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

I’ve been cloned … on twitter. [UPDATED]

A few months ago a friend emailed to say that he’d searched for me on twitter and found twenty accounts using my name, photo, and bio. I looked, and he was right: I was being impersonated. But here’s the thing: the actual twitter handle – the thing that starts with an @ – wasn’t some permutation of @adamminter. Rather, it was always @XHnews plus some random string of letters. As many of my readers know, @XHnews is the official, verified account of Xinhua, China’s state-owned news agency, purveyor of news and propaganda to the world.


Why would someone want to make a mash-up of me and Xinhua? I have no idea. But anyway, Twitter doesn’t make it easy to get rid of these accounts – you have to fill out a form for each one. Still, once I finished complaining about the first, I couldn’t stop, and after 20 minutes or so I’d dutifully complained about each Minter/Xinhua mashup, and a few days later they were gone. Or so I thought.

Because a few weeks later they were back. Only this time, it wasn’t two dozen mashups – there were more than fifty. This time I filed a single impersonation report with twitter and added a note explaining this curious situation, and begging that twitter delete every Adam Minter that starts with a @XHnews. And they did … Continue reading

Watsons Malaysia Explains Itself – Badly.

It’s been one week since I blogged about a bottle of tampered-with, over-the-counter medicine that I purchased at Watsons, Asia’s largest personal care chain (a drug store, basically). The blog post – and the story behind it – went totally viral in Malaysia thanks to Samantha Khor who wrote it up for says.com, a hugely popular Malaysian website. Since then, I’ve received a bit of clarity on what, precisely, happened.

But first, let’s back up to last Tuesday. Out of curiosity, I returned to the Watsons outlet where I’d bought that bottle of Panadol, looking to see if the chain was still selling tampered-with packages. What I found astounded me: not only were they selling a tampered-with package – they were selling the very same bottle of Panadol I had returned to the store several days earlier for having been tampered with (easily identifiable due to the serial number on the box)! Below, a photo of the returned bottle on the shelf. Compare it – and the serial number – to the photo I posted on Monday – they are one and the same (a fact later confirmed, which I’ll get to).IMG_2255

I was planning to blog that on Thursday, but before I could I received a phone call from Danny Hoh, Head of Marketing at Watsons, on Thursday afternoon. Continue reading

American Dockworkers Are Savaging Your Recycling Bin.

Last year, roughly one-third of the recycling generated in the United States was exported to more than 160 countries and territories. That’s 42.8 million tons – enough weight to fill over 2 million standard-sized shipping containers – worth $23.7 billion. China was the top destination for those exports (Canada was number two), while South Korea, Japan, and India were in the top ten. So when, back in July, a labor dispute and slowdown hit US West Coast ports, one of its first and most significant victims was the multi-billion dollar trans-Pacific trade in recycling, much of which ships from those ports.


In recent weeks, the toll – both economic and environmental – has started to come due. In San Francisco the city’s recycling contractor is running out of space to store recyclable paper and cardboard that typically ships to Asia, and the excess is piling up in mountains of cardboard. In neighboring San Mateo County, a different contractor, who also depends on shipping scrap paper to Asia, did run out of space – and the city had to lease it a 28,000 square foot warehouse to hold it. Meanwhile, two weeks ago, the California Refuse Recycling Council, a trade group, warned Governor Jerry Brown that its members might soon be forced to redirect all that California recycling to “disposal.” In other words: unless recyclers can start shipping to Asia again, a lot of scrap paper and cardboard might be landfill-bound. Continue reading