Tangled Up in ... Red Tape

As a former director of a 20ish person division at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, I learned a few things about "friendly fire".  When you hire new staff and grow a program, they are good people and want to "do" something as regulators.  Sometimes, it's tough to get across that "less is more".

One of my favorite staffers was also one of the most frustrated.  He was frequently writing up "guidance documents" for how to recycle, how to run a waste ban inspection, etc. etc.  A prolific writer.  One of the things he liked to write was surveys to mail out to the recyclers.

I'd ask him why he needed the information, e.g. number of employees at each recycler, or type of baler?   He looked at me quizzically.  We were the state, we were supposed to know.

Why did we need to know about the cardboard this guy might be recycling?  Was there anything wrong with cardboard recycling?  Was cardboard recycling dangerous, toxic, releasing something into the environment?  Why did we, the Massachusetts DEP, need to know the business of this cardboard recycler?

Well, one response went, what if he wasn't really recycling?  What if he was disposing the cardboard?  Didn't I care?

Well, I said, first thing is that if he's not really recycling the cardboard, then he's probably willing to lie on the survey we are mailing him, and we'll be none the wiser.  Second, he's probably going to fail on his own as a cardboard recycler, because the stuff is worth $100 per ton and disposing it is costing him $65 per ton.

Another response, we need this information in order to promote the recycling.

Silent Response:  You work for the government, and you're here to help?  The ten most feared words in the English language, Ronald Reagan said.  Actually, I never said that, it was said to me once by Skee Fusco, a paper recycler (made ONP into wall insulation in Belchertown MA) when I stopped in at his place with my new DEP business card, saying I'd left paper recycling and was on the inside now.  (He sckootched his chair up against the wall, said he better cover his @#$* because I'd just said the ten most feared words in the English language.)

Real Response:  If the recyclers want to give us this information, I'm not opposed to it.  Did you ask any of them?  How are they supposed to feel, opening this in the mail on Monday morning?   Before we mail this out and require them to provide this information, can you make a case that you are going to promote recycling with it?

Then what always surprised me was that some on my regulatory staff didn't learn anything when they did mail out a survey.  I remember a survey that asked a question, say about number of employees.

"I remember you asked this question last year, about the number of employees.   How many were there?"....  Blank stare.

"Look, if you mailed this out and made dozens of people fill it out, and you didn't even learn anything from it, then the hour you saved not reading it ate up dozens of hours from recyclers who need to be recycling.  I'm not letting you mail this survey until you finish reading the last one and do something useful with it."

I remember a cubicle that filled up with box after box of reports from car oil changes.  Massachusetts had required all the gas stations to fill out the surveys.  But so many surveys had come in, people had given up reading them.  Someone just kept track that the survey was filed... We couldn't use the info in the survey, but we could fine you and enforce against you if you didn't turn it in.  And we could feel safer that if something went wrong, and there was some spill, well we had all this paper in the cubicle.  There was another cubicle for freon, as I remember...

One of the principles I had was that recyclers should never have to answer the same question twice for two different government agencies.   If the Department of Labor already asks the recyclers how many employees they have, and we have a mailing list for the survey, I said take the mailing list to the Department of Labor and find out between you two government employees how many recycling staff are out there.

In short, I was often prouder of the things we didn't do when I was recycling director than I was of the things we did do.  Then I did something outrageous.  I told everyone at Massachusetts DEP how guys like me in the paper recycling business figured out how many tons a competitor was recycling.  You drive by and count cars in the parking lot.  Most were going to be employees.  And you know approximately how many employees per ton a paper recycler can afford.  Back out the tons.

We got the info from the Department of Labor, and I backed out the tons.   We didn't survey anyone.  I called a few people in the business that I knew well, and I said to them things like, "So Johnny, you guys do about 70 tons per day, right?  50 weeks a year?"  And "Johnny" half the time said I was right on the money, how did I know that, and half the time he'd say I was over 25%, or under 25%.  And I learned that a lot of the tonnage came from Connecticut or Rhode Island or some state where when we got the info from a survey, we would have mis-used it anyway.

And I earned a reputation, for better or worse, as a loose cannon who thought he was smarter than everyone else, and probably was.  I'm sure they changed that methodology after I left, they probably send out surveys.  Or maybe they do something even smarter, with GIS, that I never even thought of.

And that's not cynical, and it's not anti-government.  I grew our department from 6 staff to 20 something, during a damn hiring freeze.  I crawled into the belly of the beast, made our case to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, created "cloned" hiring packages (hiring two people off of one posting), and saved $10M on the state MRF contract and got back $8M per year in grant budgets.

What kind of a dragon will it be?
I was not a "do nothing" recycling director.  I just was always extremely cautious about how much we interfered in the private sector, the women and men lifting and doing recycling.

If you cannot tell me any way that a glass recycler, metal recycler, or fiber recycler can possibly be polluting the environment, then your job is to make their lives easier.  Where did I learn that?

From my background as an anti-mining, anti-forestry advocate, dammit!!  I got into recycling because I was struck by the waste of rain forests, the pollution from metal mining, the horrible scars we were inflicting on the planet.  And I'd read how the western states were bending over backwards to build roads on taxpayer dimes to cut trees, were spending federal Superfund dollars to clean up mining spills, subsidy after subsidy.  I didn't care how heavy the damn landfills were!  I cared about saving trees!

The dirtiest recycling you can imagine is better than the best metal mining or forestry you can imagine.  We were in a competition, not with the landfill, not with wastes, but with extraction industries.  And everything we did needed to be about helping recyclers.

That was my philosophy.   The haz waste department sometimes had a different philosophy, and its true that you cannot assume a haz material recycler doesn't have releases.   I just said we have trouble enough reading the freon and mercury and oil change reports, I didn't want reports about plastic and cardboard slowing down the office.

So it all starts by describing the release.  If you cannot imagine a pollution you will avoid by regulating how the Salvation Army bales used clothes, then leave them alone.  Or go work for the Bureau of Land Management, rather than for Environmental Protection.  We have this ass backwards, regulating secondary materials and subsidizing primary materials, and my mission is to stop that in my lifetime.

I always remember Matt from the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, an industry lobbying organization.  I remember telling him, trying to convince him, that I was not a bad regulator.  We were going after virgin material, and I was promoting recycling supply, and that supply growth benefitted mill buyers - HIS constituency.  Matt told me he understood, they got it, and they liked me and liked my approach.

"But the thing is," he  said, "you are growing the department.  And in our experience, smart guys like you leave.  You won't be a lifer in state government.   And when you leave, you'll leave a bigger department, with more regulators making more red tape.  Letting you grow, it's like feeding a dragon that gets bigger and bigger the more you feed it.  Right now, it's a nice dragon.  But what kind of a dragon will it be when you're gone?"

So the truth is, I let that staffer write a lot of Guidance Documents, because I didn't want him to write regulations, and I didn't want him to write surveys.  And I read his Guidance documents, all of them.  And I corrected them and edited them and asked questions in the margin.  I was learning about the government agency I'd been hired into, and he was learning about how recyclers think.   And neither of us was bothering anyone else.  And we both left working for the state, and we are both running recycling operations.

Today he'd probably agree with me, if he was asked to fill out a survey that may or may not be read and used.  If the regulator cannot come up with a single example of a "release" from recycling which damages the environment, or threatens health, then they should first and foremost not slow the recycling down, because every ton we don't recycle is a ton mined and forested... and we know that 45% of all toxics released by all USA industry comes from metal mining.

PS:  Cool we have major hits bubbling this week from India over this chestnut blog:  Simpler Ideas, Cookie Camouflage, Digital Haystacks.  As I was reading this old post due to the high pings, on the John Stewart show, John Hodgman just used the term "accidental racist" (I thought of it first! pout!!) in describing a problem of digital records of our internet search records etc... which could all be covered up with "cookie camouflage".   I could have been a millionaire if I would have pursued this 12 years ago, when I had the idea.

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