Trouble with Stewardship III

Regulatory Progress?  Or Regulatory Digression?

...And I'm here to help.
Were "E-Waste" Stewardship laws, as passed in over 20 states, an improvement over the Massachusetts Waste Ban approach?

The diversion rates don't say so. (Disclosure - the 1999 MA DEP regulation was my contribution - the first state with a CRT recycling law, always omitted from the list of states by NCER and other Stewardship advocates).  Did anyone actually follow to see whether the Massachusetts' treatment was bad for the patient?   Keep It Simple, Stewards?

If the movement for Product Stewardship is legit, and mature, it won't take these questions as an "attack".  It's important for technocrats to distinguish themselves from watchdogs.  They are not the same thing.

The new Stewardship laws are more complex, perhaps more sophisticated.   Regulators calculate what "shares" of electronics recycling responsibility to assign to different manufacturers.  They invent "diversion targets" that the manufacturers must either meet, or pay a penalty.

The manufacturers are forced to either accept "ghost tonnage" (doubtful numbers submitted by some recyclers), or pay a penalty for missing tonnage... a major conflict of interest.   They set tiny collection boxes to show "coverage areas" where the tonnage is expensive to collect, and maximize grand events in areas where the recycling tonnage is cheaper.

Was Stewardship a bad concept?  Or with electronics, just a bad place to start?   Did environmentalists shoot for Saturn when the Moon was closer?   There's a limited amount of money in the economy which will be spent on environmental protection, and government must "shepherd its Stewardship resources".

A cynical government will choose to regulate based on the revenues - fines, deposits, fees - that come to the agency.  Business is business, and bureaus are business, too.  The fees from "ewaste laws" are another state revenue - like cigarette tax, alcohol tax, and gasoline tax.   But that's not where it originated.

The original force behind Stewardship is a noble one.  As a philosophy, taking care of the stuff we buy and sell, throughout its product life, is the place we want environmental protection to go.  And that's why I'm pro Stewardship... or Stewardship Lite.

Electronics is a swamp.  It was not the place to start.  The solid waste hierarchy was never very good at factoring in reuse or repair.   Auto scrap had always played havoc with state diversion rates.  Auto parts chop shops - the reuse of parts from end of life autos - is invisible in EPA's MSW reports, yet is larger than the entire "E-waste" economy in tonnage.  That is a Death Star sized piece of the recycling economy, an epic eclipse of a blind spot.

We should have known what we were getting into.

When the EPA calculates the "Recycling Rates" of various products, it uses the generation (sale of product), the assumed lifetime (milk bottle?  Newspapers?  less than a year), and then measures the recovery - collection for recycling.

It's the second factor - estimated lifetime of the product - where environmentalists have plugged in non-scientific, even stupid, assumptions.  Garbage in, garbage out.

Treating display units (TVs and monitors) as if Moore's Law applies to them was an enormous error, like confusing used car parts with steel scrap.   Everything on EPA's list above you can make some calculations about generation, and assume reuse to be very small.  No one ever really researched the lifespan of a cell phone or laptop, we assumed that replacement sales meant waste generation.  Try applying that to automobiles - and see our Waste Generation rates skyrocket!

The simple statistical error allowed a small, bogus non-profit to completely fabricate a statistic about export, and the assumptions about missing electronics and the assumptions about product life gave it credence.  It allowed the "Post-Military Industrial Complex" to invest in solutions, and get laws to make us use them.  It played into a pitched battle over patent extention, grey market, counterfeiting, white box PCs, and Dell vs. Tiger Direct.  The technocrats in the Product Stewardship field should step slowly away from the anti-export extremists.

Stewardship has not brought environmental success to the e-waste recycling hierarchy.   It could still work on something like lamps, which we know are being disposed.  It may work with carpets.  But the more moving parts and licenses, the more the "waste" becomes a bonsai kitten.

None of this is new.  Haliburton, and other nuke utility power plant engineers looking for big projects, got into MSW combustion.  MSW incinerators were built at too large a scale.  They had trouble competing in the marketplace, and used "put or pay" contracts, flow control laws, etc. to protect investment (often public bonds).  The same dynamics are happening in California's e-waste anti-export rules.

It is hard enough to regulate garbage on the side of a road, or into a local town dump.  Creating digressive regulations about foreign reuse is completely out of the scope of RCRA.  By making Stewardship about things we are not sovereign of, we began prescribing treatments for undiagnosed illness.  We failed to do no harm.

Death Star E-Waste Management
We distract our regulators from reform of the General Mining Act of 1872.  You know... the source of 45% of all toxics produced by all USA industry.  The industry that bankrupted Superfund.  We forgot that the worst recycling is better than the best mining.

Learn from our past errors.  Our mistakes as regulators in closing landfills were abused by furnace engineering firms who defaulted on millions of dollars in public funding for over-built MSW incinerators.  We have a shredding industry ready to take its place, and to use whatever law is available to flow-control working electronics away from internet cafes in Cairo, where students were reading about democracy, and sharing techniques for passive resistance in Tahir Square.  Those forces contributed to California's bankruptcy, taking good organizations like Californians Against Waste and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition into the undertow of planned obsolescence in hindsight.

In 1976, the Grateful Dead played a concert in Cairo, where Ollin Arageed performed.  There were tape recorders in Africa that year, and I'm listening to it as I type.

Tomorrow:  A short wrap up on the trouble with Stewardship.

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