Weird Public Policy: Rhode Island and the Holy Grail

I am in Rhode Island, witnessing a major environmental fraud.  I don't even know what to do with the information I have.  Which is a bigger crime:
  1. Making up manufacturer collection "goals" which are completely unrelated to past collection?  The more TVs were collected in the past, the fewer the OEM can collect in the present, in what I call the "lawnmower effect" of measuring legislation effectiveness.
  2. Charging the OEMs (and they pass on the charges to consumers) for the "missing tonnage"?
  3. Closing one eye to "ghost tonnage" collected to meet those arbitrary goals?
  4. Taking out of state TVs (reminiscent of the Seinfeld "Bottle Deposit" episode)?
  5. Staying quiet and making a profit?

This set of "conflicts of interest" doesn't even approach the "reuse" vs. destruction e-waste policy debate.  The Northeast has been pretty good at allowing reuse which does not result in double counting.  But even here, crimes are happening. 

At the end of the day, CRTs are not going to be around for ever, and none of this is worth sacrificing your integrity for.  This e-waste thing is a flash in the pan.  I think people outside must laugh at someone who creates pages and pages, blog after blog, about "Cathode Ray Tubes" policy.  But this is an incredibly interesting way to study the public policy of an "e-waste emergency", seeing how the legislation passes, how people start to make money or protect their markets with it, and how mistaken ideas then calcify in cynical protection of vested interests.  China protects their virgin CRT manufacturing industry.   Haz Mat companies get a "universal waste" label to get into a new and attractive business.   OEMs insert "cancellation" language on ink cartridges, cell phones, and other strong secondary markets.   A case goes to the Supreme Court to argue that refurbishing a product is a patent violation.... Next we will need a "Right to Repair Act" for CRTs.

Hazardous waste, universal waste, waste disposal ban, deposits, free market, fair trade... there is an incredible amount of noise around what's a pretty inert form of lead (vitrified in CRT glass), and (in CRTs newer than 40 years old) no "cadmium phosphors" at all.

I think it has been a relatively interesting field compared to other recycling fields... It involves software, digital divide, secondary markets, international trade agreements, and the most environmetally destructive and toxic activity on the planet - hard rock metal mining.  But CRTs will eventually be buggy whips.

Danny DeVito's character, Lawrence Garfield, has some great lines of dialogue in the 1991 film "Other People's Money."  His speech to the shareholders comes to mind as I try to salvage, fix and refurbish cathode ray tubes.

"And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure. You know, at one time there must've been dozens of companies making buggy whips. And I'll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company? You invested in a business and this business is dead. Let's have the intelligence, let's have the decency to sign the death certificate, collect the insurance, and invest in something with a future."
But there's another famous quote from an equally interesting movie, which is even closer to the story of the Cathode Ray Tube "e-waste recycling" business.  From Monty Python and the Holy Grail... "I'm not dead yet!"

Someone in bootlegging or in law enforcement should have been writing a blog during the proposal, enactment, enforcement and repeal of the Prohibition, the 18th and 21st Amendments to our USA Constitution.  Banning alcohol was pretty simple, in retrospect, compared to defining repairable and unrepairable computers.

Mark Murray, a good guy from Californians Against Waste (CAW), suggested that fraud in CA results in more recycling, and I have pondered whether it's a "victimless crime".  But I see the state officials making new goals based on fraudulent recovery numbers... they set even higher goals, creating even more fraud.   Next thing you know, good stuff is getting taken out of the secondary market.

It is not a "victimless crime" to take repair and reuse away from human beings who cannot afford new products, and who are willing to go to great lengths to repair equipment.   In fact, I believe the best case for a "victimless crime" argument can be made for legitimate export-for-reuse when the monitors have been claimed to be "cancelled" under SB20.

What makes all this worth writing about is to document how people think, how they do the things they do, and how government policies evolve around specific perceptions and invested interests.  The critically important point I try to make is that environmentalists must NOT believe we are immune to this kind of unintended consequence and perversion of our policies.  It is not a victory to pass an environmental law.  It is a victory to pass a GOOD environmental law.  "Ewaste recycling" is just an example of regulating an economy with a lot of moving parts.  I don't recommend it as the first law for product stewardship activists to cut their teeth on.   Try picking up carpets for awhile. 

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