Research Earth's Most Toxic Places

Kabwe, Zambia - lead mine.  The most toxic place in Africa.  Possibly, the most toxic on earth.

Mining is the only source of raw materials like lead if recycling is shut down.  And it isn't just Africa.  An electronics metal mine in Indonesia, to the right, is profiled in Businessweek.

I've been searching the term "most polluted" to find out what National Geographic, the United Nations, and others have identified as the most toxic spots on earth.   There are no recycling sites on the list, but there are many lead mines, gold mines, primary metal smelters, etc.  This shouldn't surprise anyone in the USA... our own toxic Armageddon sites are also metal mining wastelands, not recycling yards.  Number one and two sources of mercury pollution in the environment?  Rare metals mining.

"E-waste" is not a waste of obsessions.  It's good that environmentalists reacted to accusations that recycling 'drives' might do more harm than good.  But failure to reuse and recycle is not a sustainable option.   The cost of mining and refining the metals in our electronics is enormous... almost too much to imagine as a ratio with improper e-waste recycling.  If you make recycling and reuse too difficult, too expensive, or too time consuming, you'll win the toxics battle and lose the pollution war.

The order of environmental preference:

  1. - Reuse, repair, upgrade
  2. - Hand disassembly (preserving parts and rare earth components)
  3. - Mechanical disassembly
  4. - Informal backyard burning
  5. - Mining and smelting

The EU, Japan and USA do #3 pretty solidly... 1, 2, 4, and 5 happen overseas.  That means there's a 50% chance the operation overseas is better - or worse - than in the USA.   The label "export" is not enough information to build a policy around.

Shredding rare earth components into steel bales, to be lost... it's not the best option.  The rare earth metals that make our electronics work were harvested from the earth at sobering toxic cost, and shouldn't just be melted into steel any more than they should be disposed.  

Recycling yards tend to be located next to smelters.  In southern China, the primitive e-waste recycling yards, while not at all acceptable (as profiled by Greenpeace and BAN), are not the main culprit for the pollution.  Looking for toxic spills upstream of Guiyu, in Guangdong Province (where CBS 60 Minutes filmed)?  What brings lead recycling to Guangdong?  Virgin lead and zinc smelters in Guangzhou.  This is not a rerun of my post from the spills at the lead and zinc smelters from 2006 Guangdong, or my post about the Danube in October 2010.  Days after the metal refining spill into the Danube, back at the Pearl River in Guangdong, October 2010, Oops, they did it again.

The excessive European attention to "tested working" and "fully functional" standards for exports was well intentioned, but unscientific and naive.  For "experts" to have spent this many years discussing a subject, and never get around to a real data alternative to the made-up "80% bad exports" allegation, is shameful.  Recycling harm must be compared to mining harm.   A few non-repairable items, if properly recycled, is not worth the cost of shredding electronics in ways that lose the added value of rare earths, components, parts, and reuse.

If a hospital was accused of killing 80% of the patients, by someone who would never provide evidence or justification for their accusation, you might be tempted to shut down the hospital.   But simply shutting down the hospital would hardly be a heroic solution.  If you do shut down the hospital, and it turns out that 70% of the patients were being saved and have no other alternative, it would not suffice to feel foolish.
-\frac{u^{'''}\left(x\right)}{u^{''}\left(x\right)}  Risk vs. Uncertainty.  If you don't speak another language, and don't know geography, then you may mistake your own uncertainty for greater risk.  Mining is worse than recycling, and recycling is worse than reuse.   That's a certainty.
Too many Regulators and environmentalists are googling "ewaste" (not even a real word)  when they should be researching "pollution".  Also last October, news about China's embargo of rare earth metals to Japan.  As described in this New York Times article, the simple story about mining rare earths to produce electronics is a story of toxic plumes, spills, and horrific pollution.  The true cost of "e-waste" is in the production... maintaining those products for original intended use, for as long as possible, is the greater good.  Taking an action which drastically shortens the products life is a gunshot to the head of the earth's watersheds.

Fair Trade and Recycling is a decent solution.  Environmentalists have stood idle as a self-interested non-profit attacked fair trade cooperation, accused us of poisoning people, and lied about the text of the Basel Convention. Some reputable environmental organizations, like NRDC and Greenpeace, went as far as to contact press and environmental agencies to libel contract manufacturing companies which they have not visited, looked at, discussed.   They owe it to their donors to vet their sources.

This is not the first time self-righteousness has led to moral calamity, won't be the last.  In fact I've become a bit of a "crusader" myself, and there's danger the pendulum can swing too far either way.   Data and science, and debate and dialectic, provide the friction we need to slow the pendulum.  We need younger people to look into fair trade recycling and assess fairly whether geeks in Africa, Latin America, and Asia might be capable of building green jobs from the profits they make from reuse and recycling, or whether pollution is the most likely result.

Some of the stewards and watchdogs are more "self interested" than I am.  I believe that I shamed BAN into giving Lisa Jackson a decent picture of overseas e-waste management.  I don't think they ever would have put an effort into finding a picture of a technician of color, capably disassembling and recycling a computer which could not be reused, if I had not made this effort.  I don't think my effort is enough, but it's certainly more effort than Basel Action Network has made to help the environmentally sound Annex IX scrap and repair shops in developing nations.  By showing it is possible in Ethiopia, they prove that it might be the case in places they have never visited, like Semarang Indonesia, which they refuse to admit they falsely accused and clubbed to death in a brutal and awful, racist depiction of a high-tech repair and reassembly company which employed hundreds of people in a peaceful, democratic, muslim nation beset by mining investments.  Thank you, BAN, for admitting that Ethiopians can do a good job.  Shame on you for accusing geeks of color of doing a bad job in places you've never visited, all to line Seattle coffers.

You're welcome in advance, for I think you'll thank me some day.  You should thank me now.  You have consultants who have warned you that "the perfect can be the enemy of the good", but you didn't listen as shredders and planned obsolescence hijacked product "stewardship" best intentions.  Without me, you'd never have visited Africa.  This blog may be the best hope you have of not becoming the sanctimonious church of true stewardship, repeating the mistake of well meaning communists, evangelists, and other dogma peddlers.  Take some time, a little bit of time, to visit the mining upstream of Guiyu, which I told you about in 2002.  Take some time to google "most toxic place on earth" before you get CBS to give your fund raising poster children that title.

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