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‘Secondhand’: an ode to the global treasure hunt

The world is filled with more things now than at any given time in history. That’s what Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet (2013), realised while writing about the scrap trade over the last few years. Following the sudden loss of his mother, he asked himself the question; ‘what happens to our stuff when we are gone?’ His second book, ‘Secondhand’, paints a detailed picture of the afterlife of our earthly possessions.

Pages: 282 / Publication date: 1 November, 2019 / Get it here

Tracing used goods from point A to B, and onwards, is easier said than done. As Minter points out, there is barely any hard data on this specific topic, with used cars being the only real exception. Even then, exact numbers get a little ‘fuzzy’, he says.

The problem is that lots of people means lots of stuff. World Bank data says we humans are on track to generate waste at a pace more than double that of the population growth until 2050. Minter, who is born in Minnesota and is currently living in Malaysia, points out the US is home to at least 54 000 mini storage sites. Much of the knick-knacks are destined for garage sales or thrift stores – such as the one his mother owned.

More valuable items, such as used electronics, are likely to find a second home in Africa or Asia. Minter travelled to Ghana, which is one of the world’s biggest markets for used goods. In the country’s third largest city, Tamale, the ratio of repair workshops and restorers to retailers is almost 100 to 1.

Minter is eager to dispel the myth that Ghana, and especially the notorious area of Agbogbloshie (largely a car junkyard), is the world’s biggest international dumping ground. He estimates that upwards of 80% of e-scrap in Ghana is generated domestically and not imported. Having visited its many scrap processing sites, he doesn’t agree with the term ‘primitive recycling’. This, he stresses, is based on an antiquated view of local practices and completely disregards the hard work of Ghana’s self-trained refurbishers and parts traders. 

These entrepreneurs regularly visit e-scrap collection points in the US and the trade in used laptops and parts can easily finance a round-trip lifestyle between Temale and Vermont. Minter wonders if there’s a legal solution that ensures exporters of secondhand goods are not automatically viewed as morally suspect?

A notable trend is that scrap players have seen less ‘good stuff’ arriving in Ghana in recent years as a result of more efficient recycling programmes in developed countries. This also due to a thriving parts business in the US, Minter concludes.

The first few chapters are dedicated to unique businesses such as Empty the Nest and Gentle Transitions. They specialise in ‘clean-outs’ – following a person who is moving to a different house. The sorted items either go to family members, thrift stores, charities or (if the quality is too low) straight to recycling plants. This part of the book provides an entertaining look behind the scenes of such major clean-up operations that, Minter is happy to report, is nothing like an episode of the TV show ‘Hoarders’.

Adam Minter

The author also touches upon a phenomenon that has gained momentum in recent years: de-cluttering. In Japan, he meets a shukatsu counsellor. ‘Shukatsu’ essentially means to prepare for the end. This is a big business in Asia, especially in Japan. In 2016, the secondhand industry was worth US$ 16 billion (EUR 14.7 billion), almost 5% of the country’s retail market.

The job does require some getting used to, Minter writes. Clean-out crews encounter homes where the body of the deceased has only just been removed, leaving stains on the mattress or blood in the carpet. In that sense, the second hand goods industry is right at the core of the circle of life.

Besides the obvious economical benefits, Minter argues the work is worth it, as it connects those who have stuff with those who don’t. 

In conclusion: The book features a well balanced blend of practical data, real-life experiences, colourful character desscriptions and amusing anecdotes. An interesting read for people inside as well as outside the recycling industry.

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