After ten years of trips to scrap yards around China and Asia, Minnesota native Adam Minter is on the verge of publishing his first book, Junkyard Planet. However, he has done much more than just poking around other peoples’ trash. This is Adam’s story of how he went from unwillingly working in his family’s scrap business as a teen to reporting on the Catholic Church in China, writing opinion columns for Bloomberg, and meeting the key players in the junkyard business while researching for his book.
Can you give me a brief synopsis of “Adam Minter” and how you went from Minneapolis to the junkyards of Shijiao?
I grew up in a junkyard in Minneapolis. That’s the short of it. My family, dating back to my Russian Jewish grandfather – he started out picking rags off the street of Galveston, Texas. Not sure how he made it to Minneapolis but he had a small junkyard there, my father started his own junkyard, so it’s in the blood. And the funny thing is about this business, the junk business, the recycling business, the secondary material business, whatever you want to call it, is that people don’t tend to leave it, even when they want to. I grew up not wanting any part of it, but yet, I also grew up working in it a bit, finished college, worked in it a bit, just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, wanted to transition into something else.
I transitioned into journalism, had the opportunity to come here for some freelance work in 2002 thinking I was finally free of the scrap business, but if you want to freelance you have to have stories, and you write stories about what you know. So there are scrap metal, paper, plastic magazines, and I pitched to a magazine called Scrap Magazine in the States, and they said, “Hey, there’s a lot happening in China.” In 2002, China had really heated up as the best place for American recyclables, and “We would love it if you would do some stories for us.” I was here from some other stuff, so I said sure. I thought this will get me on my feet as a freelancer in China, and then I’ll be done with it forever, and then ten, eleven years later, here’s the damn book.
There is no escaping it. Don’t get me wrong, I love the business, I love the industry, I didn’t ever think I’d be writing about it, but I am. The fact that I came from it, and I can basically go into a scrap recycling business and look someone in the eye and say I know exactly who you are and what you are doing because I come from the same place, I understand, sometimes there is the shame. People aren’t always proud to make a living picking through someone else’s trash for example, but you can tell someone, three generations of my family did it before I got here. It breaks down a lot of barriers and gets you a lot of access.
Why do people who don’t want to stay with the junk business stay with it anyway? For you in particular, were there any other reasons than the ones you mentioned?
Let me put it this way. I have never met somebody who isn’t fascinated on some level on what happens to the stuff in their recycling bin. When people know what I write about, the first thing they ask me is “What really happens to it?” And the answer is that it’s really, really interesting. I always think of it as the hidden backstory of globalization. It’s really interesting to watch an iPhone manufacturer, and it’s really interesting to see what happens to an iPhone after it dies. And just as you wouldn’t turn me down if I offered to take you to a Foxconn factory, you probably wouldn’t turn me down if I offered to take you to an automobile shredder.
The second thing is it tends to be a business that attracts characters. Some people will hate me for saying this, but every stereotype you have in your mind of what a junk man is, is probably true on some level. Some of the most unusual, fascinating, maddening, delightful human beings I’ve ever met are in this business, and when I talk to people who have been in the business their whole life, you ask them why they are in it, “It’s my friends, the people who are in it.” There is nobody like this, people who make their living off of other people’s trash.
(Credit: Adam Minter)
How do you define your role then as a journalist looking in on this industry? Have you ever thought “I’m just going to go back into the industry”?
Especially in China, people look at me, and my contacts, they say, “If I had your contacts, I could make a lot of money.” That’s something that is said to me all the time, and to which I respond, “If I go into the business, I lose all those contacts because I’m suddenly competing with all my friends.” It’s one or the other. I’m not a very good business person – anybody who knows me well will tell you that. I like being around the people. I like not having the pressure of “Is copper up today, is copper down today?” “What’s my inventory” “How badly did I get crushed overnight by the London Metal Exchange?” But I still want to be around the culture, around the people, still being able to be friends with everybody. And I have an intellectual interest in it. Because of what I do, I can go and talk to anybody and they aren’t worried about me stealing their trade secrets.
What’s in the future for Adam Minter? More junkyard researching?
I do have a plan for a second book, but I won’t tell it to you on record! I’m very busy with the stuff I do for Bloomberg now. I have two lives – one life I’m a junkyard journalist, the other I’m an opinion journalist for Bloomberg, which is a completely different way of operating and thinking. And I like both of them. But if I just did columns, I would feel pretty unfulfilled. I like going out in the field. Especially in China, you have to go out and see people and talk to people and see what’s going on. There is just far, far too much journalism about China done from somebody’s desk, and I just love getting out there.
So if you hadn’t done the whole junkyard journalism thing, what do you think you would have been reporting about in China?
I don’t know if I would have remained in China. I mean, that’s the funny thing, even though I’m known for the junk and I’m known for the columns, I did a lot of other stuff while I was here. I cut my teeth writing about the Catholic Church. I don’t write about that any more. I don’t know if I would have stayed. That’s a good question – I would probably be back in the States, being a business columnist.
Everybody who is an aspiring journalist wants to have the foreign correspondent job at The Guardian or The New York Times, and that’s a route to go if you can get there, but I strongly recommend that people pick a subject – a small subject – and just focus on it and hammer at it. For me it was recycling and junk. I know the correspondent here for plastics news, I know other people who report on the paper industry, I know somebody who reports on ports here. The great thing about China if you look at something long enough and close enough, you really get to know it. You get to know China sort of writ large, and I really learned about China through two avenues – via the scrap industry and via the Catholic church. Those are two unusual methods of getting any kind of China knowledge, but it was just an opportunity to look closely at some small example of what China is and be able to extrapolate it. So in China, and anywhere, pick something small and ride it to something bigger, but if your goal is to travel the world and be a writer, find a rich spouse. It’s a hard job.
Stay tuned for a preview of Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet near his publishing release date on November 12.
By Charlotte Evans