Watching 60 Minutes Dirty Gold

It's Scott Pelley, in Kivu area (Eastern Province) of Congo. I lived there for several weeks, on Lake Kivu, in 1984, before going to Cameroon for my Peace Corps teaching job. The Enough Project director is talking about raw material mining and exploitation of civilian miners by warlords.

CBS 60 Minutes shows how mercury is used to consolidate gold dust, and the mercury burned off. This is the number one destination of mercury recovered by the USA's billion dollar a year lamp recycling industry, by the way.

This is the land of soukous music, the best music on the planet. Poly-rhythms on electric guitars. I have lived there, I've been talking about gold mining, the environmental and social costs for a decade. I put a few thousand dollars into a "recycled gold" patent search. It's one of the things that attracted me to the electronics "e-waste" recycling business... not desire for the metal, but disgust at seeing it thrown away. It's like throwing away baby seal pelts.


We Shouldn't Have to Make that Choice

You don't know whether anyone needs your used video device. You've already gotten a new one, so you just want to donate or recycle the thing. You don't want it to wind up burned for copper, polluting a foreign land. But it would be awesome if someone less fortunate was able to fix it up, appreciate it, and improve their lives.
Portions of this post in red were edited in response to complaints on this post from Some changes I would not make, others I accept their clarification and am making my best effort to clear up misunderstandings.

Millions of Americans are looking for guidance to make this choice in a green way.

I looked through the list of "E-Stewards" Founders today. Compared to the "Pledge" list, it looks impressive. There were some companies on the old "Pledge" list which were exporting a LOT, one even had "EPA Certified and BAN Certified" on their web page (I called Sarah and she got them to remove the phony claims, but the company remained on the "Pledge"). I'm optimistic that the new E-Stewards "certification" program (real certification this time) has dissuaded the companies least likely to pass actual verification, who got credit for making an "pledge" or "promise". has stepped up its game with a "put your money where your mouth is" approach. Kudos.

So I don't see any bad companies. Actually, reviewing the E-Stewards Founders, these are great companies. But there's one problem. These companies are not exporting enough material to feed the demand of the legitimate refurbishing market:

Fair Trade exporters are missing from the list. We want good people to export to the repair market, so the repair market doesn't have to buy from bad people. If the export for repair market is active, we want the buyers to practice "safe imports", not take a pledge of abstinence.

I know ten of these 14 E-Stewards Founders pretty well. For the most part, the ones who have taken the pledge of export-for-repair abstinence are in a niche where they aren't sacrificing that much. One is a smelter which refines separated computer boards. Some of the companies take out off-lease computer equipment from a working environment (from banks etc.), and get a lot of equipment in working condition, and don't handle the residential PCs and TVs. I see two which are probably so traumatized by their proximity to the metro-NYC-export-everything market that they have adapted the most stringent system (tested working) just to differentiate themselves. I see California and Washington companies who are basically paid so much to shred the stuff that there is no incentive to separate out reuse and repair. In general, these are either "replacement from working environment" or "end of life" operations, and none of them repairs what Egypt, Mexico, or Senegal repairs. If your PC was not at the end of its life when it went in, it is now.

Some of the E-Steward companies are also WR3A companies, and in the past I have purchased material to export for repair from some of them. I don't think any are doing that now. It would be great to give them money for repairable equipment. I don't think there is a bad actor in the lot.

Here is the problem, if you take all their tonnage, the percentage of the computers that ultimately get refurbished is going to be low.

If a black working Dell monitor comes from a homeowner to one of these companies, what are the chances it will get to the hospital in Cairo?

BAN's response to me personally by email to this question has been that the export of the good unit provides an alibi for bad exporters (a "loophole"). That's a bit like saying drivers licenses are an alibi for drunk driving. Though Annex IX of the Basel Convention explicitly allows it, BAN has interpreted any removal of any part to be "waste generation", and therefore they argue that "export for repair and refurbishment" (the actual language of the actual Basel Convention) actually means "tested working" (a term found nowhere in the Basel Convention).

"We replaced the faulty capacitor and have the computer working in the hospital lab."
"Faulty capacitor!? Sounds like trans-boundary shipment of waste! Stop that man!"

BAN clarified that technically, they do allow export for repair, but only if the repair is diagnosed in advance and any part (such as the capacitor) to be replaced has been removed and recycled in the USA. I doubt anyone today is hiring a repair tech to remove the bad parts before exporting an item for repair, and if no one is actually doing it, it's academic. Moreover, several BAN companies have stated to me that they believe BAN's standard to be Tested Working. There are alternative standards. EPA's R2 allows "key functions" to be present, but E-Steward certification requires the units be repaired or the parts removed in the USA. ISRI has added good language to their draft policy to ban export of "obsolete" products (working but destined for scrap).

As a compromise, WR3A located a computer monitor factory in Malaysia and organized a very large purchase order, so they could refurbish the monitors - actually make them better than "tested working". We sold thousands of USA monitors refurbished at the Asia factory to Egyptian medical students this year, for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Asia factory agreed to be audited and certified, and created a CRT glass operation for "incidental breakage" which turned into Malaysia-to-Malaysia CRT recycling. But if one of the E-Stewards participates in this trade, they risk being excommunicated by BAN, because you don't know until it arrives at the factory which parts will or won't be replaced.

If the E-Steward companies start hiring monitor repair people, so I could get affordable ones to ship straight to Egypt, I could come aboard. One BAN representative suggested to me personally that letting the repair happen in the factory which made the monitor originally is exporting USA repair jobs. C'mon. Where are those USA repair jobs? Good Point Recycling hires more people by screening material for repair than we could if everything was demanufactured in the USA.

The E-Stewards program appears to embrace a "tested working" or "fully functional" export standard, or a standard of repair that requires upgradeable parts to be replaced prior to export. But the approved companies cannot afford to hire USA technicians to repair the electronics. That leaves one outcome. They are shredding up the monitors and computers, charging more for recycling services, and losing customers in the USA who cannot afford the cost of shredding up good gear. They shouldn't have to make that choice.

3B3K There are approximately 3 billion people who earn approximately 3 thousand dollars per year. They represent the "Good Enough Market". They buy fixed stuff, white box refurbs, knock-off brands. "Good Enough" computers to get online, "Good Enough" TVs to watch the soccer game on, "Good Enough" a cell phone to call work. They are learning about Iranian elections via used 15" computer monitors, they are listening to Pandora radio, they are looking up schematics on how to repair the newest used cell phone.

How does Hamdy in Cairo, who sells to medical students in the 3B3K countries of Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, etc. get computers to sell? "Leapfrog", Jim Puckett says... they should get newer computers than the western nations had. Stifle a tear! What a noble thought!

It's a false choice. Even a $50 computer is a lot of money for a medical student in Senegal, Egypt, or Peru. If the hospital in Cairo has to choose between computerizing the blood bank (the number one cause of death of women in Africa is blood loss during childbirth) and accepting a mix of junk computers from one of the companies which does not follow either R2 or E-Steward standards, what should they do? They shouldn't have to make that choice!

WR3A's solution is to get really good companies, like those above, to export for repair to really good companies overseas. Using fair trade contracts, WR3A gives overseas markets the right incentives to pick up their game. The same solution they propose in the USA - to audit and certify the recyclers - can be done in other countries. In fact, it was done already in the countries with the factories that manufactured the TVs (e.g. Mexico) and computers (e.g. China and Malaysia). If Malaysia seems too far away to monitor, it can be done in Mexico, an OECD country close enough to the USA for BAN to visit regularly.

By at worst slamming the export for repair door to the E-Stewards, and at best creating rules that computer monitor processors don't have the wherewithal to follow (voluntarily shredding the material instead), BAN takes value added electronics out of the system. They deny people like Hamdy and Jinex and Fang and Vicki the ability to create "good enough" jobs repairing "good enough" equipment, and deny the revenue from those sales to recyclers in the USA. They take eager, talented people in emerging countries right out of what Orit Gadiesh, Philip Leung, Till Vestring defined as "The Battle for China's Good Enough Market". It's like the war on drugs strategy, the Japan boycott, the coffee boycott, and other unenforceable mandates which drive people to back alleys. What the world really needs is MORE companies to export, to give the overseas buyers more choices. More trade leads to more competition, more buyer choice, which leads to better outcomes.

When asked about whether China's sweatshop recyclers would be even worse off without those recycling jobs, Jim Puckett told 60 Minutes, "They shouldn't have to make that choice". I agree. The solution is to give them more choices. What I would like to do is get the E-Steward companies to read the Basel Convention Annex IX, which allows export for reuse and repair, to visit WR3A repair shop friends in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Mid-East, and to engage with them in a fair trade manner. If they can meet the demand with better product than my company provides, viva la competition. Uncomfortable with the worker safety standard in Peru? Offer a discount on the items in exchange for beefing up the EHS. The USA companies will make more money, and the techies and recyclers overseas will steadily improve their lifestyles, emerging from poverty, and follow the most successful path to becoming an OECD nation.

And it's not just me. Read today's Huffington Post for the perspective from India. Fair Trade isn't easy, but it's the best solution.

We have seen bans before. Ban abortions, film back alleys. Ban ewaste exports, film back alleys.

Samsung continues to buy CRTs for recycling from Australia, Europe, Japan and Korea. They just closed the market to USA CRT glass. Here is BAN's explanation of their role shutting down that CRT glass-to-glass market. BAN denied playing a role, but their own letter above says otherwis. My sources in Malaysia say BAN broke the market, and BAN admits to corresponding with Malaysia DOE just prior to the closure, and offering Samsung one choice - to mothball a multimilliondollar CRT glass processing machine and buy pre-washed cullet from the USA, or to continue what they had already been doing for Australia, Japan, Korea, and Europe. BAN's involvement was very specifically about whether Samsung should recycle CRTs from the USA, and the phosphors (very old, 1960s era TVs had cadmium phosphors) from Australia are ok. What we know for sure is that the price of CRT s recycling had been dropping for Americans at a steady rate, but went back up a year ago due to this decision to make Samsung mine lead rather than recycle lead supplied by the USA.

BAN evidently, either purposefully or inadvertently, played a role shutting off access to the good factories like Samsung in Klang Malaysia which were buying used USA CRT glass to melt into new CRTs. Why? Because Samsung purchased glass cutting and washing equipment in Europe, as they wanted to do their own quality control before putting the glass cullet into their furnaces. Why own the equipment if BAN's letter says you cannot use it? Why use it for the stream of CRT glass from Europe and Australia, but not from the USA? Samsung and Malaysia DOE looked at each other, asked "are you thinking what I'm thinking?" and took the only logical path left by BAN's ultimatum. Stop manufacturer takeback of CRTs from the USA. Get what you need elsewhere.
They also said no to the monitor factory takeback program. When they shut down the good people, and the market continues, they can film more bad people junking the CRTs which became unaffordable to recycle, after they closed the good market to Americans.

It is so depressing for Americans to be offered the choice between giving their used electronics to a USA company that charges them less and exports the unrepairable junk, and a company which has no repair department and shreds the working equipment into little pieces of plastic, glass and metal. It is sad that these stellar e-waste companies are forced to deny the highest value-added technical repair jobs available to developing countries. It's frustrating for CRT glass end markets overseas to have to choose between buying CRT glass for recycling through a smuggler, or to buy mined lead silica from a superfund site.

"Your highness, the people are rioting because they have no bread."
"Then let them eat cake".

It's all over now, Baby Blue

A hobby of mine in the 80s was to collect "cover" versions of this trippy Bob Dylan Classic, now the cassettes are worthless, but the tunes are so easy to find on the internet, I could never have imagined it. Happy Thanksgiving, Joni, from Good Point Recycling.

If you are looking for news about e-waste recycling, check out yesterday's post on Product Stewardship and Ghost tonnage. I get so alarmed by bad recycling policy because we have so little time, we are consuming the planet so fast, we have to take charge and count our ammo and regulate responsibly.

If you got here looking for recycled versions of "It's all over now, baby blue", here's a fantastic bluegrass version by the Country Gentlemen. I kind of love how the internet brings cultures - like my Ozark Rooted hillbillies and my college hippy friends - close together.

Just like it brings geeks together from Senegal, Egypt, Nepal, Mexico, and Indonesia.

Here is film of one I think I actually had on cassette. I remember the days of taping music, the "rights" and "copyrights", and how ownership of a piece of vinyl dictated our rights to make backup copies. As I remember, "33" was not just RPMs, it was also approximately the cost of the plastic vinyl that you were buying for $15 when you paid for the album.

When "napster" came out, I actually did an inventory of my vinyl and attempted to download exactly the tunes I already had purchased. I tried to set up a copyright system where you could use the napster technology to make "backups" of music the Supreme Court had already said you could make cassette copies of. Friends and I discussed EULA agreements on software and whether we'd soon have to check a End User Licensing Agreement to listen to music like this.

This started out a wandering Thanksgiving post, but I see now it is headed to Stewardship again. You see, ewaste is not created by hardware. There is no way that Pioneer could have designed my tape cassette player to make it immune from the CD players, or that Sony could have designed my CD player to immunize me from the MP3s.

The irony is that most of the money and margins are in the ether... the software, the tunes, the analog bandwidth. We should be putting advanced recycling fees (ARFs) on software operating systems like Windows 7, not on hardware displays. Stuff which has money and profits attached by licensing laws which are passed by the people, and which generally bring windfalls. That might be a better place to tag on e-waste costs. I am looking for someone to help me draft such a law. I think I'll post it under "gigs" on Craigslist.

Product Stewardship "Ghost Tonnage" E-waste

At some risk to my personal reputation among well-meaning and enthusiastic colleagues and clients, I've posted a few critical essays (blogs) on the concept vs. implementation of some "product stewardship" laws concerning "e-waste".

First : I just found this 2004 OECD Study, "Addressing the Economics of Waste". It's smarter than a tree full of owls.

Second, I wanted to make clear that true product stewardship, as in shared and cooperative responsibility, can be a great thing, as is the case of the Sony, Panasonic, Sharp, and Toshiba involvement in our Vermont "Coupon" program. Sony Electronics recognized that self-started programs like Vermont were not being recognized, and started the ball rolling by paying for their own products. Other manufacturers (OEMs) are joining in handing out $10-20 coupons for the recycling costs of their particular brands. This supports Vermont's system, which provides 6-day per week access to TV and computer recycling for 83% of all Vermont residents within their county, many like CSWD with multiple public and private collection points.

The Vermont system is based on the Massachusetts and California "waste ban" models, which intend for TVs to be collected in the same infrastructure as white goods, freon appliances, tires and auto batteries (all of which have 85% recovery nationwide - that's "NATIONWIDE"). Those products might be collected curbside where there are bulky collections, door to door by charities, at retailers through convenience fees, drop-offs, etc. Vermont gets almost the same diversion without even having implemented the current federal CRT waste ban (which I'd dearly like them to do).

Perhaps the coupon participation never would have happened without the threat of other product stewardship laws. Still, there are fundamental flaws in "command and control" planning. My last post describes how one particular method, e.g. retail takeback, can skew the economics of competing collections (if they go after only the money items).  Here in more detail is another example of unintended consequences of some e-waste laws... command-and-control ewaste planning finds itself in the high weeds of scrap dealer shenanigans...

Ghost Tonnage:

Minnesota and Rhode Island and Maine "product stewardship" programs require each manufacturer to take responsibility for a certain amount of tonnage, based either on current sales or on past sales. Once the rules are established, we can see how payment for tonnage creates a "sinkhole" where "non-covered" material just moves "downhill"... Scrap metal from CPU desktops, movement of material from non-covered states to covered states (demonstrated in the Seinfeld "Deposit" episode.  Maine's expanded bottle bill was famous for collecting back over 100% of the bottles and cans sold in Maine).

Newest observation... Ghost Tonnage. If a manufacturer is responsible for getting 1 million pounds of product out of a state system, based on a calculation of their market share, and they are told they can buy the tonnage from any recyclers they want at whatever price they negotiate, which of these will they buy?

Recycler A: subtracts the weights of pallets and charges $100,000 for the 1 M pounds he collected (10 cents per pound x net weight).

Recycler B: does not subtract tare weight, and charges $100,000 for the 1.1M pounds he collected (tonnage credit can be carried forward in MN).

Recycler C: buys 1M lbs of steel from 10 e-waste recyclers, for which he pays 5 cents per pound. He now "sells" the steel casing tonnage for $10 (getting lunch money for something he was already doing).

Recycler D: Plans to collect 1M lbs, budgets for it, but didn't quite get around to collecting more than 2,000 lbs. But it's out there at the collection sites, he'll go get it eventually. Meanwhile, he sends in the weight slip to the OEM for 1M lbs, which he sells for 3 cents per pound or $30,000.

What would you expect from a system which is open to "sinkhole" accumulations of non-covered tonnage, or outright tare weights and scale tipping?  The manufacturer, obligated to fetch an arbitrary tonnage, and penalized if they fail, has absolutely No Incentive to police the weights.   In a normal free market, the buyer of the tonnage has incentives, rights, and mandates to enforce against scale-tipping. But in the current design of MN, RI, ME legislation, the legitimate Recycler A (charging exactly the right amount for exactly the intended material) is the least likely to succeed... on a price basis, B, C and D win. And if the OEM is not actively engaged in the product stream, what incentive would they have to audit and control against "ghost tonnage?"

Guess what the recovery rate per capita is in Minnesota? Seven pounds per resident. That's several times more than free collections get at municipalities in MA or VT! And yet, Minnesota has another nickname to its credit - "Orphan Tonnage". Some recycler As (Waste Management Inc.) collected covered tonnage from municipalities at a cost, and found that the OEMs had all "met their quota" (having bought their full obligations from little cats B, C and D.)

Recycler A is not only at risk of losing contracts due to higher costs, but may actually have tonnage they collected go unpurchased when other recyclers give the OEMs all the ghost e-waste they require.  And the OEM who refuses to accept ghost invoices is at risk of punishment and penalty, there is no defined penalty for accepting a bad receipt.

In these times of tight municipal budgets, layoffs at state environmental offices, hysteria over ewaste exports, and smart do-gooders posted in influential "command and control" positions, the Product Stewardship Legislation looks really tasty. But in the end, how much of it is arbitrage, claims, rights, double-counted tonnage, steel scrap, off-lease products, obsolescence-in-hindsight / gray market diversion, underbidding established successful collections, exaggeration, and fraud? For the system to work, the two people involved in the transaction each have to have incentives to enforce against legitimate mistakes and accidents, not to mention fingers-on-scales. If you remove that incentive, or try to replace it with regulation, you will have unintended consequences.

How different is this American system from the brokers in Hong Kong who buy scrap material, wheeling and dealing it, so it changes hands a few times before it gets to the BSFs (Big Secret Factories)?  When we discovered the BSFs, the problem WR3A grappled with was proving the stuff really got to the right place and the Buyers really did what they said they would do.

Artificially creating command and control economies should always be the last resort. You should really try to prove the waste ban, tire, auto battery, freon scrap model isn't working first. Better yet, reform the mining waste and mineral policy laws that make copper so cheap that people can afford to throw it away. Then you'd get the secondary market back on equal footing. This entire mess was created by subsidizing extraction and then subsidizing disposal of the waste that the extraction created. It's tough for e-waste recyclers to compete in that free market, but let's start by rewarding those of us who are honestly trying, not the little cats B, C and D.

"New Ideas" .... sigh for recycling

Twice in the past 2 weeks I've heard really nice people in grad school propose "solutions" to recycling transport costs which involve consolidating all the loads for one bidder, either shipping or processing, to "scale" the collection costs.

This is unfortunately a really stupid "command and control" idea, because monopolization always fails. If the idea comes from the trucking company or monopolist, it can work fine because they cannot mandate it. But when it comes from government planners or "think tanks", they almost always fail vs. the free market.

The best test is to look at existing, successful bulky waste collection programs - auto batteries, air conditioners, tires, and other white goods are recycled at 85% nationwide. They are based on waste bans in RCRA. They are banned from disposal, and left to the free market.

The outcome is sometimes accumulations at disposal sites, sometimes curbside bulky collections, sometimes retailer takebacks. What did NOT happen is someone planning to direct all the material by command and control or central planning.

It has been a mistake to monopolize e-waste programs by assigning marketing to distributors like Dell and HP and Sony. To different degrees, they dislike being put into the position of recycler, but once put there, they will have interests which environmentalists will not have planned on. Like the refurbishment of ink cartridges may disqualify a recycler from consideration as a processor for a company that manufactures ink cartridges. Or forcing it through retail ignores costs which retailers know from warrantee returns (if you have more than 5 people waiting in line at the retailer, you lose X% of sales, and they factor in warrantee returns as a cost far beyond the transport). Retail space is also practically the most expensive space you can use for consolidation and inventory.

Waste ban CRTs. Stand back. Watch the market. Then study what happened and improve on it. Is it any surprise that the biggest recycling companies in e-waste happen to be in CA and New England, where the first CRT waste bans occured?

Vermont recycles E-Waste for Newport, Rhode Island

Rhode Island is e-recycling e-waste with Good Point tomorrow, Saturday November 21.



Newport, RI (November 3, 2009) The Newport Public Services Department’s Clean City Program would like invite residents to recycle electronic waste and plastics during the Clean City Program’s Fall Recycling Day. The event will be at Easton’s Beach on Saturday, November 21 from 8am to 1pm. This event is sponsored by the City of Newport’s Clean City Program, Good Point Recycling, Sony Electronics Inc., and Waste Management.

Residents from Newport and surrounding areas are invited to bring electronic waste for recycling. Examples of electronic waste accepted are: computers/CPUs, monitors, keyboards, mice, scanners, televisions, laptops, fax machines, modems, routers, VCRs, DVD players, miscellaneous computer parts and wires, digital cameras, cell phones & accessories and more. The following items will not be accepted: Freon bearing items such as air conditioners, dehumidifiers, refrigerators and large metal items such as washers and dryers.

Plastic items that will be accepted for recycling during this one-day event are not accepted in the curbside recycling program. Examples of plastic items accepted are: #3-7 plastics, plastic toys, buckets, milk & soda crates, laundry baskets, lawn furniture, landscape items such as edging, microwave trays, plastic totes, plastic drums (food grade only, no chemical containers), pet carriers, plastic pallets, coolers, shelving, closet organizers, dish drainers, flower pots (no soil), garbage cans, recycling bins, waste baskets, 5 gallon water bottles. All plastic items brought for recycling must be free of any wood, metal, glass, wires or batteries.

“It’s time to take a good look at your basements and storage areas,” said Kristin Littlefield, the City of Newport’s Clean City Coordinator. “The City of Newport’s Fall Recycling Day will give you the opportunity to clean out some of your unwanted electronic waste and bulky plastic items while also properly recycling them.”

Newport residents are invited to exchange their old recycling bin in for recycling and receive a new bin for $5, regularly $8. This discounted price will be available at this event only and recycling bins will be offered on a first come, first serve basis. Please bring a check for payment and proof of Newport residency.

For more information about the Fall Recycling Day or the City of Newport’s residential solid waste and recycling collection program, contact the Clean City Program at 845-5613 or visit


Sony Electronics Inc has history of being proactive at addressing proper end of life management of electronic waste when the customer is finished using the product. In addition, this event supports the State of Rhode Island regulation to remove electronic waste from common trash. Under the Rhode Island electronics recycling law, manufacturers like Sony are responsible for paying the cost of recycling used TVs and computers, labeled "e-waste" by many recyclers.

Sony's Recycling Division, however, has hired a
Vermont company, Good Point Recycling (a division of American Retroworks Inc), which is known for careful evaluation of each piece of equipment. Can this computer have the hard drive replaced and donated to a school? Can this TV be used in Mexico (a country which still uses the old USA analog signal)?

The remainder of the items which are not suitable for recycling, especially CRT glass (which contains lead) will be recycled at an approved, certifiable recycling process, the same as the normal recycling channels paid for in
Rhode Island by Sony and other manufacturers.

The Clean City Program also accepts electronic waste from Newport residents during normal business hours, Monday through Friday from 8:30am until 4:30pm.


Cores - The Facts on the Used Goods Refurbishing Industry

Here is a detailed document on the background and economics inherent in the trade of "cores", the industry term for the key function product (empty toner cartridge, used 'disposable' camera, ATX desktop computer for 'barebones', non-R4 CRT monitor tube, etc.).

Here is the key USA position, top of Page 2:
WTO: USA Remanufacturing and Refurbishing Paper

Two Hot Posts

First, Mexico Leapfrogs China. Thanks for this link to Mike Rohrbach of CCLAC and WR3A.

Second, stuff trumps energy. This is what we have been pointing out for years, the energy costs of mining a gold ring alone trump your Prius. Thanks for this tip to Bill Sheehan of Product Stewardship Council.

Oceans, Pigs & Glory Hole Mining

Trash in the ocean is getting more coverage this year. See today's NYTimes article in the science section (which I discovered, ironically, while following a different linked headline "Pigs Prove to be Smart, if not Vain").

".... researchers have found that pigs are brilliant at remembering where food stores are cached and how big each stash is relative to the rest. They’ve shown that Pig A can almost instantly learn to follow Pig B when the second pig shows signs of knowing where good food is stored, and that Pig B will try to deceive the pursuing pig and throw it off the trail so that Pig B can hog its food in peace."

This is actually a lot like Western, and now World, natural resources policy. Say what you want about mining and forestry companies, they are incredibly intelligent engineering-based companies which, at a certain level, act merely as the Top Chef, serving a society which really doesn't care what it eats so long as it tastes good ("More foie gras, anyone?").

Copper and gold mining companies, like Newmont, are having record years. Whatever society wants - coltan for a cell phone, copper for a TV, silver for ROHS compliant ("lead free") solder, they will get it.

While I have written about the tremendous and largely unheralded costs of mining, in comparison to the press over "recycling residue", and "trash", I don't really mean it as an insult to the mining companies. Just look at papers like this one (diagram: "Glory Hole Mining") ...

by Dr. Willard Lacy

... and you see that environmentalists have to pick up their game when debating engineers from the mining college.

While the mineral deposit engineers are probably not going to celebrate the impending reform of the 1872 Mining Law, they are going to play a wicked smart hand with whatever cards they are dealt. The big question is whether mining reform would drive them to less regulated countries (I would argue that Superfund and pollution laws have already served that purpose and that royalties on mined material are easier to calculate and factor into "exploitable find" capitalization than pollution abatement). What it definitely does do, is causes these firms to look more closely at recycling.

From the Lacy paper, see the way mining engineers think. I think I could write a blog about almost every sentence in the paper and shed light on recycling.


Expenditures for mineral exploration and development are wasted unless secure tenure on surface and mineral rights is obtained on all parcels vital and necessary for a mineral project.

Mineral land ownership in the United States resides with the Federal Government (FEDERAL LANDS), the State Governments (STATE LANDS) or with private individuals and business entities (PRIVATE LANDS)

When recycling giants like Sims swap assets with mining companies like Xstrata (formerly Noranda), engineers are doing calculations that look at a gram-per-kilo yield from scrap the same way they would analyze a vein of ore.

Well established is the fact that electronics have a much higher yield per kilo than virgin mines, the question is whether there is an exploitable quantity. You know what you own with a mining stake (actually, hopefully you know, it is one of the open questions when you mine in a developing country). When you invest in a recycling venture, you don't own the stream of "ewaste" or scrap material you intend to recycle.

In about 35 years, the estimates that landfills themselves will be among the richest and most exploitable deposits of metals like copper and aluminum, and landfilling will prove not to have been "disposal" so much as "in ground storage". What we in the recycling field are betting on is that between now (mining) and then (landfill mining), that recovery of materials before they are buried or burned will become increasingly lucrative. It is not theoretical, actually, it can be studied from historical records of wartime demand (when scrap metal is 'command and controlled' to get it to military use) or even hot-economy peacetime demand (when countries like Philippines "ban" the export of scrap steel).

Predictions: Whenever the US Bureau of Land Management is staffed by reform-friendly people (as opposed to the Norton-Scarlett-Abrahmoff clique), or reform of the General Mining Act of 1872 is up for debate and possible passage in the US House of Representatives, those expert miners will, like the intelligent pigs in the NYTimes article, figure out where the economically exploitable resources are. And they will invest in recycling, like Noranda did when Canada reformed its mineral policy in the late 1990s. Not because they are pigs, but because they are smart like pigs. They are the Top Chef to the society of pigs.

Almost finally, references to mining and mineral policy allow you to post JPGs titled "Glory Hole Mining Method" (see pencil diagram). This reference by itself could improve internet ranking, but could also cause your blog to be filtered by parental controls.

And now, another tribute in the recurring theme of musical references to recycling and e-waste policy, gracias a George Harrison.

Voila! Fuji Xerox supports government management of "e-waste"

In a very recent post, I had the premonition to repost links to the Fuji vs. Jazz Camera lawsuit which went all the way to the USA Supreme Court, claiming that repair and refurbishment for resale is a violation of a patent. The "Obsolescence in Hindsight" lawsuit failed in the USA but did win in Japan.

Today we see where enthusiasm comes, as predicted, for national product stewardship legislation. Fuji came out applauding for a new Australian e-waste law. Australia is the inventor of the "tested working" standard which banned resale of products for refurbishment.

Product Stewardship advocates, if you want strong backers for your "solution to the e-waste problem", get the list of the AGMA (formerly Anti Gray Market Alliance, now called (SIC) "The Alliance for Gray Market and Counterfeit Abatement (AGMA)". But as you find that those most opposed to refurbishment, repair and reuse are also your strongest allies, take a look at this old chestnut from Monty Python, the Dennis Moore sketch.

"Blimey! This redistribution of wealth is trickier than I thought!"

Industrial Scale Vermi-compositing... with Rats

Vermicomposting is using small worm bins containing worms that eat garbage. "Worms eat my garbage", by Mary Appelhof, was first published in 1982, from scholarly work she did in Wales in 1973. It was republished in 1997.

I say, between 73 and 97, she should have scaled up. After all, for hundreds of years, "Pigs eat my garbage" has been the standard in Cairo (daytime population 27M). For places like Tokyo and Mexico City and Beijing, we need more than worms.

"Velociraptors eat my carrion" would be going too far, I think. But for a major city, like New York or Chicago, "Rats eat my garbage", or "dung beetles" at least, would be more appropriate technology.

The "NIMBY" (Not In My BackYard) potential for a contained rat digester is high, so you'd need to build this with a lot of redundant security. I'm thinking something much more modest than Boston's "Big Dig", but probably higher scale than a paper mill hydropulper.

Think of a giant cast iron pit, as deep as the pit Luke Skywalker is thrown down chez Jabba the Hutt. The pit would have tunnels that could be cut off or opened from a central control room (like Jabba's, but smaller), and the tunnels would lead to little rat nests. You could choose how many tunnels to open from the central control room. You may want to have a giant blade, a whirly disposal-all blender, at the bottom of the pit.

Trucks would back up to the pit, loaded with wet garbage. They'd dump the loads into it while the tunnels were closed. Then the cage gate would close up, and the rats would be released onto the pile. After they'd eaten their fill, the smart ones would retire to their tunnels. Any stragglers would get cleaned up by the disposal-all and be there for the next tunnel opening.

From time to time, for population control, you'd have to flood the rat chambers.

I can think of no reason why this would not work. I'll work on a diagram. Maybe I can convince my wife to let me build a smaller scale model, using dung beetles.

Environmentalist "command and control" - Sorcerers Apprentice?

These four slides show four markets which environmentalists might wade into with accidental confidence if they distrust the free market, or fail to finish their math.

First, an actual example I was involved in during the 1990s. We wanted to increase recycling of office paper by increasing the price offered for the scrap paper. The idea was for the US government (GSA) to increase the post-consumer recycled content of printing and writing paper in order to create demand for office paper. That required de-inking investments from paper mill engineering companies, such as Beloit, as the tolerance for a dark spot on printing and writing paper was very low. Previously, the growth in the market for "Sorted White Ledger" (SWL) had been the toilet paper industry, which had very high tolerances for relatively shorter fibers and some of the dark spots from deinking. The demand by the GSA had the effect of increasing the percentage of toilet paper made from trees.

In the second slide, plastic supply-demand is considered. First, the post-consumer plastic recycling infrastructure was way behind the market for paper, glass, and metals, and plastic seemed really "high tech" to those of us old enough to have seen "The Graduate" in movie theaters. What I later learned was that plastic recycling was hampered in large part because, unlike metals or fiber, the polymers are a biproduct of fuel (gasoline) refining. When you make gasoline from raw petroleum, you get this stuff that makes good plastic. If you are making diesel, you are probably creating a different byproduct for a different plastic. If you cut demand for plastic, they keep making it, like curds keep coming out so long as we are buying whey. That is just one reason that the plastic recycling market lagged behind a bit. More important for these slides is what created postconsumer plastic recycling. It was not created by demand for the material, it was created at the back end AFTER collection - of bottle bill material. The bottle bills helped hasten the transition from glass to plastic (since stores and distributors now had to handle it twice, it doubled the handling issues associated with glass). Once the plastic PETE bottles started accumulating in bales, someone was able to experiment on them as a feedstock which was scaleable - much easier to finance than "if you build it (demand) they will come". Waste bans and collections at MRFs created the same supply-availability investments for HDPE, and film (LDPE) began to follow the same chains. However, those pesky styrene yoghurt containers were still in the waste stream. So some governments heard a pitch that you could make them into lumber. The problem with that? Not enough 4-7 plastic to make enough lumber to capitalize the investment. They had to try to chase back PETE and HDPE - where the resins were out-paid for because they had the higher added value of polymerization. The mixed lumber largely failed for the same reason that waste-to-energy and re-conversion to petroleum engineering fails... it is backwards yardage to take #1 and #2 and #3 plastics - which account for over 90% of the postconsumer recycling stream - and de-polymerize them.

Third example, AAARRRRGGH. ROHS or lead free solder. The free market had gotten very efficient with lead, capturing 85% of it, and most lead made is made from recycled sources like auto batteries. But lead is toxic. So to protect the pristine landfills in the rich countries, the rich nations of the EU dictated that the tiny amount of lead used in solder should be replaced by something non-toxic... which turns out to be silver and tin. Whenever silver is recovered, it goes into jewelry, so there's no way the added demand doesn't increase mining. Tin mining happens in places like Malaysia and Borneo, where it destroys things like rain forests and coral reefs. So, reducing the toxicity of the solder is improving the landfill at the expense of the coral reef. And the mining of tin produces more lead as a biproduct and effluent (also mercury) than was in the solder to begin with. A total failure.

Fourth example, a "modest proposal" following the same logic. How about a 100% organic, 100% reuseable, 100% non-toxic packaging material? Baby seal pelts. Or baby polar bear pelts. We could substitute it for practically any packaging, no one would throw them away afterwards.

Walt Kelley of Pogo had the best line, spoken by an environmmentalist swamp critter.

"We have met the enemy, and he is us!"