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December 2013

photo: courtesy of ADAM MINTER

Minter says the public has even bigger misconcep- it efficiently is even harder. The best sorters can make tions about the workers that are drawn in hordes to upwards of RMB 5,000 per month. You can’t make that kind of money at Foxconn.” places like Shijiao. But the author admits that those higher wages “The first scrapyard I reported on was in Shanghai. I quickly learned that the workers had immigrated come at a steep price. One chapter, “Plastic Land,” is from Anhui villages, and they often didn’t speak dedicated to the worst recycling zone Minter ever visitMandarin or even Shanghainese,”he says, adding that the ed: Hebei’s Wen’an County. The 450-square-mile region quintessentially Chinese scene gave him an odd sense was a repository for all of Beijing’s plastic waste. Five of déjà vu. “It was much like my grandfather, who thousand workshops were littered throughout the was a Russian Jew that came to America and, due to county, and they all used solvents to clean the plastics, discrimination and other factors, didn’t have many before dumping those chemicals in nearby rivers. Before long the local farms became infertile, and scrap yard other options than picking rags up off the street.” But unlike his marginalized elder, or the workers fell ill as the fumes harmed their lungs. Minter says such examples comprise the ugly side Western stereotype of scavengers in the developing world, Minter says most Chinese scrap workers are of an industry that many Westerners assume to be thoroughly green. surprisingly affluent. Recycled materials “No one should be getting “I don’t want to excuse anyeventually break down gold stars for recycling, all it thing. None of the workers in a place like Guiyu, which and become garbage anyway does is keep the garbage man away a little longer,” he says. is a notor ious c omputer part recycling zone, are under any illusion that Recycled materials eventually break down, and bethe air there is clean. But they go there because come garbage anyway. He adds: “Recycling is the they make much better money than in a factory third-worst thing you can do. Reusing is better, and reducing is best, especially if we buy things that assembling tablet computers.” Minter was even more surprised to discover the can be repaired and upgraded, so that manufactursharp learning curve that comes with a recycling ers will make longer-lasting products. We won’t get anywhere telling people to live like monks, but it job. “It may just look like they’re picking through would be good for people to learn how to become garbage, but it’s actually quite skilled labor,” he better consumers.” says, adding that the workers are often sorting and separating metals that are priced at a few dollars per Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade pound. “To separate, by hand, chunks of aluminum is available at The Bookworm or visit Minter’s website, or zinc from copper and steel is not easy, and to do

the Beijinger December 2013  
the Beijinger December 2013  

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