When You Have Time to be a Great Writer: BusinessWeek on Recycling

This week Bloomberg BusinessWeek runs a whole chapter from Adam Minter's upcoming book "Junkyard Planet", which is coming out in November (but you can advance order it, as I have).

I've only gotten through about a third of the article, and I'm already pleasantly stunned.  There's Johnson, the scrap man I know from my days at Electronicycle.  He's a Chinese copper trader, who taught many of us in the e-scrap business much of what we know about the metal chemistry of many of the electronics parts and wires we get from de-manufacturing.    Adam drove across the USA ("9,600 miles in 26 days") with Johnson in a rental car.
"It’s an essential trade. In 2012, China accounted for 43.1 percent of all global copper demand, or more than five times the amount acquired by the U.S. that same year. A modern economy can’t grow without copper. One way to get that metal is to dig holes in the ground; the other is from scrap. Since the mid-1990s, China has taken both approaches, with scrap accounting for more than half of all Chinese copper production every year (peaking at 74 percent in 2000). Because China is still a developing economy, it doesn’t throw away enough stuff to be self-sufficient. 
That's a brilliant explanation.  I've got it here somewhere, I think to myself, tongue in my cheek... somewhere in my thousand blog posts, I've made that point.. probably repeatedly.  But like the difference between a ten pounds of copper in one kilogram, or ten pounds of copper in ten kilograms, finding that information through my blog comes at a high price, and requires a lot of mental sorting (and there's that noxious burning smell in too many of my posts).

It's music to my ears, you could say.  Music about settling accounts.
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Adam's explanation, above, was so simple and factual, it gives me hope.  I cannot write that way because I have 40 staff and a $3M per year small business, and while I have a lot of delicious scraps of insight, I'm not paid to write, and so run something of a blogmill instead.  I hope that I'll create an insight, mined from my experience, and some academic or journalish will refine it into something easier to read than I have time or skill to.  I cannot ever compete with Jerry Powell, a professional journalist with a smart staff, while simultaneously signing purchase orders or ordering repairs of a Yale electric forklift in a timely manner.

I'm not a fast enough draw, a good enough shot.  But I know where the good guys and bad guys are.  I know where the bodies are buried.   I'm a witness to the collateral damage, and it has scarred me, and scarred my writing style.

I was thrilled last year when Adam was speaking at a conference, and quoted me:  "The worst recycling is better than the best mining."   At times I can come up with something simple and pithy like that.  There's treasure in the trash I post.   But I simply don't have the time to edit.   I post right here on the blog the warning from Mark Twain, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."

And I think this is a really good analogy (unrefined writing to low grade scrap).  Adam is a professional writer, and I'm not.  I don't have time.  I love to do the easy part, which for me is spouting the muse late at night or on weekends, procrastinating some lawsuit or accounting.  But in the morning, I'm always left the same choice...

Sell or hoard?  

I have that choice when I arrive at Good Point Recycling, too often late from trying to file down a post that I know has good stuff in it.  At Good Point, I will find myself out of space, and one of my 40 employees will confront me again with one of the "Robin stacks".  I could sell them, or I could plan to do them in house.  But something more valuable is always there in house to be done first, the triage puts the copper downstream.

There was the stack of Apple Macintosh Plus and SEs, which I actually had moved, intact, from the warehouse I started at on Exchange Street (where wrote my first rent check 10 years ago last week, and hired my first employee ten years ago this week).  It was a Stonehenge-like pallet, the little Apple faces stacked to the outside, so the shape of the cubes leaned back inward, toward the center.   There was the stack of Wyse dumb terminal monitors, which usually arrive all at once from a big batch, taken out from a factory line which still used a mainframe computer.   There are still factories which use the mainframes, and if they lose a dumb terminal monitor, it's wildly expensive to replace it because they aren't made any more - but less expensive than converting the software and mainframe for the whole shoebox factory (or whatever).  So from time to time, someone comes out looking for a Wyse or similar dumb terminal, and is willing to pay $100 for it.  The Mac SE's someone finally scrapped.  Perhaps they hit the stack with a forklift, perhaps they just ran out of work for the day, or it was someone new.  Or I wonder, did someone just get sick of the space in the plant taken up by the Robin-Stack, and scrap it when I left for vacation?

Sell or hoard?   Scrap or fix?   Part out or shred?   Cue soundtrack.

Each piece of "e-waste" I see has its own answer.   Sometimes things that had no forseeable value, which I was certain should be scrapped ten years ago (like IBM 85XX series monochrome CRT displays, which were probably 10% of our entire volume ten years ago) stop showing up, and then become collectors items on ebay.   I wonder, at times, whether speculative accumulation, like airplane yards in the Tucson Arizon desert, are solutions rather than problems?  The 365 days "speculation" window, mines don't have to mess with it when they leave virgin leaded silicate in piles for decades.  But if it's "waste CRT glass" in a pile in Yuma, we declare it an environmental emergency.

So this post is still about Adam's article in BusinessWeek, it's still about Junkyard Planet, but it's also about the arts of finding value.    Donald Summers of BAN, or Jim Puckett, have found a couple of blogs I've written to be evidence I'm insane.   And some clients wonder, especially if I write a post about Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, what I could possibly think is worth hitting the "Publish" key.

thomas-fuchs-22.jpgMy theory is this.  I keep things not because I know I will fix them.   I keep things because I know that someone else is fixing the kinds of things I keep, and I hope I will find time, not to fix them myself, but to meet that person, befriend them, and do business with them.

As I wrote from my archeologist (University of Norway, Bergen) friend's place in Denmark, that's a human trade that's tens of thousands of years old.  She and her husband are called out if there's a new Norway highway or railway, and someone runs across an ancient human settlement.  Norway stops the superhighway for a few weeks, so that they can drive out and study the stone tools and state of the arts.

And people who do that find ancient Asian rocks in places like Norway, which can only be explained by "transboundary movements", from stoneage or iron age times, when a "boundary" may well have been between a first-world and third-world tribe.   If by first or third world, you meant metal smelting capability.  Gitte's husband Knut and I spoke from a bench overlooking the fjord, about my work and his.  He told me they find sites of metal smelting which are deliberately disguised, hidden by man-laid rocks.  They used to think it was evidence of some kind of ceremony.  Now they think it's a cave-man's patent protection, like Italy's glass island of Murano (link and photo from a terrific blog, by the way, Cool Hunting), or the walled coffee plantations of South America (link to ucsc.edu Coffee History, with interesting observations of (Neo-Liberal Economic Policy"), or...

Dot dot dot.

The writer's crutch, the abandoned point, the hopelessness of following every one of my mind's tangents.

At Adam Minter's ShanghaiScrap.com, I remember when he went into "radio silence", unplugging from the internet, because he had to finish his book.. probably culling and refining, rather than adding to the pile.   Many writers have described the internet almost like a spider's web, entangling them in sticky allusions, digressions, procrastinations, obscure references, tangents, and false leads.

Every once in awhile I write a long blog and just save it, hoping to return one day, and file it down to a point. I may get to it when my kids have left home, or my business is either gone or so successful it runs without me.  And perhaps, psychologically, that's why I was keeping the Mac SE Plus Stonehenge stack.  On a Mac SE with 30 "megabyte" hard drive, I saved my first novel, or a few chapters of it at least, I'd been writing it from my apartment in Eastie Boston, while commuting to my family in Middlebury and looking for a job, rather than consulting in Boston (Mass DEP and New Deal Software, 1998-99).  Some idiot knocked down the door of the East Boston apartment and stole the Macintosh, and whatever I had backed up on diskettes must now be opened by one.  I never replaced the door, to remind myself never to leave something I wanted to keep in that apartment.

That may explain why the Apple Macinstosh SE (8 mg hd) to the side sold recently on ebay for $267.  Maybe someone else has something on disc they want to polish, some one-lifetime archeological data project, retrieve some lost work written in Helvetica (no photos fit on the Apple HDs in those days).

The trade is not based on the person who sold it "avoiding the environmental costs of disposal."  Like Adam's paragraph explains, people buy something because they need it, not to do sellers a favor.  And the poorer the country buying, the more that's true.

This is turning into another one of the "evidence of Robin's insanity blogs", a drilldown into tangents in order to make a larger parrallel (lost on those who skip the conclusion).   Good writing and good editing is like high grade copper.   It was while researching one of Johnson's purchase orders, and looking at a scrap wire photo from Guangdong, I found that the Americans were throwing "mixed wire" together.  The copper from electronic grade smelting (oxygen free copper, wikipedia) is highly, highly refined, as 1% impurity can slow electrons, causing problems like sound infidelity in musical speakers.
"The high-end speaker wire industry markets oxygen-free copper as having enhanced conductivity or other electrical properties that are significantly advantageous to audio signal transmission. However, conductivity specifications for common C11000 Electrolytic-Tough-Pitch (ETP) and higher-cost C10200 Oxygen-Free (OF) coppers are identical.[8] Much more expensive C10100, a highly refined copper with silver impurities removed and oxygen reduced to 0.0005%, has only a one percent increase in conductivity rating, insignificant in audio applications.[8] OFC is nevertheless valued by some[who?] for both audio and video signals in audio playback systems and home cinema.[8]"
{Postscript:  The "low grade" copper in the scrap industry often refers to light percentage copper, like in Christmas tree lights or electronics.  But the thinner the wire - the less quantity - the more likilihood it's Oxygen Free Copper.  That's what Johnson Zeng buys.  Americans are grading copper by quantity, not by quality, and Johnson knows the Zen of scrap copper maintenance}

The Chinese yard I visited in Foshan, Guangdong in 2002 (same year as Jim Puckett published photos from the same province, Guiyu) was surrounded by other yards, and there was a distinct burning smell in the air, perhaps from other yards.  But they had a separate, unheated warehouse, where women were carefully separating out the "oxygen free" copper, and also complete wires that could be reused.

If I was poor, I thought, I'd have a choice between copper mining, and copper recycling.  I'd choose this.  That is just the choice China has, in Minter's paragraph at top.   The best mining is worse than the worse recycling.

I decided back then that this woman, grading the copper, was an unsung heroine.

Thank God.  Adam Minter came along, and is singing the praise of thousands like her, who have been treated like pond scum by the environmental community, driving about in our Prius or Honda, tsk-tsking the Chinese scrap trade.

You see, I focus on reuse because it's easier to defend, and highest value added potential for emerging market tinkerer economies.  I have a higher likelihood that someone will recall they discarded something still working, than that they will know about electronic-grade, oxygen free copper bits.  So I sing mostly about reuse and repair.

But I do so knowing that I risk leaving the scrap peddlars, like Johnson Zeng, Jameson, Ting, and the Copper Stripping women of Guangdong behind, treading in the water.  No room for them in my reuse lifeboat.  I live with the distinctions that R2 and E-Stewards are comfortable with, not throwing the reuse out with the bathwater.   But inside the bathwater, there's actually a lot of things we risk throwing away in a shredded mess.

I'm confident, after reading the first chapter, that Adam took the time to write a short letter.  I'm thrilled to see another, more efficient liferaft, speeding to where the scrappers tread water.  Like Allistair Cooke's Letter From America, Junkyard Planet will open your eyes.  See the days photos, and see them, this time, with the respect the copper wire strippers deserve.

If I ever lose my business, as we all will someday, as we lose our own lives, and face our own mortalities, I may have time to hone a lot of short letters.   If E-Stewards thinks they can stop me by eliminating my 40 employees jobs, they are delusional.  It's my employees jobs that take most of my time.   The blog spews like passionate holy vomit, a firehose of insights.  I just don't have time to refine it yet, I just haven't had the time to sort through it.  But whether I trade the information in this blog to a refiner (like sometime reader Adam Minter), or find myself with the time to edit myself, there is no escape.


Value is found in quality.

People who recognize quality that other people don't, get ahead in life.

Call them tinkerers, fixers.   The ability to see value or quality, as Pirsig describes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is a quiet gift.

Adam Minter's family is from a Minnesota scrap business.  So for once, we get a reporter who can distinguish between value and dirt, and get the quality of the image, rather than quantity of impressions made by scary black and brown poverty.  He is not like the writer from Unforgiven.

I can see people.  I can see people for what they can do, not for what they cannot do.  And on this network of people - Middlebury College interns with short spans of attention, illiterate Vermont unemployed, geek immigrants from Ghana, retired womens' coops in Mexico, shiny brilliant metal specialists from China, and computer display experts from Egypt, Peru or Indonesia... I have found value on this Junkyard Planet, and with it we have given the world's emerging classes an taste of Internet, a genie that dictators like Mubarak cannot put back into a bottle, which ewaste priestatollahs cannot shame world demand away from.

There has been collateral damage.   But there are millions and millions of us.  History will trample the false prophets who denounced recycling as "waste", the regulators who want Ebay items shipped only by "registered waste transporters", the red-tapers, the anti-gray-marketers.

They may well underbid me to take me out.  But I've already written enough here that even if they kill me, the raw material has been harvested, and the truth is coming, unedited, from the dirty yards where Recyclers and Fixers are Saving the Junkyard Planet, whether Interpol, EPA, EStewards, CAER.org, or others get it or not.   You can try to shred my business, but you cannot compete with my knowledge.

Frank: What do you want? Who are you? 
Harmonica: Dave Jenkins. 
Frank: Dave Jenkins is dead a long time ago. 
Harmonica: Calder Benson. 
Frank: What's your name? Benson's dead, too. 
Harmonica: You should know, Frank, better than anyone. You killed them. 

Frank: Who are you? 
Harmonica: Jim Cooper, Chuck Youngblood. 
Frank: More dead men. 
Harmonica: They were all alive until they met you, Frank.

Unforgiven, Once Upon The Time in the West, Little Big Man.  Revenge movies about times that are past, times that are changing.  Old guard, replaced in each conclusion, by the impression of modern development, trains, writers, builders.    Old cowboys winning or losing a very last battle, a justice finally, if belated.  And each film, with its historical perspective, at the same time acknowledging that the future generations won't remember the names, and will be foggy recollecting who was on which side.

Environmentalists, sustainability coordinators, read Adam's book, if you don't have time to read this scrap-heap of a blog.  I write for my own pleasure, like a monk chanting verses, preparing my way.  Whether you read Persig or not, listen to the Tibetan chant or not, have high quality oxygen-copper audio or not, the truth is the light, and the money-changing tables of the planned obsolescence pharisees are going to be swept away by something they never thought of and did not respect, some carpenter kid, some cell phone repair whiz.  My light is sometimes shaded by leaves, obscured by clouds.  But I see a brighter light, coming in the distance.  Someone's coming.

"Many of these discussions are tied together by the story of the narrator's own past self, who is referred to in the third person as Phaedrus (after Plato's dialogue). Phaedrus, a teacher of creative and technical writing at a small college, became engrossed in the question of what defines good writing, and what in general defines good, or "Quality". His philosophical investigations eventually drove him insane, and he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy which permanently changed his personality."

"He knows the code
It's not about the salary
It's all about reality.. and making some noise. "   

"it's 20 percent skill,
80 percent fear, but 100% percent clear..."

"This is ten percent luck,
Twenty percent skill,
Fifteen percent concentrated power of will,
Five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain,
And a hundred percent reason to remember the name!"

(Fort Minor, Remember the Name) 

Frank: What's your name? Benson's dead, too. 
Harmonica: You should know, Frank, better than anyone. You killed them. 

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