"Green" Expert Certification

I was proofreading Monday's piece on the "green-ness" of flat TVs vs. older technology.

HypnoToad Certified
CEA claims that new electronics are more "environmentally friendly" than the ones they replace.   The post considered the history of "green claims" (using 1990s "packaging" claims as a starting point), and how "green experts" grab whatever measuring stick they have handy to propose a ruling... based on their "expert opinion".

EPEAT is one attempt at third party certification of these claims;  it is a little bit like "energy star".  Like R2, it's based on meetings, conference calls, and consensus.   E-Stewards is designed (behind closed doors) as a certification approved by another set of "experts".   Here is the big question:  Who is the "expert" and on the basis of what facts do they tell us about our best environmental choices?
  • See book vs. kindle.
  • See ROHS solder vs. (recycled content) lead solder.
  • See recycle vs. reuse.
  • See export vs. shredding.
  • See rare earth auto battery vs. improved gas mileage.
  • See "paper or plastic" bags.
On Monday, I discovered a flaw in my own "pro-CRT-refurb" philosophy, or at least a clarification to be made.  As it turns out, I've done a pretty good job of selecting partners, who were selecting the best and highest quality boards.  But in defending them, I've defended the entire refurbishing industry - including those who use the same cheapo boards that cause the fast-failing LCDs to grunt and die.  It may be time to roll the film and invite in the Monday morning quarterbacks.

"Green Expert" has a double meaning.  A lot of our experts are "a little green" in the field of environmentalism. And by that I mean, immature.
"In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know."  - Socrates in Plato's Apology

My blog theme, "e-waste ethics", often wades into these debates and attempts to take a reasoned position.  But yesterday, I realized something I hadn't, even though it's right in front of me.  The shorter lifecycles of the LCD and plasma units (which like CRTs do not follow Moore's law) had more to do with the circuit boards than the lighting display (cathode ray tube vs. LCD, LED etc.)  Setting my compass by the "opposite direction of wrong" is a precarious course.  Could I too become a "green expert"?

I had been measuring my experience with CRTs made in the 1980s and 1990s ("solid state") against LCDs made in the past decade.  I should have remembered that a 1987 VCR was much more solid than a 1997 VCR.   The goods get cheaper, in part, because the parts get cheapo.

So I woke up this morning revisiting yesterday's post, wanting to add value to it.  And where I landed was the mortality and human fallibility of the "Green Expert".   Because here I was missing something which caused me to promote CRT remanufacturing, without asking whether the SKD factories I defend use high quality boards, or if the CRTs they re-make will need to have their boards replaced again and again.

Some of the VCR boards we see in the "e-waste" pile appear to be printed on cereal box paperboard.  The first humid day, the board absorbs moisture and crinkles.  I've been neglecting the role of circuit boards, even though some of my first writings were questioning whether non-leaded, tin-silver solder would last as long as lead solder (the measure I was promoting to stretch the mining impact across the maximum re-use life of the screen).

If you are out to buy a Prius, it matters how long the Prius lasts.

Let 100 Mega-Kernals be the e-cost of manufacturing the e-Prius.  Let 100 Mega-Kernals be the cost of manufacturing the Buick it replaces.

If the Buick uses 10 mega-kernals per year to run, and the e-Prius uses 5, then the daily use is 1/2, a savings of 5 mega-kernals of "greenness".

If the Buick would otherwise have been used 15 years, and now is shredded at 10 years, the driver gains 5 years of e-Prius savings or 5 x 5 = 25 Mega-Kernals.

The retrospective manufacturing cost of the Buick now is divisible by 10 useful years (100 MK / 10 = 10 MK of green impact).  Had the Buick been driven 5 more years?  100k/15 = 6.67 MK.  The difference lost on those 5 years is 3.33MK x 5, or 16.65 MK.  So the savings from the e-Prius are 25-16.5... still a gain, but a more modest "greenness" savings.

No suppose the E-Prius costs 200 Mega-Kernals to mine and refine, vs. the 100 MK of the Buick.  You see, the math changes.

Obsoleting a product with a more environmentally preferable product is first dangerous math because people tend to use the "greenness" to justify a purchasing decision which, like all purchasing decisions, is blown by our mind's wind of cognitive dissonance.

So, my focus, on myself, on E-Stewards, on Basel, on CEA, is about keeping Green-ness a science and not a religion.   Many snake oil salesmen of the old west no @#$ing doubt, actually  believed in their product.  King Edward, fed mercury for his bowel movements, was no doubt being taken care of by his own Steward the best of 17th century medicine's ability.

I'm building up to an announcement in the next few days.

Fair Trade was championed by universities and colleges.   At a certain point, the claims of "fairly traded" were cheapened by a lack of measure (Tom Knudson wrote about a visit to a "fair trade" coffee plantation in Ethiopia).

Universities and colleges can be both a gullible collections of wannabes (like I was, protesting Duarte in El Salvador at Carleton College in 1980).  But they can also be a melting pot of actual measurement, dialectic, and research.  Research universities saved western medicine.  Had the church owned medicine (as it almost did), we might still be taking mercury for our bowel movements, as we drink "blood of christ" at cathecysm.

So we have to find a balance between use of photography to set off guilt and protest, like E-Stewards does.  E-Stewards constantly shows poor dirty children whenever we discuss contract manufacturing and refurbishment, and it has become racist and unforgivable.   But I cannot set my bearings by being the opposite of someone who is using fallacy, white guilt, and video subterfuge to stab my friends in the eyeball sockets.

Defining myself as the opposite of someone wrong is no better than replacing an e-Buick with an e-Prius.  We must do the equivalent of measuring the mining cost.

What the universities lack, as shown by StEP and MIT, is real world data.   They can spend months in an office and not get exposure to people who are dirty.

In my house this summer, I have 5 Salvadorans and a Mexican.  They are all too young to have an opinion on the Duarte vs. Ungo debate in El Salvador in 1980.  Likewise, a generation of contract manufacturing and refurbishing assembly is nearing retirement in Asia.  The Taiwanese Fortune 50 is changing.  The 73 year old Korean VP of Hyundai, retired to Connecticut, can tell us about how the Koreans bought and refurbished Japanese motors and engines... a 30 year old Korean cannot.

There is exciting data, and exciting interviews, and exciting history of "e-waste" to research and measure.  But in the final analysis, this is not a story about gadgets and discards, nor even about mining, or repair.  This is a story about the rise and fall of "Green Expertise".

I'm going to do something which businesspeople rarely do.

By doing so, I hope to raise the curtain on self-serving green pontificators and predators, like the secret interests behind the Green Thompson E-Waste bill (more about crushing ink cartridges than about cleaning Guiyu).  If we have met the enemy, and he is us, let me drop my own trou and see what other hypno-toad expertise I may have been spinning.

It is an exciting time to be an environmentalist.  Environmentalists can finally make money without drawing it from a government tax system.    The biggest opportunity for a young medical intern in King Edwards court was to discover that the king was getting "mercury poisoning".    Deflecting friendly fire.

Environmentalists, true environmentalists, can generate income by exposing "greenness" which is untested, self-interested blather.  If I save you from spending money on a green solution that hurts the environment, like ROHS or bans on reuse, I can measure my value both in terms of the environment, and monetarily.   This is the way that Western medicine will cure cancer, by avoiding prayer beads and peach pits.  If you really care about the planet, you must help me protect green stewards from going off half-cocked.

It's the mining, stupid.

It is possible that the cheapo circuit boards made to make display devices cheaper, but not to last longer, use less rare earth metals, silver, copper, etc., and by their own rights deserve credit for reducing mining.  The problem is that the "weak link" in the chain - e.g. a single tiny capacitor - can cause failure in the entire plasma, LED, LCD or CRT display devices.   When that happens, repair is the best option for creating jobs and keeping the mining and carbon investment from going down the drain.

"All hail the hypnotoad."  - Futurama crowd

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