recycling!


However, according to a report by ABC 10 in San Diego, the city of San Diego doesn’t quite see it that way: “The city of San Diego says that once an item enters a trash can on city property, it becomes property of the city.”

So, rather than laud Ries – or, better yet, just leave him the @#$% alone – the city of San Diego has decided to make him miserable. Last weekend, they twice issued $150 citations against him. And if he doesn’t stop recycling the city’s landfill-bound cans and bottles? The police officer who harassed him the first time around will “arrest him, take him to jail and have his bail set at $5,000.”


But it gets worse. San Diego isn’t merely concerned that Ries is stealing their garbage. They’re worried about liability if “someone gets hurt digging through the trash,” as well as identity theft (ie, the city is protecting people who might leave bank statements in San Diego’s beach-side garbage cans). Or, in the words of Jose Ysea, spokesman for the city of San Diego Environmental Services Department: “it’s more to protect the residents and the community at large.” Continue reading

The UK is Part of Junkyard Planet

I’ve spent the last ten days in the UK meeting media, and making appearances related to Junkyard Planet. It’s been an absolute thrill, and the reception has been excellent. On Saturday, for example, I was the lucky recipient of two marvelous reviews in the London papers. Writing for the Guardian, Isabel Hilton calls Junkyard Planet a “gripping odyssey around the world’s rubbish mountains and the men and (occasionally) women who mine them and turn them into money.” Meanwhile, over at the Times (subscriber only) Leo Lewis says that, in Junkyard Planet, “the stinking machinery that pulverises, grinds, strips and shreds becomes almost musical.”

Along the way, I gave three talks in the UK: first at the House of Commons, then at Cambridge, and finally – last night – in front of 750 at the Royal Geographical Society. It was a trip – and career – high point, and I’m told that I’ll have streaming video that I can pass along soon. Below, a photo of the crowd a few minutes before I went on stage. I’ll be honest: I was scared to death. But it all turned out so well – so thank you London, and all of the folks who made this trip possible. Viva Junkyard Planet.


And one from the Q&A after the talk.