When it comes to environmental sustainability in America the three tenants taught in school are: reduce, reuse, recycle. The last of the three is the most visible and most used option because the culture we live in does not really move toward reducing or reusing. We are a single-use society that loves new things.

As someone who has worked in sustainability I appreciate Adam Minter’s “Junkyard Planet” for laying out the journey of scrap metal. In some ways you could say he plots an ethnography of an object. We follow metal from the yards of America to the sheds and scrappers of Asia and then back to the brokers who make the shipment deals and flit around in the world of metal supply and demand. There is also a fantastic briefing on recycling in America (or “grubbing”).

What is so vitally important, and what I think Minter does a good job of highlighting, is that there are high levels of materials that must be managed in some way. While some of the striping practices are not the most eco-friendly (or just plain safe) there is some solace in knowing that the items are not merely being piled in a landfill. (Some solace, not a lot.)

He circles in on the more important issue of consumption. Recycling is the last of the steps toward waste reduction, because in the end that recycling bin is still going to produce some waste. What is more crucial is changing buying habits. The author ends the book with the message that we should “demand” companies be responsible for making products that embrace the three “r”s, especially when it comes to repairability and reusability.

I think anyone who works in sustainability can always benefit from understanding the cycles around certain waste streams.

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