Mining NYTimes

In an email conversation in 2002, I told Jim Puckett of BAN that the worst recycling was better than the best mining, and he agreed. What we disagreed on was how far recycling can improve, and how fast, without tipping the scale back to more mining.

In today's New York Times there is another article about the elephant in the room - mining sensitive areas for high tech or "rare earth" metals.

When you get a new technology - like color TV in the 1960s - I think it is natural to be so fascinated by the taste that you never peek into the kitchen. That's how we wound up with cadmium phosphors inside "new" color TVs back in the 1960s. The first color CRTs were of course used by the military, which is where BAN found evidence of cadmium in CRT phosphors in a US Navy MSDS sheet almost ten years ago.

The new technologies of today, the NY Times Keith Bradsher points out, are often energy savers, "green devices", which are championed as a way to have our cake and eat it too. We can continue to enjoy rising consumptive lifestyles and conserve the environment at the same time with a technical solution. The article is found in the Business section.

As the article shows, China provides the rare earth metal mining. If you need to buy cadmium for a new device today, it will come from Chinese mines. But heaven forbid that the chinese techs washing cadmium phosphor for CRT recycling start to use recycled cadmium.

But this gets right back to my "baby seal pelt" packaging analogy (a reuseable, organic, renewable source of product packaging). It is the basic, and sometimes fatal flaw of the OECD-centered Basel Convention. It does not cover mining, refining, smelting, manufacturing, production, assembly, all of which have been the growth industries in the developing (soon to be, not yet OECD) world. It is a great tool for what it is designed for - to prevent outsourcing of DUMPING and DISPOSAL. The linguistic problem is the contagion that defines recycling as a form of disposal, and in BAN's world, even the process material from upgrades (a 128 RAM replaced by 512) makes the entire remanufacturing process a 'disposal' process.

This I believe. There are scientists and engineers who have the patience to try and try to resolve really stubborn problems, and we are not mistaken to put our faith in them. But the "problems" they are given to resolve are too often oversimplified by environmentalists without the same sense of patience and problem-solving skills. In the same way as the engineer is given the assignment of designing a battery which is not too heavy to compromise MPG (the solution was the rare earth metal mining in China in the article), we need to give them a key directive:


This simple directive was missing from the "leadfree solder" or ROHS directive from Europe, which gave a prime directive of not putting anything toxic into the double-lined and monitored landfills we had asked engineers to design for our municipal solid waste. The engineers, when asked, gave us solder made from tin and silver, two of the most notorious rare earth mining metals. They gave us cell phones with tantalum mined from gorilla habitat.

The fate of the gorillas is the Monkey's Paw outcome of our wish for more efficient cell phones. I can't tell you the relative weight of demand for timber, demand for pineapples, demand for cell phones, and demand for hamburgers has on rain forest development, but the fewer economic reasons we give to build roads into rain forests, the less bushmeat traffic we will inflame. Biofuels may be the next big rainforest killer. All I can do is hope that my writing might influence someone to pay for such as study.

The environmentalist, ecologist, engineers do NOT need to be told that the new process cannot be done by a women's coop in Mexico, by the manufacturer takeback programs in Singapore, or by racists or religious bigots or neo-cons or flower children that the process needs to be centered geographically around a 4o year old definition of "developed" economies. If the entire process, from extraction (preferably from waste) to ISO14001/ISO9000 EHS standards, to socially progressive corporate management, to meeting affordable demand for computers, to "end of life" recyclability, is all good, then drop the ZIP CODE FETISH.

Singapore is in a non-OECD zip code. Get over it. It also has a higher environmental enforcement and standard of living than Silicon Valley CA.

Here is my dilemma... I'm taking potshots at BAN because they are running a negative campaign and have been dragging their feet at presenting a truly vetted positive alternative. The new "certified" ewaste program will probably force them to deal with the tough choices (like glass-to-glass recycling only being possible in non-OECD countries), just as reuse is always going to be done best in less affluent areas.

My partner Gary Hepler and I won the 1980 Arkansas state debate championship by running a positive case. It is generally the rule that you choose negative if you win the coin toss, because it is always easier to go negative and to raise questions than it is to anticipate every possible negative attack on your plan. Gary and I had seen the finalists from North Little Rock High School defeat our school's strongest debate team (John Smart and Chris Doughty) with their well-practiced affirmative case. We saw they were extremely well rehearsed in their positive case, and their weak point seemed to be improvisation. So we presented a positive case.

WR3A's positive case is Fair Trade Exports. Creating environmentally positive jobs in developing countries. It is the win-win. The jobs it allegedly exports are mostly immingrant and sometimes illegal aliens in the USA (creating jobs for Mexicans in Mexico). It is creating the same infrastructure allegedly missing in the countries which have established demand for reuse. It has had nowhere near the success that the "export ban" idea has had, but like a stubborn engineer, I have not seen the hypothesis disproven either by Jim Puckett's interpretation of MPPI and Annex IX or by the challenge of auditing overseas end markets.

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