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A Global Perspective on All Things Waste and Recycling (Transcript)

[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

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[00:00:26] Liz: Hi everyone, this is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Adam Minter author of Junkyard Planet and Bloomberg opinion columnist. Welcome, Adam and thank you for being here.

[00:00:37] Adam Minter: Well, it's great to be here.

[00:00:38] Liz: I'm so excited to have you on the show, I've been reading your work for years. You had an interesting childhood, could you share a bit about your background and how you ended up writing about the global waste and recycling industry?

[00:00:49] Adam: Sure. I like to say I grew up in a junkyard, which is only a slight exaggeration. My family had been in the business since the early 20th century and my great-grandfather came over to the United States and started work as a rag picker. Eventually made his way up to Minneapolis and that's where the family business was, we had a small metal scrap yard. I worked there really as far back as I can remember, doing the simple tasks in the warehouse, sorting plumbing scrap, whatever it might be.

In my 20s, I decided that business wasn't for me, I enjoyed the business, but I was not good at it, and the city of Minneapolis wanted to acquire the land from our company. I transitioned into journalism not thinking that I would actually ever return to scrap, but I eventually made my way over to China as a foreign correspondent. The timing was good, that was 2002 as many of your listeners would know, that's really when the commodity supercycle really started happening and really started driving up the price of scrap recyclables from all over the world, and the flow of scrap recyclables from developed countries into China, including from the US, really surged.

I had this instant beat that I didn't know that I wanted to cover, I thought, "I'm getting from recycling, finally", but it was just too interesting story, it's not just about recycling, it's about trade and globalization and it became a big part of what I have done for almost going on 20 years now.

[00:02:27] Liz: That's amazing. I've read your fantastic book Junkyard Planet a few years ago, you really were one of the first people to shed light on the multi-billion-dollar global recycling industry to folks outside of the industry itself. We all knew it was fantastic, but I don't think the mass media understood what was going on with this amazing industry. Were you surprised by the success of that book and the continued success of this book?

[00:02:55] Adam: Yes, I did not expect it to explode in the way that it did, very quickly. Public Radio was very supportive and I probably should have figured that out from the beginning because Public Radio listeners are very interested in recycling. Once Public Radio discovered the book and I started doing Public Radio shows, I saw the audience growing and the interest in this topic growing.

That was really gratifying, but what's really surprised me is that the book came out in 2013 and it continues to be demand for, we just did another paperback printing. That demand is coming from places I never expected, it's being assigned and a lot of geography courses, economic geography courses in universities, at business schools, and that's incredibly gratifying, not just for me personally, but I care about the industry and I truly care that people see it in the correct way, so if it's going in front of students, graduate students and people who are going to be engaging in sustainability and recycling on a very deep level, that's a really good feeling as a writer. It's been a surprise, but it's been a wonderful surprise, one of my career's great surprises.

[00:04:05] Liz: That's great, good for you. You've lived in and traveled all over Asia, so you have a bird's-eye view of recycling conditions and what got us to where we are today. Looking back, China needed our raw materials but, when do you think the shift happened that made today's climate around the bans and regulations possible?

[00:04:26] Adam: It's interesting. A lot of your listeners will remember things started getting a little shaky, actually, in the early part of this decade, that's when we started seeing some of these earlier bans. I remember as far back as 2008, hearing rumors from Chinese government officials, who would know what they are talking about, saying that there are serious discussions ongoing in Beijing about eventually ending the trade in recyclables.

At the time I was shocked, because it was booming, this is before the global financial crisis, but at the time, what was being said was that, "Look, if we're ever going to develop our own recycling industry here in China, especially household recycling, we will need to stop competing against imported recyclables." All this talk about contamination, people think of recyclables from the United States or Europe being very low quality, and that's open to debate, but what isn't open to debate is that imported recyclables from -I'm just talking about the United States, but it goes for Europe or Japan- are especially important to household recyclables, are much higher quality than what's generated in China. That comes down to one simple fact and that there is simply no city in China that has a functioning Venus full recycling system where people are actually sorting their recyclables.

By the theory of the Chinese government officials who I was talking to in the late part of the last decade, they really felt that they had to get rid of some of these imported recyclables because there were no incentives for private entities or government to start collecting from domestic recyclers. That, I think, is really where the stage was set. I know there's been a lot of talk in recent years that this was motivated by environmental concerns, that they didn't want to be importing foreign trash, but at least according to the conversations I had as far back as 10 years ago, the real concern was that they could not compete against the quality of the imported material.

[00:06:34] Liz: Okay, that makes sense. I've heard you say, "Watch what they do, don't listen to what they say", it's easy to blame the contamination but the end, that wasn't actually the case.

[00:06:48] Adam: Right. That's always the case and it's not just with the recycling in China. I cover other things in China, even still though I live in Malaysia and you always have to be careful how you parse Chinese government statements, there's oftentimes other audiences for them, you just don't know what the motivation is.

We all remember the footage coming out of, say Southern China, it's been a few years of the so-called the e-waste dumping ground in Guiyu. The government would hide Guiyu and say, "This is terrible, the foreign governments are dumping their stuff", and then you would see very high-level Politburo members go down there, tour it and extol the sustainability benefits and how it supplies raw materials and reusable parts to the tech industry there.

Recycling industry, in general, is never a black-and-white industry or black and green industry, though I think we'd all like it to be, it's very complicated and in China, the complications are even grander, you could say.

[00:07:46] Liz: I bet. You heard talk of this back in 2008, is China any closer to establishing more infrastructure, like modernizing their landfills, incinerators or recycling systems? Or is the issues still the same?

[00:08:02] Adam: They've really improved a lot. There's been a tremendous improvement, especially in the disposal systems. I'm talking largely on the east coast of China where there have been massive investments made in incinerator technology. At least on the East Coast, because the land is so valuable and so scarce for development, they're just not going to develop landfills anymore, though they do have some modern landfills. They are investing in good incinerators, they're very interested and have acquired Japanese incinerator technology and the Japanese incinerators are as clean as an incinerator can be. That's something that they've really improved quite a bit.

In terms of the scrap recycling industry, it runs much cleaner than it did when I first arrived in China in 2002, you just don't see the open burning anymore, at least in the more developed regions. I don't want to say it's always gone, it's in a massive country, but yes, to your question, there has been improvement, but it's going to take time and it's a massive country with huge city clusters, it won't happen in 10 years, you're talking generational changes.

[00:09:18] Liz: Definitely. How are they with public education about recycling? I'm just comparing them to Japan and Japan sounds like they're worlds ahead of the US in this regard, so just wondering how it is in China.

[00:09:32] Adam: Yes, I spent the last time in Japan over the last two years for this next book and I consider myself a very conscientious recycler. The granularity of instructions in Japanese homes, on the street and where you put various containers had me doubting myself and feeling guilty. It's fantastic, they really have a public ethic and there's all kinds of reasons for their cultural recycling, but it's impressive and I think it's hard to replicate anywhere, I think they, in terms of that public education component, are the tops.

China is not, like a lot of developing countries, most of the population still looks at recycling as an economic act, as something that can be put out inside their home and somebody will pick it up, so the environmental motivation isn't there. During my time in Shanghai, the government with some private entities tried several times, there were several efforts to start sorting programs, getting people to do the equivalent of a blue bin -who was never a blue bin- but getting people to think about sorting their trash. It just never caught on.

The efforts were harmed as well by the fact that you can see this stuff being sorted and then the garbage truck comes and everything is just thrown together into the garbage truck. I saw that in Beijing as well. They've made efforts in the biggest cities, but these efforts -I don't want to say they're half-hearted- but they don't follow through on them, they may last six months to a year and then it just falls off.

It's going to take time. Again, it's a generational change, it's a developing country transitioning, and at least in the big cities, I think, you'll see younger people start thinking in terms of environmental issues and sustainability, but it's going to take time.

[00:11:31] Liz: Definitely. I've heard you say before that China's got the circular economy down. Do you still think we can learn from them with what they're doing with everything from Christmas lights to iPhones?

[00:11:45] Adam: I do. Let me relate to an experience I recently had. I had an iPad Mini, the second generation one that had finally given up the ghost recently, it just was done. I didn't, obviously, want to throw it in the trash, I didn't want to throw it in the recycling bin. I spoke to my wife, she crossed her arms and said, "So, Mister. Recycling, what are you going to do?"

[laughter]

One easy option would be to take it to the Apple store. At the Apple store, they would have taken it for free, there's no trade-in value, it's a much older device, it would have been taken to a recycler and shredded and there would have been some raw material value taken out of it. What I ended up opting to do was I went on eBay and you could find the same model of older iPad Mini, people bidding on them 30$ to 50$. Most of the people doing the bidding had ethnic Chinese names, some of them were in California, so I thought, "Well, I'll see what happens" and I ended up selling it, with shipping, for a little over $50, that far exceeds. Yes, I mean, far exceeds what the raw material value is in that iPad Mini, everybody knows that.

I didn't ask the guy who bought it what he was going to do with it, he was buying a lot of electronics I saw, older vintage electronics, but clearly at that price something was going to be reused, either the device itself, maybe it was going to be refurbished, whatever was not working anymore they would replace the parts in it and sell it in a developing country, or this person or whoever he works with would extract the parts and those parts would be resold, possibly as new, possibly as refurbished, we don't know.

Of course, you can do that in the US, I think he was in San Jose, but that's a much more common thing to have happen in a developing country like China, which has a large reuse infrastructure, massive reuse infrastructure, mostly based in Shenzhen, where instead of looking at a broken device as something that should be shredded and what limited raw material to be taken out of it will be taken out of it, they look at an old device as a combination of older parts that can be reused.

There is a massive economy, a multi-billion dollar economy in reusing parts in China. That is something that I do believe, not just the United States, but the EU, which is pushing very hard, circular economy initiatives can learn from. But it's hard as well because there's all kinds of issues wrapped up within that, including intellectual property issues. That makes it hard, but I do think that at least theoretically, there's something to be learned from this.

[00:14:30] Liz: Definitely. What do you think is the future of e-waste? As a planet, how are we going to deal with this influx as 5G comes in and we just know what's coming? Or at least we think we know what it's coming around the corner in terms of what we will be disposing of and it's a lot more than what we have right now?

[00:14:49] Adam: Yes. I'm both worried and not worried. Let me tell you the not worried side of it first. One, we often hear that e-waste is the world's fastest-growing waste stream. That's not true, the world's fastest-growing waste stream, if you travel around the developing world, is automobiles. Where people have gotten the idea that e-waste is it, small phones, I don't know, the growth in automobiles is enormous. That's a huge problem, and if you go to automobile recycling yards in the developing world, then you'll see a real problem, not the e-waste recycling yards.

The second thing is I do have some faith that design for recycling, design for reuse principles, are starting to penetrate into product designer's and manufacturer's consciousness. I think that will be helpful, it's certainly very early, but 10 years from now, I think we'll actually see products being much more recyclable, much more reusable than they are right now. In fact, I would be astonished if it's not the case. Part of that, simply, has to do with the fact that the manufacturers are seeing economic incentives in it, especially with batteries, in memory modules, there's real value there. I think that value is there.

The other reason that I feel very confident in the ability of the situation to get better is because the industry is so globalized now. I spent quite a bit of time in West Africa for this new book. West Africa has this reputation as being a dumping ground, people dump their stuff, I've never seen anything dumped in the recycling industry, I see it bought and sold, but not dumped. One of the things that happens in West Africa that I think has been wildly overlooked by people who profess to be concerned about this is the amount of e-waste that is exported out of Africa, specifically memory chips, CPUs, screens.

Those modules, those parts, are being exported in many cases to Nigeria, where they're reused in new or refurbished devices, and an extraordinary amount of gold-bearing electronic scrap is being exported back to China. You have this robust trade, not just West Africa, but Africa in general, with West Africa and China, which is very keen to get that raw material so that it can reprocess it and it can be reused again, either as parts or as a commodity. China is rapidly upgrading its technology so that it can do this thing in an environmentally sound way, they see an economic incentive for doing it.

I'm very optimistic in that sense. It will everything be perfect? No, but I think there's a lot of reason to be optimistic. There are also reasons to be pessimistic, I think something that the recycling industry, the electronics industry and the automobile industry are roundly unprepared for is the recycling of electric vehicles. These are no longer going to be mechanical devices, they're going to be more akin to drones, with very few moving parts, a lot of silicon, a lot of high extremely expensive components, and it's going to require a revolution in how these products are disassembled, who owns them post first owner. I'm not sure how that's all going to shake out, especially in developing countries where the infrastructure may not be there to handle it. It's going to be complicated.

[00:18:30] Liz: That is and that's a good point, I hadn't even thought of that. I want to get to ask about your book, but before we do I wanted to talk to you. I loved your recent Bloomberg article that mentions the Norwegian government's proposal, it's intended to curb the tide of plastics in our ocean, it seems like the intention is noble but may be short-sighted. Could you share your thoughts on this and give our listeners a little bit of background about your article?

[00:18:57] Adam: Sure. Well, as we speak this week, in Switzerland there are the COP meetings, which are basically regular meetings of signatories to several conventions that are designed to restrict the export of hazardous waste to developing countries, one of these is the Basel Convention.

Last year, Norway proposed amending the Basel Convention so that basically plastic waste would now be considered a hazardous waste. Once it's considered a hazardous waste, there would be restrictions on its trade. The intention is to make it harder and to create a more thoughtful process in how waste plastics ends up in the developing world. Norway, like a lot of other countries, would like to see fewer waste plastics going to the developing world.

That's what the proposal is, it would treat waste plastics like arsenic, for example. The key provision, the way it would work would be, currently, if somebody wants the ship arsenic waste to a developing country, say from Norway, they would have to notify the developing country and receive consent to actually make that shipment. Under this new Norwegian proposal, the same procedure would exist for plastic waste.

In my column, which was published few days ago, basically argues that this is going to not be good for the oceans, but in fact, it may actually increase the amount of plastics flowing into the oceans because it will inhibit the reuse of plastics, it would promote landfilling and incineration and encourage the use of virgin raw materials, all because it's going to make the transportation and trade in waste plastics harder.

[00:21:01] Liz: Right. Okay. Well, we will be following that for sure. Packaging is a huge issue in our waste stream now. How is the packaging situation there with Alibaba and other retailers?

[00:21:15] Adam: I would say it's reached crisis proportions, I'm sure you've seen some of the pictures and videos of what some of these Chinese warehouses and waste facilities look like after Singles Day, which is the single largest shopping day of the year in China and increasingly in Southeast Asia.

Of course, there's a great amount of recycling infrastructure in China, and the paper recyclers, in particular, are keen to get all of that stuff especially because they can't get the imported material anymore, but that's not the extent of the problem, the bigger problem and one that the government is starting to panic about in China is e-commerce, our food delivery packaging. Styrofoam containers and other food delivery packaging that's basically enabling China's massive, there's nothing close to it in the US, massive, massive e-commerce-based food delivery system.

There's multi-billion dollar companies now that are founded upon it and largely operate by delivering food from restaurants and by and large the packaging that they use is not designed for recycling. Even if it were designed for recycling, it would be smeared with sauce and everything else, and as we know well, in the United States and in Europe that's contamination. They're really at a loss right now as to how to handle this and it's going to be a bigger and growing problem.

[00:22:48] Liz: I like that. Now, do you think solutions like robotics and AI can help with some of the contamination issues? Or is it just not there yet?

[00:23:00] Adam: It's not there yet. I'm just talking about-- In developing Asia in general, outside of Singapore. Outside of Singapore, Japan, and Korea, the developed countries, there just isn't the waste sorting, it's not happening, you don't have the recycling bin in developing Asia, including China. Obviously, optical sorting and the various robotics, that's just not going to be an effective solution when you've got a massively commingled truck filled with food waste and other recyclables. So no, not yet, what China and other developing countries and Asia really need to do is they need to be able to build household recycling infrastructure so that they can get to the point where they can talk about robotics.

[00:23:51] Liz: That makes sense. You have a new book on the horizon, It's called Secondhand. Could you talk more about that? I would love to hear about this one.

[00:24:01] Adam: Sure. Well, Secondhand really was born out of the last couple chapters of Junkyard Planet, when I started looking at basically, rather than [unintelligible 00:24:11] commodities I started looking at whole things, clothing, a whole electronics, [unintelligible 00:24:18]. What happens to these? Not when we dropped them off at the recycling center, but what happens when we drop them off at the Goodwill.

It was a personal quest as well because, like most people in the developed world now, I lost a parent, and after you lose a parent part of the mourning process, frankly, is trying to figure out what to do with the stuff they left behind. I started trying to figure out what was going to happen to my mother's things after she passed away and a lot of them went to Goodwill, so I made it a quest to figure out what happens within the thrift infrastructure, the thrift industry. Where do things go? Is there a better way to do it?

I just really wanted to explain to my readers what that all looks like. The book opens literally at a Goodwill donation door and I take you on a journey from the donation door, through the thrift system and around the world. Ultimately, it's also a book about consumption because it turns out -and I knew this and I think anybody in the recycling industry knows it- there's a real limit to how much of your stuff can be reused, whether it be clothing, computers, the glow sticks from that concert you just went to, whatever it is, there's a very limited amount of use for it.

The book towards the end starts posing the question, "What can we do about this?" I argue that the problem we have -and I think it is a problem- isn't a crisis of quantity of stuff, but rather there's a crisis of quality, the quality of stuff is declining and because of that, the quantity is increasing. We need to start looking at ways to improve the quality of the goods that we're buying, in that way we can have a better reuse system and we'll also have less personal property flowing into the waste system.

[00:26:07] Liz: Did you see differences based on the geography of how people treated their things and [crosstalk]?

[00:26:13] Adam: Yes. This was a really exhausting book to do and a really fun book, it takes place in Japan, Malaysia, West Africa, Ghana, Benin and all over the United States. The twin cities, the Goodwill that I focus on is in Tucson, Arizona, and I spend quite a bit of time with traders there because Tucson's Goodwill system really depend upon traders coming up from Mexico, so I really show you how there has been so much of our thrift system, especially. Our thrift system in the United States is dependent upon globalized trade, if there weren't traders coming up from Mexico, that stuff wouldn't get reused.

To a certain extent, everybody reuses in the same way, but what I think is surprising is that a lot of the stereotypes that we have about reuse, go by the wayside at least as I found them, I expect it to see far more reuse in Japan. But the one thing I consistently heard in Japan, home to Marie Kondo, is that they are far more wasteful than Americans, they actually go through things much more quickly, they're much more fashion-oriented. That's why you see something like Marie Kondo emerging there, it's not because of any heightened ecological consciousness, it's because they're consumers [unintelligible 00:27:33] a lot.

It was really interesting and I spent quite a bit of time there with companies that are devoted to exporting Japanese property into developing countries because, I'm sure you know, Japan's population is shrinking, and as the population shrinks, they're leaving behind a lot of stuff. Well, where is all that stuff going to go? Well, it's going to developing Asia and Africa. The process of parsing that out, figuring out what works for use goods traders in Mali, as compared to use good traders in the Philippines, is very interesting to me.

[00:28:08] Liz: I like that. I can't wait to read it. It feels it could be just the US bias, but it feels there is a movement to minimize. Did you see that?

[00:28:20] Adam: Yes, I did. I did feel it and if you talk to the people in the thrift industry and Goodwill, they're feeling grow. Especially the kind of phenomenon ended up pumping a lot of secondhand stuff into the system, and there seems to be -and it's hard to quantify- but there seems to be a growing interest in upcycling and reuse. That's really interesting and that's really encouraging.

One of the points of the book, however, it's maybe a little bit more pessimistic, which is to say, "Yes, you should upcycle and reuse, but you can't upcycle and reuse your way out of our current sustainability crisis, ultimately it's going to require a change in how we make, in how we manufacture stuff and how we buy it", meaning not buying the disposable TV, the one that lasts three years, but buying a better quality product that lasts longer. A washing machine that lasts 25 years instead of seven years in some of the warranties promises. It also refocuses things in that way.

[00:29:29] Liz: I like that, that's great. It's coming out in November?

[00:29:32] Adam: Yes, November 12.

[00:29:33] Liz: Can we pre-order on Amazon?

[00:29:36] Adam: Yes, if you look up, Adam Minter's Secondhand on Amazon, you'll find the page there and it can be pre-ordered as an e-book and as a hardcover.

[00:29:46] Liz: That's awesome. Okay, good.

[00:29:49] Adam: Thanks.

[00:29:50] Liz: You know that will be happening [laughs] for sure. Back to your first book, I know that you mentioned in there, I forget which chapter. Everyone thinks right now is the biggest crisis that we've ever had in recycling, but I know that you've reminded us on Twitter that's not necessarily the case, it's not all doom and gloom, there are solutions coming out of it. What do you think?

[00:30:16] Adam: Right. Well, yes, that's correct. One of my favorite parts of researching Junkyard Planet was actually going through the trade journal archives at [unintelligible 00:30:27] and Washington DC back in 2012. I went back to the very beginning of recycling trade magazines, I think was 1905, and it was remarkable how many times over the next hundred years people said the recycling industry as we know it is over. "Prices are low, people aren't buying this anymore, there's quality issues", and you would see huge turnover in the number of companies and who owned the companies, but inevitably the recycling industry resuscitated itself. That is because, ultimately, there's value in these materials.

The way they flow in the markets change over and over, but ultimately there will be value. There's a lot of people upset that these materials are now flowing into Southeast Asia, but they're flowing into Southeast Asia for two very important reasons. One, they can be reused, and two, they're cheap. They're cheaper than, in many cases, using the alternative. Those are the new markets emerging and perhaps the old markets are dying.

One of the things that I think changed in the recycling industry is that many of the participants, the people are being hurt by this current crisis, entered the industry in the last 20 years. They entered as the commodity supercycle began, not just for recycling commodities, but also for virgin commodities, and they've never faced a real downturn quite like we're seeing right now. But if you talk to people who were in the industry before the supercycle, before the 1990s, they are starting to say the same thing, which is this industry as it is right now, with it's tighter margins and lower demand, reminds them of the 1970s and 1980s, where it was a shock to see a copper move 10 cents in a year, much less than a day.

But these older entrepreneurs and managers all managed to make a living in the industry, it was just harder, it was an instant. I think some of these lessons that were learned in the '70s and '80s are now being relearned. I think five years from now things will be going better and we'll have much more experience. Harden, I guess you would say, our recycling professionals, and that will make for a more resilient industry.

[00:32:45] Liz: Definitely. Yes, there's definitely life. Now, do you think technology has shaped the global perspective on waste and recycling? You're talking about these videos and everything's shared on social media.

[00:32:55] Adam: Sure. Yes, in many ways I think social media has actually hurt perceptions of the recycling industry, simply because it's so easy to put a photo of, say, a young African man next to a broken computer on Twitter and say, "Look what happens to your developed country waste." There's no context there, it might be highly misleading, but it's an emotional image.

This isn't just a problem with reporting on the recycling industry, but there's no context there, there's no nuance and it tends to get people angry and emotional, but it doesn't give somebody who might know how that computer ended up there and what the full story is. Maybe, it is a sustainable story after all, it doesn't give that person the oxygen, the room or even the tolerance to explain that at times. I've had instances where I've tried to offer some nuance to some very, I would say, explosive looking photos of recycling on the internet, and I know exactly what has happened there and it's not how people are taking it, I'll be subject to your usual Twitter abuse. It becomes not worth it.

I think, in many ways, it's hurt the industry. On the other hand, I've also felt -and I have mixed feelings on this- I don't think that the recycling industry over the years has necessarily done a great job of telling its story to the mainstream. It's still, in my impression of somebody who grew up in it, it's an industry that likes to keep the gates closed and talk to itself.

There's good reasons for that, but increasingly in a connected world, I think it needs to open the gates wider, be more willing to explain what it's doing and be willing to take that criticism while delivering a more nuanced message. It just has to because the alternative is you're going to let the Twitter mobs and advocacy journalists, who don't understand the economics of the recycling industry, control the narrative.

[00:35:03] Liz: Right. That's a good point storytelling is such a huge part of our lives now and I think the recycling industry is doing a lot of good things, and with storytelling being such a huge part of what we're all doing, regardless of industry, we all need to do a better job of communicating it to the masses because, to your point, otherwise you are going to have pundits and Twitter trolls telling your story, and it's out of context and not necessarily true.

[00:35:31] Adam: Right. Absolutely. I'm not trying to point fingers at all, don't get me wrong, I consider my responsibility to tell the story as well, also, sometimes I feel I haven't always done a good job, but I just think in general people associated with the industry should be willing to step up and tell these more subtle nuanced and, yes, personal stories out the industry.

[00:35:55] Liz: Hopefully, we will see more of that.

[00:35:57] Adam: The other thing I think is positive is a lot of brands and large companies, as they understand that sustainability can just be a label, they actually have to do it, they are becoming more involved in the recycling supply chain. Revealing it in good ways and explaining what it is in good ways. I think that's very encouraging.

[00:36:19] Liz: Yes. I think so too. To that point, I know that part of what you try to do is to elevate in China what you call The junk men and the junk people. Do you think that's happening now that sustainability it's so top of mind to everyone?

[00:36:37] Adam: I don't think so. To be honest with you, I don't, I don't know how I'm going to do it, but it's become a bit of a pet peeve of mine, is the language that is used around recycling, especially the term dumping. Because the term dumping it's a very powerful word, everybody assumes they know what it means, but amongst its many problems is that it takes agency away from the people who are actually doing the trading.

As I said earlier, I've never seen a load of recycling dumped in a developing country, there is always somebody in that developing country who has paid for it, imported it, paid for the shipping as someone would pay for an Amazon package, and has an intention of extracting some economic value out of it. That story is never told. If you look at the way that the recycling stories have been told over the last year about the shift to Southeast Asia, you'll always see the recycling facility in San Francisco, and then the next image you'll see is the leftover waste in a field in Malaysia. But who is the person who got that through the port and why did they do it?

Nobody is digging up those. They're not hard to dig up, they're right on the shipping documents. I think there's a certain amount of erasure going on, and I don't think that's healthy, I don't think it tells the industries truths or its stories very well. At times I think it also takes on a bit of a racial component because so much of the global recycling industry is mediated by people of color, they're the traders. Most of them, small business people, and yet mainstream media coverage of the global recycling industry erases them almost entirely from the story, and I think that's extremely unhealthy. It's something that needs to change.

[00:38:32] Liz: That, I hope it does. What else do you think we should be paying attention to around waste and recycling from your global perspective?

[00:38:38] Adam: One of the things that I found really interesting doing this new book was the opportunity to really dive into the state of secondhand clothing and textile recycling. What I found was a market that's extremely complex, that's very robust, that's as globalized as anything -most people in the recycling industry do- but it's also a market that's about to undergo a massive disruption for two big reasons.

One, the world is producing and consuming more clothes than ever before. For a long time, it used to be that the buyers of second-hand clothes were in developing Asia and developing Africa, and the donors and sellers were in wealthy countries. Well, that's changing. China is now I think -or will soon be- the world's largest consumer of clothes. One of the things I found when I was in Africa is there are large shipments of Chinese secondhand clothing going into Africa. That is driving down the price of secondhand clothing globally, because there's all this new supply.

At the same time as developing Asia and developing Africa get their own middle classes who want to buy new. I don't know how this is going to work out, but I spend quite a bit of time in the new book looking at this, there's going to be a real shift in how textiles and clothing are handled, whether people want them. I think inevitably technology is going to have to come into this.

There's a big change coming in that market, and I think even people who aren't involved in secondhand textiles will feel it in other ways because I think to a certain extent it's going to be repeated in other markets that were dependent upon income inequalities to make the trades work.

[00:40:21] Liz: What keeps you busy outside of your work?

[00:40:24] Adam: What keeps me busy outside of my work? I got a four-year-old. As soon as I'm done with work, I head home and Sam I head out to the big field across from our home, kick around a soccer ball, just run like mad or jump on the playground equipment. He's my hobby, so there's work and there's my son. My wife would agree with this, whatever time my wife and I can squeeze in outside of what she does and what we're doing with our son, we do. I'm plenty busy and it's all good [crosstalk].

[00:41:01] Liz: What a great [unintelligible 00:41:02] enjoy every minute of that [laughs]. This has been fantastic, can you please let us know when you will be coming to New York to do your book tour for a SecondHand?

[00:41:13] Adam: I absolutely will. I can tell you right now, we were actually just discussing some of this on email yesterday, I should probably be arriving in New York on November 10th. There will be a launch event on the 12th and probably something on the 13th, as well. Yes, thank you so much for having me on, this is great. I really loved doing this.

[00:41:28] Liz: Well, Thank you so much. I can't wait for listeners to hear this, you've just given us so much to think about and your global perspective it's just amazing, thank you.

[00:41:37] Adam: Good. Thanks again for having me, we'll be in touch.

[00:41:38] Liz: Bye-bye.

[music]

 

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