Friday, August 22, 2014

Junkyard Planet: A Book Report

Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter. Had I read this book when I was sixteen, I have no doubt I would be in the junk business. There is an excitement to the junk trade that I found compelling. No doubt this is the same excitement people on the Antiques Roadshow experience when they find out the piece of the junk in their attic is worth a significant amount of money.

Take, for example, this story about how Leonard Fritz made his fortune and founded one of the largest recycling facilities in the country:
"Back when Leonard Fritz was first starting out, steel mills had dumps where trash and the residues of steelmaking were thrown away. This latter category was represented by sand, bricks, and bits of steel that fell away during the manufacturing process. Of these steel bits, the most plentiful were the thin flakes that form on the surface of hot steel as it cools. "Mill flakes" as those flakes were called, was pretty much useless in 1938....Elsewhere in Detroit, Armco Steel, a major supplier to the automobile industry, was testing a new type of steel furnace. But Armco was dealing with an expensive problem: preparing ore for the furnace cost roughly $100 per ton. So the designer of the new furnace, a metallurgist who happened to be daughter of the mill's president, did some calculations and figured out that if you added a substance with the chemical makeup of mill scale, the preparation process would speed up and the cost would drop by $99 per ton, to $1. But where on earth could Armco get enough mill scale to feed its furnace. For reasons lost to history, the job of sourcing that mill scale landed in the hands of the metallurgist's young husband, who was visiting the Kelsey-Hayes wheel forging plant near Detroit on July 2, 1938. As it happened, Leonard Fritz was busy screening a three-hundred-ton pile of mill scale in the parking lot of the Kelsey-Hayes forging plant that day, working at an agreed-upon rate of $1.25 per ton... 'Ah, how much of that mill scale do you have there young man?' 'I figure there's about three hundred tons.' 'That won't be enough.' 'Well, how much do you need?' 'What I'm looking for is three thousand tons.' Leonard Fritz was only fifteen, but he already knew a few things, one of which was this: there was a dump in Detroit where mills had been dumping scale for years....'I think I can scrape it up. How much would you pay for it?' The metallurgist's young husband hesitated for a moment. 'Probably thirty-two dollars per ton.' Leonard Fritz understandably lost it. 'WHAT?' he exclaimed...'Well, thirty-six.' 'I'll do her.'...a few months later, shortly after his sixteenth birthday, Armco Steel presented Leonard Fritz with a check for $186,000. It was still 1938."
Point being, the "how" and the "where" can send a ragpicker, or anyone really, into the ranks of those with considerable fortunes. The book has a lot of stories like that, and mainly now involving poor Chinese farmers who take America's (the Saudi Arabia of garbage) scrap, and turn into raw materials for the insatiable appetite of the world.

When I was growing up in Northwest Indiana, it was easy money in the steel mills. It was also some of the foulest air you could hope to breathe. That foul air was from the coking process, where they bake the volatiles of out of coal and turn into coke, and the volatiles, in turn, coke gas, are burned to produce a shitty brown haze. That haze - and jobs at the mills - is mostly gone now. Globalization was bad for the employment conditions of the area, but good for the air. Keep in mind, steelmaking didn't go away, it just got more efficient - and when you consider that a ton of scrap converted back into steel in electric furnace equals a ton and a half of iron ore, a ton of coal, and a half ton of limestone, that isn't so bad.

The scrap industry, as this book points out, is one of the greenest industries around. It may be true that a lot of horrible work-place and environmental practices occur in the developed world, where much of the scrap is recycled and purified, but these places have trouble enough just to produce clean food and water. The last thing on many people's minds over there are work conditions. (And besides, as standards of living improve, so does a demand for quality of life and environmental standards).

The majority of the book takes place in China, the majority of the action revolves around metals, and the majority of the capitalist hero characters are Chinese. Not that there are not good things happening here in America, but honestly we are all pampered poodles, not willing to do the dirty work anymore, even when we can profit from it. We have to remember that, if there was no boom in China, most of our crap would end up in landfills here, or burned, or illegally dumped.

Many of our broken things are sent to China, where they are repaired or repurposed, and sent on to the developed world. Part of this reuse is the resourcefulness of people in the developed world, part of this is our own wastefulness, and the distressing tendency of manufacturers to discourage repairs in favor of buying new products (and that can change, but it requires the consumer to demand it).

As Mr. Minter points out, recycling is really not an indefinite process. The quality of product inevitably declines, and so recycling is really outsourcing of trash to somewhere else. What Americans can do, is to follow the other two points on the recycling can: reduce and reuse. Problem is our way of life discourages wearing of hair shirts and the practice of austerity. And so we continue to consume and dispose...

Still, it is better than not using the stuff again and again. When you consider how much energy and effort has been used to extract and purify so many things from the earth, it seems rather a waste to dump them all back in again.

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