Environmental Injustice vs. Environmental Malpractice: Planes, Trains, Laptops and Automobiles

Ship, Plane, Automobile and Cell Phone Recycling

From EPA research archives, here's a photo found by author Adam Minter (ShanghaiScrap, Bloomberg).  Minter covers the history of Automobile hammermill-shredders in this month's Foreign Affairs (a serious coup for an international relations cultist like me).

If you want to understand the scrap electronics business, you should study the scrap automobile business.  And the hard rock mining business.

1974 by Bruce McAlister

As Minter points out in a recent blog post,
At the time this public domain image was shot, abandoned cars were among the most serious environmental crises facing the United States. Estimates vary, but in 1970 General Motors – theoretically, a knowledgeable source – estimated that there were at least 40 million cars abandoned in public places across the United States. In 1967, New York City reported 70,000 cars were abandoned on its streets, alone. By scale, and seriousness, abandoned cars exceeded any waste disposal problem before or since (including the so-called “e-waste” crisis).
In a September post I made two thesis statements about environmental malpractice and environmental injustice.

  • The poorer a person making a high value purchase, the more likely they are to be the expert, and the more their opinion should be valued.
  • Activities that reduce property value tend to take place in areas with lower property value. 

(Note, I have amended "completed exchange" above to read "high value purchase", to hopefully make clear that I mean the poor person is buying.)

The lack of equal environmental enforcement in low property value areas has been called "environmental injustice".   I have labelled the disturbingly disproportionate arrests of technicians from poor countries "environmental malpractice".  The study of changes in income distribution in property areas is the best predictor of the type of material exchanges that are going on.  Ultimately injustice is defined by a lack of enforcement, and malpractice is a sign of over-enforcement.  As a former environmental official, I know something about both.

Like Adam Minter, I have also used the automobile analogy in a blog picked up as an Op-Ed at Waste and Recycling News (1/2012), "Think e-Waste is bad?  Try an "a-Waste" ban"  We know about the environmental justice / property value angle... cars abandoned in vacant lots.   We know about the forces of planned obsolescence, which frustrate home repair, which created the "right to repair" bills.

The junk autos definitely accumulate in poorer property value climates.  But the end of life of the autos almost never, ever occurs in the wealthy neighborhoods.   It's fast forward from high school graduation to funeral if you think that rich people trading in an automobile is the end of the car's life.

As Minter will explain in his book, there was ultimately a place for auto shredders, and the massive scrap industry in steel cannot simply be pooh-pooed by the words "big shred".   But it's the "small shred" which worries me.   Cell phones and laptops are ultimately different from cars... As different from cars as ships are.

The ship breaking industry still doesn't have a "Big Enough Shred" to manage ships, nor does the airplane industry.  In lieu of shipbreaking-recycling jobs in Bangladesh, the USA Navy resorts to ocean dumping - purposefully sinking ships ("barrier reef" is the claimed re-use).   Ships and Airplanes are both refurbishing, and hand-cut, in more of a parts-shop or chop-shop model.  The question is what is the right model for electronics?

A closer look at automobiles shows that the used auto / parts market is actually bigger economically than the new car market... and also the shredding market.  About 20 percent of junk automobile parts are worth 80 percent of the money (matching the Paretto principle).  Used bumpers, seats, car doors, transmissions, etc. have an aftermarket which is very, very important to the USA economy.

Rio Tinto’s
Hard Rock Mining Meets Coral Islands
Conflict metals is a term about sales of mined materials to fund war criminals.  But other than recycling, any type of metal mining conflicts with rain forests, coral reefs, fresh water, and toxic-free environments.

Ultimately, both environmental injustice and environmental malpractice are claims made against regulators.  EPA has done a nifty job of nudging "environmental injustice" towards "the polluters", but the original term "environmental injustice" was coined to describe poorer enforcement efforts in lower property value or minority income areas.  I don't think it's as easy for Interpol or EPA to shift the blame for "malpractice", racial profiling arrests of tinkerers and geeks.  EPA gives out "environmental justice grants" as a kind of token benefit to tribal areas and lower socio-economic cleanup sites.  Maybe EPA will be as willing to issue "malpractice" grants, to support the refurbishing and recycling industries.

The fact that enforcement agents, such as Interpol, are now arresting tinkerers and technicians in Africa, assuming the money the Africans pay for the import is sign or "organization", and therefore "organized crime", shows that minorities are, once again, getting the short end of the regulators stick.   The lower the property value (as in rain forest), the more pollution.  But the lower the property value, the less waste.   It takes and understanding of BOTH these facts to arrange the respect recyclers and fixers deserve.

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