When "E" Is for "EPIC FAIL"

Having made a career out of recycling, and having started my career as a protester, loudmouth, and activist, I approach my 50th birthday with three children, an international pedigree, and "schooling".  As in "environmentalists got schooled"...


1.  ROHS.
  • The Theory:   Remove the toxic lead solder from the electronics by law.  Environment gets cleaner.
  • The Outcome:  Mining for tin and silver (the "non-toxic" metals used to replace lead in solder) in Indonesia's Coral Triangle and Conflict Metals regions of the Congo.  Unmitigated disaster, still not documented in any journalistic article.  It was a very basic fail... the solid waste hierarchy is intended to account for the cost of mining.  "Reduce" means reduction of mining and raw materials consumed, not the amount or toxicity of the product.

  • The Theory:  Recycling is better than disposal, so mercury lamps should be recycled.
  • The Outcome:  Billions spent collecting Hg lamps from across the USA.  Lamps are distilled to get mercury, which is then sold for Amazon and Congo alleuvial gold mining, almost exclusively.  It's like recycling lead bullets by taking them out of cadavers and shooting them again into endangered species. John Fialka of WSJ uncovered this most perverse of consequences in 2006, but we continue to spend billions shipping recycled mercury to rain forests.  Incredible fail.

  • The Theory:  Cheap "e-waste" recycling was burning electronics in poor nations.  Implement more expensive recycling, and make "manufacturers" pay for it.  Manufacturers will learn from the takeback and design better products.
  • The Outcome:  You could dedicate an entire blog to this epic fail ;)  The diagnosis failed to account for software and media changes as a cause of obsolescence, failed to account for the reuse (especially of display devices) which was driving exports overseas, failed to seal costs, which were then wasted in "obsolescence in hindsight" (destruction of refillable ink cartridges, working video displays, and other items immune to Moore's law).  There are efforts to fix and tweak these laws, but they are like a cigarette or gasoline tax, the local government sector has tasted the nectar and they won't go back in the bottle.
These are three Epic Fail Moments occurring as we speak, in plain sight.

Similar "unintended consequences" can be found in other public systems, such as Medicare.  A driver we hired at Good Point Recycling used to deliver oxygen tanks to dying people, to be billed to Medicare.  Though anybody could see the people were dying in a matter of days, and that they had several oxygen tanks at their house, his job was to pressure them to sign and accept the delivery of the extra tank, which would be billed to Medicare.  I am not against public health care, and I am not against recycling.  I am just noting that like Medicare, once these environmental systems get in place, it is very difficult or impossible to change them. In other words, we environmentalists should embrace a "precautionary principle" about implementing new "green laws".

What I am suspicious of is fighting the free market based on half baked ah-hah moments from loud liberal and green friends.  One way of seeing this is that I'm turning into an old codger.  Friends say "Well, at least I tried something", and "At least we cared enough to do something".

Cared enough to take action and pass laws, but did not care enough to do their math.  Baby seal pelts are also non-toxic, renewable, and reusable, but that does not make them a "green"choice.  Sorry, but if you kill baby seals, it really doesn't matter that you did so because you cared, or refused to stop doing so because you are tired and frustrated and didn't know you were doing something wicked when you started.

Plato wrote about whether things are Good because God likes them, or whether God likes things because they are Good.   If the latter, we may have the ability to tell Good from Evil on our own, and we don't need a God to like the Good, and don't need a pope, ayatollah, or rabbi to tell us what God says.   For environmentalism, we don't have the baggage of belief.  We can find out what's good for the environment and if our environmental medicine is making the world sick we can stop prescribing it.  We haven't built a church or organized environmental religion yet, let's not start.

I'm not against advocacy and passionate environmentalism.  I'm a pro at it.  But holding on to bad ideas takes money and energy and space away from good ideas.  Like the idea in the 1960s that TV manufacturers must provide replacement parts - established by federal law.  Why doesn't this law apply to tablets and flat screen replacements, and why doesn't anyone care that we had a law in place and let industry sidestep it?

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