New York Times Sustainable Tech Column

Getting Over Our Two-Year Itch By DAVID POGUE Published: December 31, 2010

     This morning's New York Times article observes the 2-year lifecycle of the cell phone and documents suggestions collected via "twitter" to reduce the consumption cycle.     I can see two possibilities.  Either Radio Shack, Sprint, Gazelle and HP (named for their takeback programs) will create their own refurbishing factories, probably overseas, or entrepreneurs overseas (like WR3A member factories) will collect directly.

     Wealthy Europeans, Japanese, and Americans generate gadget scrap, just as every affluent society has generated scrap.  Eliminating human demand for new gadgets is unrealistic strategy.     Fair Trade, the solution I came up with after a decade in the trenches, recognizes that the repair and recycling cultures which form around discarded "added value", like the Zabaleen or slumdogs, are not bad.  Trade between rich people and poor people can have better outcomes than trade between rich and rich, or poor and poor.

     Whatever the specific "bad" thing is, like burning copper wire, can be dealt with through incentives and reforms.  We found that CRT factories were refurbishing the monitors they could, and discarding the CRTs they could not.  WR3A paid them to recycle the latter, and now the countries they exist in have an infrastructure for CRTs which is better than ours here in the USA.  The same approach will work even better with cell phones, because the value added of the items will pay for more incentives.

     A truce with the export market will produce efficiencies by reducing lost value in declining shelf-life or unnecessary shredding. As I showed with the immediate auction of my Sprint HTC Evo 4G (which sold broken as-is for $265), the shelf-life of gadgets demands faster turnaround.  Gazelle is leaping over CRTs and other junk to concentrate on small new items, which is an appropriate free market response.  My business model has been to use the high-value items to subsidize the cost of low-value items, which may become unnecessary in a post-legislation Stewardship market.

     Starving the Zabaleen or people who live off of that scrap is a sad, melanin-phobic attack on the symptom of poverty.  Sure, I dream of a world when hungry people won't eat leftovers.  That does not make destroying leftovers a solution to hunge.  Unsustainable mining of conflict metals from rain forests is the central problem.  Anything which prolongs use of previously mined materials is a welcome ally.  Taxing consumers with fees to cover the difference in value between shredding (obsolescence in hindsight) and repair is inefficient, was proscribed without data analysis, and will almost certainly provide a net loss to the sustainability of the environment, either through lost efficiences or unintended consequences.

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