Ethical: Samaritan "waste" to slums (The Red Shoe Blog)

The "red show blog" (April 2011) was Tocquevillian.

Why RCRA needs a "good samaritan" rule for Americans trading with people in emerging and converging markets.

Disposal used to mean throwing something into the gutter of a street.  In some of the world's slums, that is still the primary method of waste disposal.   If you throw something into a gutter next to other stuff that is wet and abandoned, you can't really say that you considered the object a valuable commodity.

But what if you were walking the streets of a slum, in India, Pakistan, Kinshasa, and you dropped a $100 bill on the street?  Ethically speaking, is that the same thing as littering?

It could be argued that it was stupid.  Or callous.  Or demonstrated a lack of concern or care whether the $100 bill would do any good to anybody, if it was blown away or trodden into the mud it would have been "wasted".  PREMISE:  Value by itself does not mean that something is not waste.

From the Red Shoe Site blog
But imagine you kept your eye on the bill, and you intended to make sure it was either found, or that you'd come back for it.  You mark where it is thrown by a single red high heeled shoe in the gutter, and watch.  You see a small girl pick the money up, gather excitement, and carry the bill to her parents.   Every day thereafter, the little girl comes to look beside the discarded red high heeled shoe.  Naturally, you'd begin to recognize her, identify her, empathize with her.  You might want to leave a $20 bill by the red shoe again.

Ethically, this is no longer "disposal".   I don't think you would define the bill as "waste".  PREMISE:  If not abandoned, placement by itself does not indicate intent to discard.

Now imagine the object you leave in the slum is a device, something else of $100 "value".   Imagine further that the device contains a circuit board, that it is an "electronic device".   The fact that it is fully functional and working does not mean that it is not waste (premise 1), and the fact that it is exported does not mean it has been discarded (premise 2).   The rules we establish for a $100 bill must also apply to laptops.

It is the fact that the item has not been abandoned that makes it a commodity.   If the girl does not pick up the bill (does not know what it is), you can still walk back and retrieve it.    The problem, according to Fair Trade Recycling, is not the transboundary movement of used electronics, it is whether they are abandoned waste.  "Waste" implies abandonment, not a contract or valid agreement between the two parties exchanging the goods.  Adding "testing" to ensure value (changing the bill from a $10 bill to a $100 bill) is not the solution if the $100 bill is abandoned... A $100 bill in the sewer is more "waste like" than a $20 bill observed into the hands of the girl in the slum.  Testing should be according to the standards of the buyer.  (American women may pay more stiletto heels... but they are wasted in a muddy slum... used tennis shoes, please).

Two party contracts are the key to Fair Trade Recycling.  Warranty, valuation, reconciliation of the contract mean much more than a single party "claim" ("attestation") that a device "has been tested" and has value.  A contract between the two parties such that the shipper continues to take mandatory responsibility for the item is superior to a one-party "attestation" or declaration that an items "has been tested" and has value.  Someone willing to dump is willing to attest that the untested item was tested.

I don't have time to finish this excercise, but I may come back to it (re-writing [12/4/2011] or adding to the blog).  I could turn the discussion over to some ethics class, which could entertain different possibilities in the "ethics" of waste.  With Q method research, you could interview dozens of people, and probably arrive at some consensus.  Throwing a single Gucci brand high-heeled red shoe on the street?  Definitely waste (no one in the slum would wear a pair of the high heeled shoes, and a single shoe is never going to find a one-legged woman of matching shoe size, looking for high heels).

A tested working laptop?  If the slum had no electricity and no internet access, it would not be a very efficient transaction and would increase the risk that the laptop might be "burned" or "recycled in a primitive manner".  (But I doubt it.  We should try leaving a laptop by the red shoe and see what happens).

The biggest and best test of whether something is a commodity?  The person pays for it, over and over.  They want more of them.

In that case it might be an unethical commodity, or a 'bad commodity' - a gun or a switchblade or an addictive narcotic.  Those should be regulated.  But whether it is regulated as 'waste' by RCRA is another matter.  If RCRA staff can follow this kind of discussion and make rational rules, expanding RCRA to govern commodities which are hazardous may be something I can buy into.

Using RCRA disposal law to define tests for reuse, and using threats to stop a commodity trade as a form of enforcement - that is bad regulation.  No one would entertain such a thing unless they were convinced that these were "bad" and they needed to stop it.   Using the tax laws to convict Al Capone is only a good thing if you know Al Capone to be behaving unethically.  Designing a law to catch an Al Capone, when the law costs innocent and hard working people their jobs, and catches little girls and well meaning donors into the net, that begins to look like bad policy or mission creep at best, and a recipe for corruption and bad government at worst.

If something is a commodity, and people in slums are buying it and climbing out of poverty through the trade, and creating democratic revolutions twittering at dictators with it, then the burden of proof is with the regulator.  It's a cheap shot for the regulator to define shipments to the slums as "presumed waste" or "waste like" simply because I'm dealing with people in slums (in fact, the 3b3k is the opposite of a slum... its the people emerging from slums into the world economy).  It's racially insensitive to say that anyone buying a commodity from me is defined as "disposal" because of their language, culture, race or skin color.  And it is outrageous to take that beyond the slums, and apply it to all exports, even to OECD Canada and Mexico.

What Basel Action Network has done is to convince regulators that exporters are Al Capone.   BAN runs  a Willie Horton campaign of poster children, back by a completely fictitious number ("80%") of allegedly toxic pollution.  The intent is to "poison the well" on the word "export".    BAN and other Watchdogs use this campaign to make regulators feel responsible for poverty and toxics disposed of in slums.   Toxics disposed of should indeed be regulated, and that is hard for regulators to do in an international economy.  Shredding to end the discussion becomes tempting...

Defining anything that "fails TCLP" (such as a CRT) to be pollution is factually and logically wrong.  This false presumption has been encouraged by owners of shredding machines, which create smaller toxic pieces, many of which may still be exported to scrap metal sorting yards.   Regulating the reuse economy, item per item (each laptop has a fan cleaning document attached), and allowing shredded laptops to pass as "commodities" because they are in shredded bale, is perverse and awful.  You cannot leave the $100 bill in the slum unless you tear it up first.

I'm a former regulator, I know RCRA, and this is not an example of convicting Al Capone of a tax violation.  This is creating a violation to prevent reuse.  It is tempting when Watchdogs accuse the regulator of being responsible for the poster child... that has been Page 1 of the BAN campaign - putting USA EPA on the defensive.  In Vermont, ANR tried writing a regulation which is impossible to follow... then told the people shipping to propose their own rules and tests (writing your regulation for you).   They proposed E-Steward language as a mandate, then said I could draft an alternative to the E-stewards standard.

My alternative to cleaning every laptop fan?  Warranty.   Duly disclose to the buyer whether the laptop has been cleaned but is suitable for repair.  If the slums buy laptops for $100, that's a lot of money to them, and every time I visit, they are cleaning the laptop fans, polishing the item, and doing something to make it worth $150.  That's $50 of income to a slum dweller.  It's something that is worth protecting, and if we attach "FAIR TRADE" incentives to it (like proper recycling of electively upgraded parts), we may actually create a recycling system which is NOT throwing the material in the gutter.  And one day they will pick up the red high heel shoe, and write an email to Salvation Army "we don't need high heels".

Sometimes the free market is a better predictor of environmental lifecycle analysis.   Processes that belch carbon, or don't add value (like shredding shoes, laptops, and currency), add costs.   Reuse makes the world better than shredding items to keep them out of the free market. And by "better", I mean "more ethical".  Fair trade is more ethical than writing bullshit rules to cover your ass from a bully with a poster child image and a fake number, if the rule creates more poverty, fewer jobs, and a permanent slum.

We could all be a slum one day.  [written pre Japan Tsunami 2011 and prior to Irene Flood in Vermont 2011] Check out this blog, "The Red Shoe Site", about how a tragic flood turned peoples homes into a slum, turned belongings and commodities into waste, and took away peoples possessions in a toxic bath of mud.   Statistically, my home in Middlebury is not likely to become a slum.  But it could happen to any of us, and what aid and assistance we deny the red shoe girl could one day be denied to us, if good people are forbidden to try to assist us.  The Good Samaritan Laws need to be adapted by RCRA, or we will have shredding of working display devices out of fear of liability, just like a fear to assist a bleeding stranger out of fear of a malpractice suit.   

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