Recycling Slag: True Environmental Law

Slag is a partially vitreous by-product of smelting ore to separate the metal fraction from the unwanted fraction. It can usually be considered to be a mixture of metal oxides and silicon dioxide. However, slags can contain metal sulfides (see also matte) and metal atoms in the elemental form. While slags are generally used as a waste removal mechanism in metal smelting, they can also serve other purposes, such as assisting in the temperature control of the smelting; and also minimizing any re-oxidation of the final liquid metal product before the molten metal is removed from the furnace and used to make solid metal. [wikipedia 2012.02.28]
This definition of slag is similar to CRT cullet from recycling operations.  There's a big difference, however, in how the two are regulated.  Where you would like to think that regulation promotes recycling over mining of virgin mountains, the opposite is true.

Mining and smelting has defended the practice of piling up used slag from foundries in massive piles all over the Western USA, Canada and Mexico.    It was debated whether these piles had to be disposed, in landfills, or whether they were really doing no harm in the desert and (as the capitalist model goes), that smelters would come back for it to mine it again when:

A) the veins of lead in mountains (second to silica, the most abundant element in slag) became more expensive to mine, and the slag would become more attractive, and/or

B) technology which already worked in the lab would be economical enough to turn the slag into a commodity.

The mines get bigger and bigger and the slag piles got bigger and bigger.    How does the regulation of recycled "slag", or by-product, compare?
It all comes down to the words "commodity" and "waste".   If a recycler calls the material "scrap", generators expect to be paid for it.  If a recycler calls it "waste", they can pay less (or charge to remove), but then EPA regulations and rules come into play which make it more of a pain for smelters to use recycled cullet than it is to (re) use slag from smelter byproducts.

How did we wind up regulating recycling (secondary material) so much differently than we regulate virgin mined material?   Should "speculative accumulation" rules have forced mining companies to either landfill the slag or shut down the slag piles?

Or did the case of American Mining Congress v. EPA case in 1990 get it right?  The courts found in favor of the mining industry that a material which was occassionally sold for money - like slag - more resembled a commodity than a waste?  EPA abandoned listing of 5 out of 6 mining / smelting byproducts, and codified its ruling in 1995.  In that same period, EPA ratched up enforcement of mercury pollution from mines... gold and silver mines are the #1 and #2 sources of mercury pollution in the USA, and when Clinton/Babbitt enforced the effluent capture that decade, so much mercury was collected that it glutted the whole HG commodity market, sending mandatory mercury from lamp recycling into the alleuvial gold mining operations in Congo and Amazon river basins.

Regulations change the flow of material geographically.   The question is, can regulations be adapted without a court ruling?   They seem to grow, like a staph fungus, and never seem to retreat.   They are like brakes that are on all the time.

Life without brakes would be a disaster.   Life with brakes that never let up would be dreary and tiresome.

What happens is that geography, and the free market, and transportation, move the materials around regulations, either by making scofflaw practices more lucrative, or by finding loopholes, or creating organzed crime.

Ultimately, as a former regulator, the Hanlon's Razor applies.  I don't know if my own FTFY of Hanlon is worthy of an "Ingenthron's Razor" moniker, but there are two slight derivatives I observe.

Hanlon:  Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

NEW RAZOR?  Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by inertia or laziness.

Personally, I think laziness is close enough akin to stupidity that the original handle works just fine.  But here is one thing I like about "inertia" instead... it fits a Physical Law.

Regulations tend not to get reformed or rewritten.  They tend to pile up, like staph or old memories.

Someone adapts a whole industrial process to fit a regulation, and that industry becomes, like Eisenhower's Military Industrial Complex, a being with jobs and money that doesn't want to lose its raw material... enforcement of the law.

Two laws need to be revisited:

1)  Lamp recycling.   We spend billions to collect it, divert it from landfills which are now lined, and to send it to recycling markets that don't need it.  It winds up in the Amazon and Congo.  It's the stupidest thing environmentalists have ever done, and our refusal to tear down an industry of our own making is a mistake of Frankensteinian proportions.     As an environmentalist, I am completely and utterly ashamed.

2)  365 Days Speculative Accumulation.   This was always an arbitrary number made up for stellar calendar record keeping purposes.  Why not 300 days?  Why not 900?  It is an example of a rule which has nothing at all to do with chemistry or risk, it only has to do with making the life of the regulator easier.

Back to the slag... these two forces, the mercury recycling industry and the 365 Day Speculative accumulation, want to keep recyclers from using slag piles in the margin.  The shutdown of the Dlubak Glass pile in Yuma Arizona, the crackdown in Maine on CRT glass, may or may not make sense scientifically.  But  if the result of enforcement leads to export of the material, dumping material like leaded silicate in landfills, or outrageously expensive recycling processes, then we will not have learned our lesson.

In the case of CRT cullet, it is in demand enough and non-volatile enough to be treated like slag.  Get it in big piles, in the desert, close enough to the smelters, and they will use it someday.   Our Mexico smelter partner is now using leaded slag from another mine to replace virgin slag.... that could have been all the CRT glass in the planet, had Canadian and USA EPA and Mexico SEMARNAT written new rules instead of lazily applying and old rules on "hazardous waste".   What is happening in the recycling business is really not much different, not much different at all, from the AmericanMining Congress vs. EPA case at top.  The solution for the non-volatile material is "get your shit together".   Get it all in a pile (sans the pre-1975 cadmium tubes, of course).

In the case of the HG lamps, it may be a case of stop collecting, or spread your shit apart.   If all the lamps go into reinforced contractor bags and are sent to a Subtitle C landfill, that's probably good enough.

Is this essay anti-industry or anti-government or anti-environmentalist?

I am all 3.    It's most optimistically a call to young people to come in and sort out the selfishness (like the shredding and obsolescence industrial complex and hazmat industry), stupidity (like government regulations that set chemistry by phases of the moon), and zeolotry (of environmentalists who think whatever is bad for an industry is good for the environment).  This system, this massive traffic jam, is headed to Africa and Asia, where they don't necessarily have the free court systems to correct it.

It's worse than carbon emmission, because it's a staph that will destroy whatever system Bill McKibben gets in place, via carbon trading or caps.   Understanding the failures which messed up mining regulation, recycling legislation, etc. is critical to designing a solution to a real problem like carbon and climate change.  A lot of the people who are skeptical of the regulation of carbon may indeed be deniers, but a lot of zealots are willing to label me a denier if all I am is someone skeptical of government and industry's track record implementing a solution.  

Lead Free Gasoline.  We got that right.  Lead free solder.  We got that Wrong.  The study of environment health ultimately must resemble the study of human health, where people are free to argue, and the science of vaccinations and birth control is not a subject for politicians and mullahs, and we don't set our accumulation of silica by the source (secondary vs. primary material recovery - ie different rules for recycling than mining), or by the Roman calendar.

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