Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, by Adam Minter, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99/$26, 304 pages

Drivers entering the southern Chinese city of Guiyu are greeted with the coolest of welcomes: the flash of an automatic camera taking a picture of their car. According to the travel companion of journalist Adam Minter, the local government will keep it on file for a month.

Why are the Guiyu authorities worried about outsiders? The answer is found in places such as the small workshop Minter visits there, where a metal door with two deadbolts leads to a shed furnished with an industrial oven, pincers and a box cutter. The tools are for the messy task of dismantling unwanted electronic goods whose parts can be reused in toys or mined for the precious metals inside. This dirty work has given many of the town’s children lead poisoning. It is not something local authorities want close scrutiny of; it is also lucrative enough to protect. The workshop’s owner quotes Minter a price of 30 cents per Intel Pentium III chip, expensive because the gold content is high.

Minter’s superbly researched Junkyard Planet explores how recycling has become a global industry – one that the author estimates now has an annual turnover of $500bn and more workers than any other trade save agriculture. It is driven not by the ecological conscience of those who separate paper and plastic for doorstep collection in the west but by eastern factories’ demand for raw materials and entrepreneurs’ realisation that there is profit in what others throw away, from dented metal street signs to the broken Japanese pachinko machines whose screens fit perfectly into dashboard GPS units.

Recycling is a natural topic for a writer whose father ran a junkyard in Minnesota and who has lived for the past decade in China, where factories process much of the world’s reusable waste. This is no longer his father’s industry; the buyers he once served have been replaced by facilities such as the one Minter visits in the city of Lianyungang, where a massive shredding machine tears apart old motorcycles and sells the output to a state-owned steelmaker in northern China.

Many of the same factors that have made China the factory of the world also explain why the country has emerged as its scrapyard. Labour is relatively cheap and plentiful. Officials might try to clean up places such as Guiyu or Wen’an, the latter a recycling village where workers melt down plastics in barely ventilated rooms and where a doctor tells him residents have been having pulmonary problems that leave them paralysed in their thirties. But environmental authorities in China often turn a blind eye. More importantly, there is demand for recyclers’ output. Raymond Li’s processor in the southern town of Shijiao crushes 2.2m pounds of Christmas tree lights a year. The copper is sold to wire factories and the plastic to a maker of slipper soles.

Minter’s affection for the industry shows up in occasionally overly admiring descriptions of his sources, many of them self-made Midwestern entrepreneurs and savvy Chinese traders logging lonely long hours criss-crossing the US in search of scrapyard junk to ship home for processing.

He does not, however, shy from criticisms of the industry, which extend beyond pollution. Minter cites one academic study that found people used more paper towels in bathrooms with recycling bins, and he suggests that reassurances from companies such as Apple that electronic goods can be reused may have a similar effect on consumers, who tend to regard the process as greener and more efficient than it is.

As Junkyard Planet shows, the commercial recycling industry does put others’ trash to the most productive use possible. But recycling is no “get out of jail free card” for those who, as Minter puts it, find consuming “more fun than conserving”.

Sarah Mishkin is the FT’s Taiwan correspondent

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