FCC Releases Bandwidth. E-Recyclers Miss Boat.

Over ten years ago I made a presentation (while Recycling Director for Massachusetts DEP) that the best way to pay for "e-waste" recycling would be one of three methods - none of them directly involving OEM takeback.

This week, there's a story in the New York Times about the release of the television analog bandwidth for new tech uses ("wifi on steroids" seems to be the favorite description of what the airwaves will be used for).  This was what made the rabbit ear TVs obsolete (though the falling price of LCDs probably stirred more of the "wave" of "ewaste" disposal).

In my opinion, the "solutions" which the recycling community rushed to were less of an opportunity than the bandwidth auction.   Making RCA responsible for the old RCAs took over as the message.  RCA was bankrupt in the 1990s and desolved - the brand name was sold at auction, and the new brand name holder must collect old RCA TVs in Maine.

The bandwidth auction will be worth billions... part of which might have paid for the recycling of the devices made obsolete by the change.  This would have avoided the entangling conflict of interest when OEMs accused of "planned obsolescence" are put in charge of the secondary market. 

The silent response to the bandwidth transition in the recycling community echos the lost opportunity from nearly-passed mining reform legislation.  Income from the royalties on metals from hard rock mining, proposed in the 2008 reform legislation of the General Mining Act of 1872, could have funded the recycling processes to preserve those metals already mined.  The mining reform legislation passed the USA House of Representatives and was killed in the Senate (probably by Nevada Senator Harry Reid), and the recycling press and trade organizations - even ISRI - missed the funeral and did not report on the story.

I imagine that the engineers, inventors, marketers and scientists who invented and produced yesterday's high tech devices were so fascinated to see their ideas coming to fruition and changing society that they never really questioned the future of obsolescence or e-waste generation, or the mining and extraction of things like coltan in Africa (used for cell phones, it's taken from the same mountainsides where lowland gorillas live).

Do we environmentalists do better than those engineers and high-tech scientists at "precautionary principles"?  Do we do a better job of considering every unintended consequence?  Are we more like doctors seeking second opinions than engineers of technology?  Or are social activism and legislation somewhere behind road construction and landfill engineering when it comes to checking our work?

The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.
It might turn out ok.   I don't want to be a doom and gloom parrot.  The greater desire of consumers to enact environmental change, to the point of passing legislation, however shallowly debated, may itself signal to corporations that they should be more cautious and aware of their environmental footprints.  Meanwhile, however, the \bandwidth transfer being discussed is like a ship passing in the night.   It was a huge "e-waste" story, and the silence of recycling industry regulators and leaders is as notable as the National Recycling Coalition's refusal to take up discussion of the reform of the General Mining Act.   At my last NRC conference, in Pittsburgh PA, I stood a the general assembly meeting and asked whether NRC would consider taking a position on the General Mining Act reform legislation, and if not, why not.  The room was eerily silent.   The answer from the policy representative was meaningless.  There was no outrage.  At that moment, NRC died for me, I remember thinking I'd never go to another conference and never embarrass myself again with a question on the reform of mineral extraction laws.

The GMA legislation passed the House that year.  NRC never had another conference, they imploded.  When I was asked to join a "save the NRC" campaign, I asked "why?"

The CBS program "Survivor" returns for another season.   I never thought it would last as a series.  But I feel like I'm on an environmentalist "tribe" which keeps losing key rewards challenges, and that griping about them afterwards is just getting me closer to being voted off the island.

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