A love for rubbish

A love for rubbish
Bales of Christmas-tree lights from the US ready to be recycled at a Christmas-tree light recycling factory in Shijiao, China.

"This is the one that really got me, and it was a bit upsetting as well...It really drove home how cheap the labour is, and how important design is for recycling. What an awful product the blister pack is; you can't really separate the foil from the plastic easily."

When writer Christine Tan first told her parents about her new journalist beau three years ago, their initial reaction was: "He writes about what?"

It turned out that said beau, Adam Minter, 43, a freelancer and Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View, had spent the past 12 years writing about trash, among other things. And his first book, the newly released Junkyard Planet: Travels In The Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (below), is the culmination of that effort.

Minter did not start out just writing about rubbish.

The scion of a scrap-dealing dynasty, he grew up in Minneapolis amid the clatter and metallic tang of the family scrapyard, started by his great-grandfather at a time when "a burlap sack, a horse and a truck" was all one needed.

In a telephone interview from his wife's hometown in Kuala Lumpur, where they were celebrating Chinese New Year, he tells of how his grandmother and father would rise at dawn to buy and sell copper tubes, old cars, electrical wiring and even spent brass bullet casings.

While still in school, he was separating iron washers from brass pipes, and weighing cans reeking of beer and syrupy drinks.

"You can't get too proud if you're running the can machine," quips Minter, who will be in town next week to speak about his new book.

One early memory: watching his canny grandmother, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, scour garage sales to buy a battered brass vase worth more in brass than it was being sold for.

None of the three Minter children went into the family business, and the family scrapyard was shuttered in 2005 when the city government bought its land. Minter turned to journalism instead, working for local Minnesota publications such as the now- defunct The Rake magazine. But in 2002, a freelance assignment sent him to Foshan in central Guangdong to write about recycling there.

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