In Part II of our interview with Adam Minter, a Malaysia-based chronicler of the global scrap trade and the author of Junkyard Planet, we talk about whether recycling can really save Asia.

If we look to the US as a reference, you say that between 1960 and 2010, the volume of recyclables that Americans harvested from their homes rose from 5.6 million to 65 million tons. In the same period, the trash generated rose from 81.1 million to 249.9 million tons. Consumers seem to think recycling is this panacea for everything—that as long as they recycle they can consume endlessly. And then they expect the recycling industry to perform magic.

Dealing with people’s trash is very difficult– waste handling is one of the top ten dangerous professions globally. You get people motivated by environmental concerns sending all their stuff to be recycled and getting very upset if the recycling factories aren’t capable of handling the process in the most environmentally sound manner, regardless of whether they make a profit or not. These days everybody expects five-star treatment for their garbage. When you give them a Motel 6, they get angry that you haven’t treated their trash better. They throw the stuff away and then get mad that you aren’t treating it as well as they expect you to treat it. Well, you treat your trash better—that’s what I’d say!

So recycling doesn’t let us off the hook for our consumption choices–it comes at a cost.

People tend to feel good when they recycle. But if you really want to do something for the Earth, stop buying so much stuff.

Look, manufacturing an aluminium can from recycled materials uses ninety to ninety-five percent less energy, but it still uses energy, and not everything is as efficient as that. Paper recycling uses a lot of water and a lot of heat.

Another thing to keep in mind is that no material really lasts for ever. You know the recycling symbol– those arrows that seem to go around forever in a circle–what a load of bullshit. With plastics, you can recycle once and then they can’t be recycled anymore. Paper can be recycled six to seven times before fibers break down so much, they’re too small to be recycled, and that’s it. Metals can be recycled endlessly, but there’s always something lost in the process.

So, yes, it’s better to recycle, but don’t kid yourself that recycling is this great environmental panacea, because it’s not. You’re just delaying the inevitable. It’s a better way to consume, but it’s still consumption.

But isn’t the idea of built-in obsolescence the very cornerstone of a capitalist economy?

Well, certainly, but the manufacturers aren’t the ones telling Chinese consumers to upgrade their phones every six months. People want new things. Things do break down, but what we consider obsolete may not be what somebody else considers obsolete. If you go to electronics markets in Delhi, they are filled with old Chinese or American smartphones that consumers in those countries don’t want anymore and not because they are broken. There’s a thriving secondary market for these phones. They are not obsolete. I was in Ghana a few years ago where you see people using ten-year old laptops with Windows 1995. It’s easy to blame the electronics manufacturers for building products that don’t last. They last. We don’t last.

Well, sometimes things really don’t last. My parents are still using my grandparents’ Siemens vacuum cleaner from the 1960s. Meanwhile, a vacuum cleaner that I bought last year just caught fire the other day. So let’s not let manufacturers off the hook entirely. What can manufacturers do to reduce wastage?

From an environmental standpoint, get manufacturers to build products that are more easily recyclable.

Take for example, the Nescafe Gold coffee jar [picks one up from the table in front of him]: this is really difficult to recycle 100%. See this label? Who is going to peel that off? That’s not going to get recycled. Or those plastic bottles with plastic wrapped around them–that’s become a big issue globally, because it’s two different types of plastics. It’s really difficult to separate them. It’s horrible product design. They are not designed for recycling.

And if we can’t recycle simple things like that, how on earth are we supposed to recycle complicated devices like iPhones or the Macbook Air? We all love these super thin computers, but the more super thin they get, the more difficult it gets to recycle them.

If something is hard to repair, it’s harder to recycle. Think of your old Dell desktop computer. If the hard drive died on that thing, you’d get somebody in your IT department—I used to do it myself—to open out the back and put in a new hard drive in. Try and do that on a Macbook Air—well, first of all it doesn’t have a hard drive but a solid state drive. If a solid state drive goes down, who is going to fix that? You can’t get a new one at the Apple store—they’re too expensive. These really elegant devices aren’t made to be sustainable. But if Apple’s chief designer can figure out how to make a beautiful product, he can certainly figure out how to make a recyclable one.

Which category of household generated waste is the hardest to recycle?

 

First of all, I’d like to address a misconception about household waste. In the grand scheme of things household-generated waste is a drop in the bucket —most of what is thrown away or recycled comes out of industrial facilities and automobiles, or from the construction and demolition of buildings. The most plentiful source of copper wire in China is communication cables and power lines—that’s far more significant than copper in old mobile phones. Window frames are a far more significant source of aluminum than soda cans, for example.

 

And then a lot depends on the context. I would say autos are a very difficult waste stream to recycle–it requires shredders that cost tens of millions of dollars. But it’s not hazardous when it’s done right. If you go to Ghana though, and see how they recycle automobiles there—then it’s pretty hazardous.

In your book, you write about how even in countries without an official recycling program, the invisible hand of the market won’t let anything of value in your trash go to waste. The rag pickers come in when you’re not looking and sort your trash out for you. Does that mean that those of us who live in these countries don’t have to feel guilty every time we throw our garbage out without sorting it?

It depends on where you are. You can’t just assume that somebody’s going to do your dirty work for you.

Take the case of Singapore. It’s not like India or China where you have these vast roving labor forces who are under-employed and do all sorts of work for an extra buck. Singapore is a wealthy country. There are very small numbers of rag and bone men–the guys you see on bicycles and in trucks on the streets. So if you toss some cans into your trash in Singapore, you should feel bad because if you’re in a residential high-rise, they probably won’t get pulled out.

In Singapore, like in many large cities around the world, there’s a real problem with getting recycling out of high-rises because it’s expensive to do. The high-rises weren’t built with separate recycling chutes. Recycling means sending somebody around to each apartment to pick up the recyclables–it’s very time-consuming and very expensive work, and if there isn’t somebody to pay for it (say the city or your condo association) it may not happen.

The most expensive part of recycling is collection; the actual recycling itself is relatively cheap. Recycling an aluminium can is inexpensive; far more expensive on a weight basis is getting that aluminium can out of your apartment down to the street into a truck and to an aluminium recycling facility.

Singapore has a pretty good recycling rate, but when I talk to municipal officials, they acknowledge the difficulty in getting the trash out of private housing–not the public housing estates, which do recycle. Unfortunately, the wealthier you are, the more trash you’re generating. The average condominium in Singapore will generate more trash per capita than a council flat because the people who live in the condominiums tend to have higher incomes.

At the very least, shouldn’t we be trying to keep our compostable garbage separate from other recyclables?

One of the things recyclers will complain about is the food contamination of recyclables. It’s especially an issue with things like cardboard. Think of a pizza box. Paper mills don’t like the cheese residue in a pizza box because it lowers the quality of paper. It requires them to spend more money in cleaning stuff out. You end up with a lower-quality recycled product since it affects the fibres in cardboard and paper. So in that sense, it’s a really good idea to keep your food and other compostable items apart from the rest of your garbage. That much said, it’s hard to compost if you’re in a high-rise flat.

Which Asian country has the best record for household recycling?

Japan is incredible. Although the recycling system is pretty complex–in any building, you’ll find about six different receptacles for the various kinds of recyclables–the people do it and they don’t complain about it at all. Japanese cities have very high recycling rates, and the household and municipal waste have very low contamination rates. For household recycling, Japan is at the top of the heap.