Adam Minter is a writer for Bloomberg View and a wide range of other publications. He is also author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. His forthcoming book, Secondhand, is due out later this year and covers the global trade in secondhand commodities. Here is Adam’s interview with Discard Studies:
DS: What are the main myths you have to de-mythologize every time you address discards?
AM: There’s really only one: the persistent idea that developed countries “dump” their recyclable and re-usable discards on developing countries.
It’s a difficult myth to address for three key reasons.
First, it builds upon decades of reporting and research on the ways that developed country companies and governments externalize pollution. In newsrooms, and with news consumers, that body of knowledge creates a near automatic presumption of “externalization” when presenting narratives about the transnational trade in discards – even if there might be another, more accurate interpretation. Journalists are sensitive to that presumption.
Second, it’s a narrative that’s seductively easy to repeat (or, less charitably, copy). All you need is a map with a red line showing the route a device took from a rich place to a poor one. Recently, a common narrative device in many stories about e-waste dumping is the GPS tracker hidden in a shipping container or device that pings the journey from rich world to developing world. Many if not most non-specialists will naturally assume that the purpose of the journey is to save on the costs of “proper” recycling in the rich country. Throw in visuals of discards on fire, or in other states of disassembly that are unsafe, and the story more or less, writes and edits itself.
Third, and perhaps most important, mainstream media tends to view discards solely through an environmental lens. That’s understandable but insufficient if the goal is to understand why discards are traded and move around the globe.
For that, you need a commercial lens. Let me use an example that’s currently in the news: the shift of plastic scrap imports from China, which has effectively banned much of the trade, to Malaysia. In the wake of that shift, there have been dozens of reports – everyone from the BBC to Malaysian local media – on the “dumping” of foreign [plastic] waste in Malaysia.
Now here’s the problem with the “dumping” narrative. At the moment, the cost of sending a forty-foot shipping container of discarded plastics from the Port of Los Angeles to Port Klang, Malaysia (where many of California’s plastic exports are heading since China’s restrictions on imports), is roughly $1,200. Meanwhile, the cost of “tipping” a ton of solid waste into a L.A.-area landfill is around $52 per ton. That’s a problematic pair of numbers if you’re committed to explaining waste exports as externalization. After all, if it’s cheaper to “dump” in Los Angeles, than to “dump” in Malaysia – why are plastic recyclers in Los Angeles “dumping” in Port Klang?
The answer should be obvious: the plastics aren’t being dumped, they’re being purchased by someone in Malaysia (who, like an Amazon customer, also pays the freight). And the reason they’re willing to put up that money is because the plastic has value as a raw material for manufacturing or re-use. Invoices, shipping manifests, and customs assessments are the obtainable documentary evidence for these transactions (likewise, shipping and tipping rates are easily google-able).
This isn’t a state of economic affairs unique to Malaysia. In the two decades I’ve covered the transglobal trade in discards, I’ve yet to see a shipping container of discards “dumped” on a developing country. In every case, the material in the containers was purchased and imported for more than what it would cost to “dump” at home. Of course, the discards weren’t always processed or used in a way that conforms to health, safety, and environmental standards found in many developed countries. But it’s difficult to argue that somebody is dumping something on a poor country when a person in the poor country is paying for the stuff.
One last thing. Consciously or unconsciously, when reporters, academics, and news consumers use the term “dumping” they implicitly deny agency to the highly sophisticated trading and processing businesses that operate across the developing world. If there is one underlying theme in my work on discards over the years it is this: the millions of people who work on discards in the developing world have agency. Continued use of the term “dumping” denies it to them....MUCH MORE