An Interview With Adam Minter, Author Of Secondhand
Hi Adam! Kenny had mentioned briefly you grew up in a family of scrap dealers in Minneapolis, could you tell us a little bit of your background and the family business?
My family's involvement in the business dates back to the early twentieth century, when my great-grandfather, Abe Leder, emigrated from southern Russian to the United States. Abe didn't have any formal education, didn't have any marketable skills, and didn't speak English. So he took the only "job" that he could find: picking rags off the streets, and selling them to textile recyclers. He had no choice but to be hard-working, and in time he had enough money to purchase his own pushcart; then, after a few years, he bought his own truck; and then, finally, a small piece of land.
The business has remained in the family for a century. My father split off from Abe's business in the 1970s and set up his own. Some of my earliest memories are walking through our small junk warehouse with him, looking at the metal. As I grew up, I was put to work in the warehouse doing all kinds of jobs: separating the different kinds of metals sold to us by plumbers and electricians in buckets; weighing aluminum cans; sweeping up the metal dust. In my early 20s I realized that I loved junk, but I wasn't a very good practitioner of the junk business. So I transitioned to journalism. Still, the trade remains important to me. I consider the people who work in the recycling and secondhand businesses to be my brothers and sisters. We have a shared experience and trade.
Share with us one most promising thing that you have seen in the recycling business, and one most disconcerting fact about it.
The one trait that I've found common to all recycling entrepreneurs is an ability to see value in something that other people view as worthless. That worthless thing could be a 5-year-old iPhone with a cracked screen. It could be a shipping container filled with plastic detergent bottles. Or it could be someone in a charity shop who looks at a donated painting and says: "This is interesting." Over the last few years, I've encountered each of these examples, with really great consequences: the "trash" turned out to be worth money *and* it was re-used in some form (the donated painting ultimately sold for over US$20,000). For me, it's a reminder to be humble; that my definition of trash isn't someone else's. And, ultimately, that reminder is the most promising thing that I've encountered in the recycling business.
Disconcerting fact? That's easy: recycling isn't about the environment. It's about manufacturing. If somebody doesn't want to make something out of your "recycling," it's trash - even if you put it in the correctly colored bin, even if you washed off the cans and bottles.
Both Taiwan and Japan seem to be light years ahead in the national conscious of how things are consumed, and similarly, a structured method of disposing unwanted things. How can more countries with a fairly similar background in infrastructure and governance, for example, Singapore, adopt best these practices?
Like most other high-income countries, Japan generates an enormous volume of waste per day: around 1.7 kg per person. That puts it in the top 20% of the world's waste generators. As anyone who has visited Japan knows, Japanese consumer culture embraces fashion, trends, and packaging - and all of those things generate waste. No surprise individuals in low income countries generate far less waste than Japan. For example, people in India, Ethiopia and Uganda generate around .3 kg of waste per day.
To be sure, Japan and Taiwan (.85 kg of waste generation per person per day) have excellent waste management systems that keep cities clean and sanitary. Taiwan, in particular, has been very successful in promoting recycling in part by promoting more manufacturing of products in Taiwan from recyclables. At the same time, it has raised the cost of generating waste for businesses and consumers. Is Singapore ready to build out more heavy manufacturing so that it can recycle more of its waste? Will consumers and businesses accept additional fees on waste management? Those are the kinds of questions that need to be answered if Taiwan is to be emulated.
Recently, Malaysia had returned 150 containers of illegally imported waste back to the countries of its original source. And China in 2017, had banned the import of 24 kinds of solid waste from other countries. Do you think this would this lead into more effective policies and practices, especially in the countries that have the ability to process their waste, given they are no longer able to dump their waste onto another country?
On 1 Jan 2018, China restricted - but didn't ban - the import of 24 categories of recyclables. Since then, it's continued to allow imports while tightening its requirements. Why do they allow foreign recyclables into the country, still? Because the recyclables are raw materials used in manufacturing. If China couldn't obtain them from abroad, they'd have to find other sources - most likely virgin ores, trees, and plastics. So why the restrictions? Because China is now the world's biggest generator of waste, and the government doesn't want domestic recyclers competing against foreign recyclables. In recent months, they've become more open about that. That's put big waste generating countries and regions like the EU, the US, Australia, Japan, and Singapore in a difficult position. Where to send the recyclables that they can't use on their own? One option is to find new export markets. In many cases, the recycling followed the Chinese manufacturers as they settled in new countries like Malaysia - but not always. In 2019, Canada - yes, Canada! - was the largest importer of waste plastics from the United States --- 329 million pounds, compared to 133 million pounds imported by Malaysia. For the record, Taiwan imported 76 million pounds and South Korea took 68 million pounds.
Malaysia's 150 returned containers were accumulated over 18 months, and weighed around 3700 tons --- or less than 10% of the weight of the trash (38,000 tons!) that Malaysia generates every day! That's no excuse for sending bad quality recycling to Malaysia, of course. But it does place it in perspective. This is a political and public perception problem, not so much an environmental one.
Since the China ban, developed countries like the United States are landfilling more of their recycling - especially plastics. At the moment, large investments are going into developing recycling technologies that will boost manufacturing (from recycled materials) in developed countries, rather than in emerging markets. I'm hopeful that new technologies, combined with waste reduction efforts, will manage much of the problem.
Thrifting has been gaining more traction and popularity in the last few years. What do you think of this new trend of consumerism?
I love it so much I wrote a book about it! Seriously, though - there's the obvious environmental benefit. The most polluting part of a product's lifespan happens during the manufacturing. So, if products last longer, and can be used and re-used, theoretically that means less manufacturing and the negatives - including pollution - surrounding it. I also think it's fun. Thrift stores are inherently more interesting than traditional retailers, and I believe they make consumers think more seriously about what they buy, and why. That's a good thing socially. We need fun interesting lives.
One of my favourite quotes from the book is "I was raised that the smartest thing you can do is buy a rich person's broken thing." What is your most memorable story/anecdote from your years of travelling?
There are so many over the last two decades. For this book, I think the most memorable took place in Savelugu, a town in northern Ghana. Some friends brought me to a television repair shop located in a small mud hut. At the time we visited, the man who owned it was working on a roughly 40-year-old traditional tube television. The device had broken, but rather than simply fix it, he was upgrading it to be remote controlled (at the time it was delivered to him, volume and channels were changed manually). That television was likely imported into Ghana three decades ago, and had been used and re-used, repaired and repaired again, by skilled technicians like this man. Had that television remained in Europe, it would've been buried in a dump or burned up in an incinerator decades ago. In Savelugu, though, circumstances - including poverty - kept it alive. For me, that was a revelatory moment.
Do you think it's ironic that we preach about sustainability yet continue to consume so much of the latest electronic gadgets and latest trends?
Yes and no. I like to buy new things, too, so I understand the urge. It's very human. The good news is that, around the world, especially in wealthier countries that buy lots of stuff, patterns of consumption are beginning to change to more sustainable forms. For example, secondhand and resale is the fastest growing sector of the massive global apparel industry, while Ikea, of all companies, is starting to pilot furniture rental. No doubt, there are plenty of counterexamples to suggest that consumers are trending in the opposite direction. But I'm optimistic that the climate crisis, in particular, is shifting how consumers - especially young ones - view their relationship to stuff.
What kind of future do you see in changing mindsets/prejudice towards "secondhand"?
That's a hard question. The prejudices against secondhand that I encountered twenty years ago are still so prevalent in my places. But on this topic, too, there's starting to be movement. Believe it or not, there's a small but growing and highly influential academic discipline called "Discard Studies" that's really pushing back against the stereotypes (economic, racial) surrounding secondhand and other aspects of waste and recycling. This work is already influential (it's influenced me, at least), and I believe that over the next decade it'll break into the mainstream.
Still, there are hurdles to overcome. Too many journalists want to tell the stories expected of them, instead of the actual stories. In the west, in particular, that often results in stories that depict people in the secondhand business as victims or worse. I hope that my work has a small role in changing some of those perceptions and stories. But ultimately, it's going to require journalists doing their jobs.