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.

Motherboard: Why Export Electronic Waste

Read about the "Ewaste Decade" in this week's Motherboard.

Regular good point blog readers won't be surprised, but I'm always glad to see the story of Geeks of Color told in another venue.  Motherboard is kind of a geek Huffington Post, and I'm glad this post is getting attention.

The Best e-waste recycling practices are colorblind, and based on telling the truth.  The editorial is also posted via the jump break below.  I like the comments sent by email, thanks.

Why We Should Send Our Electronic Waste to China and Africa    Posted by WR3A on Saturday, Mar 26, 2011

"ewaste" Command and Control

Reviewing an online copy of the state of Washington's Standard Plan (for E-Waste), I found this paragraph.
O.1  Collectors  
Registered collectors, depending on the types of CEPs collected and their location’s convenience to covered entities, should be able to operate at rates comparable with other collectors with similar characteristics.  Fairness to the Authority and to the collector is heavily dependent upon volume.  For example, a collector that chooses to accept only laptops and computers (no TVs or monitors); receives 200 pounds of CEPs a day; is staffed with one employee for 10 hours per day; and incurs rent and utility expense of $30 per day would realize fixed costs of approximately $130 per day.  The amount required to cover expenses at this collection level would equal $0.65 per pound.  If the collector expanded operations to accept all CEPs; relocated to a more visible area (assuming effective public outreach); and received 1,200 pounds per day, fixed expenses would be covered at only $0.11 per pound.
So you only take laptops, which can be resold at an average of $80 each.  Because you only accepted laptops, no TVs, your overhead (rent, utilities, etc.) per pound is higher.  So you should be paid 65 cents per pound, while someone who breaks their back lugging console TVs (negative -$40) should be paid 11 cents per pound.

"E-Waste" Curveball: Criminalizing by Speed Limit

R2, Responsible Recyclers' Standard, is a 55 MPH speed limit on the highway, 30 MPH city.  It's good enough.

E-Stewards is a stricter standard.   35 MPH highway, 10 MPH city.   E-Steward advocates argue that the problems of pollution and export mean that 55 MPH is not strict enough.  Any standard which is stricter must be better.

Lowering the speed limit will produce more speeders.  Maybe this is how BAN plans to establish that 80% of exports are illegal and polluting - by establishing a standard which only 20% of recyclers can meet.  The outcome of that will be a very small, elite group of recyclers whose primary promotional strategy is to denigrate the competition.

IFIXIT Video on IPhone

Here's another cool IFIXIT contribution to reuse, repair and recycling.  I have a link to IFIXIT.com on the Resources page, as well as to Silicon Sam's RepairFAQ.   I must say I initially thought that Kyle and the crew at IFIXIT had their work cut out for them if they were to improve on the wiki-repair site that Sam M. Goldwasser invented in the 1990s.  But the use of video (without a lot of language audio) makes IFIXIT a terrific tool.

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:

Toe Tags - We Agree - Now Let's Communicate

Notwithstanding the "ND" label described last week, we should stand behind the top sentence in CA DTSC webpage, and come down on speculative accumulation and abandonment.

  Abandonment of e-waste constitutes illegal disposal
of hazardous waste and will be prosecuted

Abandonment adds value to the vocabulary discussion... the only time abandonment has ever added value to anything.  Disposal is clearly abandoning something on land, air or on water (e.g. at a landfill or incinerator or a ditch).  Speculative accumulation is gathering and storing something with no record of sales and no proof or evidence that it is not being abandoned.

However, the expansion of RCRA law (governing disposal) into the secondary sales market will dilute limited government resources.  The regulators of mortuaries do not belong in doctors' offices.  Attaching toe tags to healthy patients will not, in the long run, reduce the risk of an improper burial.  It will spread out the funeral regulators, creating a confusing inflation in the toe-tag economy, and no good will come of it if it is not standard practice and the hospital in New Hampshire doesn't require it.. people will resent being toe-tagged as a corpse and take their health care dollars elsewhere.


Here is a valid argument for allowing affordable, under $100, refurbished PCs to be exported.  E-waste is a matter of e-taste.

I couldn't tell you for sure how the Vermont video "802" was filmed.  But I can say without a doubt that if free and fair trade of used computers is allowed, we will all see a lot more 802 and Justin Bieber and LudaKrishna videos, and that they will be a LOT more interesting than Kadafi Junior and Qadafi Jr. and Gadafi Jr. and Mumbarak Jr. and Kim Jong-Il Jr... we see too much of the Uday Husseins.  No matter how you laugh at, or with, or slightly around this kind of video, the world is a better place if random college students in these countries can afford to put their thoughts online, than if only the Evil Juniors and Mini-Mes get to put their views onto the internent.

There are a million nice geeky guys like this for every idiot like Uday we see in the news.   Uday could afford a Sony Vaio Latest, or Apple Wanna-have 3.  Nations earning 3K per year are getting online at ten times the rate of nations earning 40+k per year... and it is from affordable <$100 PCs that they are getting it.

By the way, non-OECD Singapore has now PASSED the USA in GDP per capita.  Calling this a primitive society is like calling Bill Cosby a crack dealer.

Happy Cultural Lobotomy, E-Waste Export Ban

Lobotomy is still a frightening word.  It's a cultural relic, a footnote in western medical history. It represents a procedure which was for a period prescribed by our most august and respected Western Medical experts.  You could only get a lobotomy in the wealthiest, most advanced hospitals.

If someone had a behavioral problem, putting them under anesthesia and cutting out a piece of their brain was, at the time, considered one of the highest forms of medicine.

Map Africa In 130 Seconds

Over the weekend, my son and I played snapping-mapping games at www.coolmath-games.com.

Updated score posted 5:06PM EST

It's a little bit addicting, but definitely not a time waster... Because you learn the names of nations.  It always nags me to not be completely sure whether Angola borders South Africa (nope, Namibia in between), and where the Z nations (Zambia, Zimbabwe, SwaZiland, MoZambique) lay south of Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).  Highly recommended.  They have Snap-maps for Asia, Europe, and state puzzles for Canada, Mexico, USA, Australia.   I am finally coming to grips with the names of former Yugoslavia.

This belongs in the blog because Americans need to be better at geography if they are going to be good environmentalists.

"Not Discarded" Label - Made in Vermont

It's four AM on Saturday in Middlebury, Vermont.   I had a dream about "e-waste" recycling.

Usually, this blog pursues creative understanding,  Imagining All the People, Recycling in Peace.  It's like a parallel universe where John Lennon is the small business owner, and the Environmental Watchdogs are the Establishment, and commerce with entrepreneurs in Ethiopia, Ghana, Egypt, Angola or Cameroon is a form of protest... like interracial marriage in the 1960s USA heartland. The mandated labels of "universal waste" which Vermont ANR proposes to put on collected computers and scrap metal crimps this trade with red tape.  Dudes, it's like the reuse stuff is getting drafted into a shredder, and it's like "manchester england, england"... (song from Hair)

But maybe this is simpler than I thought...  A solution to the "universal waste" dilemma occured in my dream.  (And there's a very funny video below in the 1960's Label Theme)
We create our own paperwork.  A label which says "For original intended use".  Or ND- "Not Discarded".  Or CDND - "Commodity - Do Not Discard".

Robin Ingenthron's Hollywood Screenplay

We are all Khaled Said.  The facebook video embedded below has been re-released publicly, after temporarily being marked private. I hope they will continue to allow access to it.  One of the best things about affordable internet is the cross-pollination of art and music (a theme of this blog).

Japan Earthquake 2011, China Earthquake 2008

[Note:  This was composed soon after the quake.  The casualty estimate in Japan has increased 100-fold.]

I watched the news about yesterday's 8.9 earthquake in Japan for an hour last night.   While I'm sure the numbers will rise, I was amazed at low death toll.   Reporters in Japan remain on the 19th  floor of office buildings.  The internet still works.

Comparing this to the 2008 China Sichuan earthquake is a little tricky.  But start with the Chinese death toll.  68,000.   Add millions of homeless.   A lot of the problem, I remember reading, was hasty engineering, including build-up of schools and hospitals.

(And I won't start about New Orleans.)

I was a cartoonist in college

Mobius Filmstrips, Unforgiven Comments, Annotated Deletions

Ironically, I just deleted a post refuting Jim Puckett's accusation that I had secretly deleted a post he commented on.   I was basically unhappy with it... self-deprecation of the post by calling it a "pissing match" did not seem to raise it above a pissing match.

I simply had not changed a post he had commented on, the google date codes prove that. But this post was boring.  Defending myself is not as interesting as defending my friends.  The analytics were very bad - very low reads.  I kind of heard internet traffic whispering "move along here, nothing to see".   Once Upon a Time in the West, it was not.  

It's all Over Now, Baby Blue

Here's a little reminder, for those who may have missed it, of what we try to do here in Middlebury.   Our little experiment in Mexico has generated a lot of attention.  International Women's day should be a priority.

Who'd a thunk that reuse of working equipment would be such a hard sell?

Returning to a role of the scrap blog as musical interlude...  I used to hunt down cover versions of this Bob Dylan tune, spending hours recording them onto a cassette player.  The Grateful Dead, this version by the Byrds, and one by Roxie Music were three of my favorites.  Bob D. himself, none too shabby.

Singapore and Texas: Refurbishing Giants

Singapore engineer
A few months ago I posted a tribute to Singapore's NEA (National Environmental Agency) and its positions on "repair and overhaul" industries... It ended with  Rolls Royce and a multi-million dollar facility to repair junk aircraft.

Well, now Boeing is copying Rolls Royce, and Texas is knocking off Singapore.  Boeing has just announced a new plant in San Antonio, which will employ 450 people, to do what Singapore is doing... repair and refurbish retired jetliners.

How did Singapore "leapfrog" its poverty?  In the 1990s, when I was recycling director at Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, I was looking everywhere for evidence of my hunch that refurbishing would reduce our electronics recycling costs, and I found some articles from Singapore's NEA.  They said, quite crisply:
  • Singapore doesn't have a lot of raw materials for virgin production
  • Jobs which utilize intellect and engineering skills create more wealth than mining jobs
  • Repair and overhaul (refurbishing) is environmentally sustainable

Africa: Mining Vs. Geekdom

Sunday morning.   I am in the living room, with my wife and kids.  We have a large screen LCD hooked up to the laptop, where we were surfing "google earth" for places we've all lived... my wife's apartment in Rosny-sous-Bois, my old home on Frances Drive in Columbia, Missouri.  The home in Milton MA, where the twins lived when they were born.  High School in Arkansas.  Junior High, Fresno.

In cruising over to Ngaoundal, Cameroon, where I was professeur d'anglais, the satellite imagery is pretty fuzzy.  But it looks like they have been digging more at the Mount Ngaoundal site, where everyone spoke about finding "bauxite" in the 1980s.  I remember my hikes up the mountain were "controversial", as some at the military camp were afraid I'd be "stealing the bauxite".  Bauxite of coarse is the heavy rock which needs extremely high levels of electricity to polarize the aluminum to make it extractable.  A single scrap aluminum can is worth 50 times its weight in bauxite rock.

Today, the Cameroonian dictator is promoting mining as the solution to Cameroonian development.

Back in the 1980s, my mind was already fixed on a life purpose... to reduce mining, promote recycling, conservation and reuse, and to figure out a way to do it with sustainable world development.   The poverty in Africa represented both a vulnerability and an opportunity.  Mining is the most toxic activity on the planet, and it was headed for the poorest in the forest.  Fortunately, recycling is the economy of the poor.

Pause for Editing

I have about 9 unfinished blogs, too good to delete, but in need of editing.  So I'll simply repost a link to Adam Minter's blogs this week, which he did as a fill-in for James Fallows at the Atlantic.

Adam's post today, about scrap value of motors, was his 7th of seven.   The photos were taken in Foshan, the same scrap market area I visited near Guangzhou in 2002 - A century ago.   People in the scrap business there could smell a piece of lab equipment with a 16 ounce nickel cylinder from 60 meters away.  The shelves Adam shows in his last post, of "motor samples" labelled with exact metals content, is echoed in the plastic markets of Ningbo, and the cell phone markets of Guanghzhou...  People in poor circumstances with hard work and active mind.   If I imagine myself born in Africa or Asia or Latin America, I'm doing the same thing.

In Guangzhou, I was struck by a city block of shops, a two story mall, of shop after shop after shop selling television repair equipment.  I don't mean "TV repair shops".  I mean shops which sold Sencore equipment.  The repair equipment that TV repairpeople need.  A city block of shops specializing in equipment needed only by TV repair shops.

Tweedle Dumb "E-Waste" Policy

Export Market One accepts tested working product 4 years old, which it sells for $105.  The factory sells the computers directly, but also takes back the computers when they are finished for de-manufactuing, generating circuit boards, plastic, power supplies, and CRT glass.

Export Market Number Two accepts identical tested working product 4 years old.  But before they resell the PCs, they remove the circuit board and replace it with a board that makes the computer work as both a TV as well as a computer, and causing the PC to work longer before it needs to be taken back and demanufactured.  They also electively upgrade all of the memory, video cards, etc.

??? Mais c'est bete ca !
Both factories generate and recycle the exact same circuit boards, plastic, and power supplies, and recycle them properly.  The main difference is that Export Market Two is much larger than Market One, and produces the PCs at $65 each, selling them in third party countries and creating more jobs.

Basel Action Networks's position is that Export Market One is superior and legal, and that Export Market Two is polluting and illegal.  The circuit boards, power supplies, etc. are identical, the end markets are identical.  WR3A encourages and assists both Export Markets.  Neither market releases pollution.

These are the people who have declared themselves Stewards for the developing world?:  People who don't know how to fix stuff, writing rules for those who do.  Lewis Carroll would be proud.

Ethiopia "E-Waste": Good Video, Comment Hubris

I'm grateful today for comments from Jim Puckett of Basel Action Network, who rightly applauds the program toured by EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson in Ethiopia.  Here is a link to his comment.  A video was produced with the help of Cascades Asset's Niels Peters-Michaud.

I can applaud everything Jim says about the Ethiopia project.   The rub comes when Jim implies that our own "fair trade recycling" partners are somehow polluting, or taking "untested" product.    (What "untested"? I respond, do you think we are randomly selecting the 23% for export and randomly recycling the 77%... and randomly arriving at 90% reuse?  What exactly does he think we are doing which is worse than IBLF's program in Ethiopia?)  BAN clearly implies that they know better how to test for our factory purchase orders... but refused to put the time into the California Compromise which would have tested that assumption.

Good Point Recycling - 2010 Report

To our Clients, Investors, and Crew:

Good Point Recycling needs to be bragged about, from time to time.  I'm extremely proud of what our company has accomplished, and our role in moving the recycling industry forward.  This month is our tenth anniversary.

Good Point Recycling managed over 5 million pounds of used electronics last year, including material we bought from out of state recyclers (for inspection prior to re-export) and material we disassembled, with local labor, into screws, metals, parts and plastics.   Since we opened, we have managed 20 million pounds of scrap.  We have grown steadily - more than 25% of that material was managed in 2010!

Good Point Recycling has brought in $6,000,000 to Addison County, Vermont.  Almost all of this came from outside of Addison County, creating local jobs.  The 24% of material which we exported for reuse brought in enough money to cover our entire payroll.   The 76% we did NOT export speaks for itself.

How did our company build itself from scrap?