Adam Minter comes from a family of scrap dealers going back more than 100 years. He is the great grandson of Abe Leder, a Russian immigrant, who echoed the common cry of the turn-of-the-century Jewish peddlers: “Junk man! Any rags, any bones, any bottles today?”
Minter will be speaking 7 p.m. Nov. 18, virtually for Jewish Museum Milwaukee, which is hosting through Jan. 30 a traveling exhibit: “Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling.” The event is being held in partnership with the Milwaukee Public Library. Visit Jewishmuseummilwaukee.org.
Minter, of Minneapolis, grew up around his father’s scrap metal yard and has researched the history of the industry. He went into the business as a chronicler of the modern-day recycling industry – a trade journalist and book author.
“The scrap recycling and resale trade,” he said, “played a crucial role in the immigrant experience of Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century.”
The exhibit, curated by the Jewish Museum of Maryland, chronicles an industry that turns waste into raw materials. For more than 200 years, discarded metals, rags, paper and animal hides have provided economic opportunities for scrappers – immigrants and native-born Americans who collected, stored, brokered, and sold them.
Minter, author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade,” said, “by one accounting, more than half of the Jewish population of New York City in the early 20th century was directly or indirectly involved in scrap and resale.” And it wasn’t just New York, either. His great-grandfather landed in Galveston, Texas, having fled conscription in the tzar’s Army. “Wherever there was a fast-growing early 20th century city with a manufacturing base, there were Jews collecting, processing and re-selling that city’s scrap. It’s an essential piece of our collective history in America.”
The business passed down through the generations. A backpack became a hand-drawn cart, then a pickup truck and eventually a scrap yard. “My childhood memories are walking around the metal warehouse with my dad, looking at the stuff we were buying to process for sale,” Minter said. “So, I grew up around it. It wasn’t anything unusual for me to talk about recycling.”
Minter, his wife and six-year-old son were based, pre-COVID, in Kuala Lumpur, where among his many assignments, he writes a column for Bloomberg Opinion on China, the environment and technology. In his most recent book, “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale,” Minter delves into the vast, multibillion-dollar industry that resells used stuff around the world – and what it tells us about consumerism and the environment.
What people least understand about the recycling industry is it is first and foremost a business, Minter said. “In developed countries, if you put something in the recycling bin, you think it’s good for the environment. But the reality is that nothing gets recycled if they’re not going to make something out of it. So, it’s a raw materials business. Growing up in the business, I didn’t think of it in terms of the environment as much as it was my family’s livelihood.”
In a vision for the future, he would like to see a world of less disposable things and more heirlooms. “When people buy something, they will think at that point that maybe I’ll give it to a friend, a sibling or child at some point. It can continue to be used because not only does it affect the environment, it’s kind of good for our soul.”
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How to go
What: ‘Junkyard Planet’ with Best-Selling Author Adam Minter
When: Nov. 18, 7 p.m.
More info: JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org