Instead of Reading About E-Waste, Read Something Important

The Price of Precious, by Jeffrey Gettleman, will shock you back to the reality between Tinkerer's Blessing and Curse of Natural Resources.

"The first child soldier pops out of the bush clutching an AK-47 assault rifle..."

The article is about the "wild eastern edge" of the Congo... an area near Bukavu, where I spent my first weeks in Africa in the summer of 1984.   I've been a fan of Gettleman's for several years, ranking him with Fareed Zakaria and Tom Friedman as mainstream reporters who "get it".

It's the mining, stupid.

Nothing I've written below here is as important or as well written, or as insightful as the National Geographic article.  I urge you not to read further.

The article is profoundly sad.  But its also sad to me that I began this trek into reuse and recycling "e-waste" from the very same ground as Gettleman walks, eastern Congo, Rwanda and Uganda border zones... a frequent theme, and digression, in the blog.


Karma yoga has given me a life well lived.   Recycling as a career means, somehow, to try to pay the cost of my footprint on the earth by recycling more than I consumed.   Mining metals is the biggest carbon producer on the planet, and the rarest and most precious metals are the ones we need for our electronic gadgets.  And high pollution costs seeks low property values, and Africa is there for the mining.

What's terribly sad is the anal retentive focus by so many "environmentalists" during the past decade. Groups like E-Stewards and Basel Action Network lead the attacks on repair, reuse, fixing and recycling.  They mount their crusade with poster child images, in "charitable" campaigns that never explain how the millions collected to defend the poster children.  The funds are spent on "Stewardship Shredders" and "Boycotts" of internet cafe entrepreneurs, arrests by Interpol of Fixers and Geeks, TV and computer repairmen like Joseph Benson, Hamdy and Essam Mousa, Gordon Chiu, Su Fung Ow Young...

I'm both buoyed by the writing of great thinkers like Gettelman, Zakaria, Friedman and Minter, and crushed at the amount of my time spent dodging friendly fire.   An E-Steward company now proposes to take all of Vermont's cathode ray tubes, crush them without testing them for reuse, and grind them into smaller, gravel sized pieces.   That was the criticism of the TCLP test fourteen years ago.   The leaded glass only leaches when it's ground into smaller particles, creating more surface area.  Kleencover is worse than throwing the CRT tubes away whole.

In the 90s, when I established the first e-waste laws in the country, several of my counterparts at Massachusetts DEP argued that CRTs were perfectly safe in landfills, because they would not be ground into pieces.  I argued that whether or not the landfills were safe, that the rain forests being mined in places like eastern Congo (then, still known as Zaire), made it criminal to waste rare earth metals inside the electronics, and argued that the carbon and environmental savings of the potential to reuse the electronics was where the real environmental purpose of RCRA regulations lay.

I'm burnt and crusty, tired of what seems like a war on my vision of sustainable development, a suffocating blanket of bullshit, distracting young environmentalists from the holistic sciences of reuse and recycling, distracted in a storm of toxic ju-ju words and images of children, children like the ones I taught, like the ones I carried on my shoulders, ate with and sometimes buried, and prayed for.  I wanted to find a way to protect the earth, protect endangered species, and still stay loyal to the friends who helped me in Africa.

Thanks to my wife taking me away from Massachusetts, from the cushy job at DEP, I had a chance to live my dream.  Little did I know I'd be hounded by "stewards", PIRGs, greens, and regulators.  It has been a trip south on the Mississippi, complete with performances by Twain's "The Duke and the King", in environmental stewardship garb.

Friendly fire and collateral damage is a strange crime.  It's a sad crime.   But when it's fed smugness and selfish obsolescence money, poster child guilt, fake and false statistics, racist malpractice and plain old bad math, it stops looking like an accident.

It begins to look like some people are so afraid of finding another job that they cannot bear to accept the true statistics, facts, film and reason behind exports for recycling.  They are in a pitched battle with hand disassembly, good enough markets, and blessed tinkerers, but cannot look up from the fog of their own keyboard battle.   They are so afraid to admit that shredding, or banning exports, or circulating wrongful legislation, creates more toxics than it diverts, they are so afraid of losing the attaboys and backslaps and congratulations from white peers.   After of a decade of strutting around, great white father style, on the fingers and toes of innocents... they take factual statistics as an ad hominem attack. Frightened to admit fault, scared like an eight year old boy, of having done more harm than good, they can't, they cannot, they won't stop pulling the trigger, the keyboard of false testimony.

Destroying reuse, they take away what looked to me, when I lived in Africa, like the very best job I could imagine.  Tinkering, fixing, retaining value, diverting waste, and avoiding resource cursed toxic exploitation, the mining roads that bring poachers in ready contact with the endangered species, the ones I cared about as a boy, watching Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, Jacque Cousteau, Jane Goodall, and Nature shorts.

I told myself I wouldn't write anything long, that I didn't want to distract people from reading Gettleman's piece.   But there is a truth here worth telling.  I'm not afraid of losing a good job.

I had a good job, a corner office at Downtown Crossing in Boston, ninth floor, with windows, twenty one wonderful staff and consultants.  I left it all to build a company from scratch, driving a rusty blue truck I bought with a $12K home equity loan, faxed back and forth between Middlebury, VT and Memphis, Tennessee.   I got to live my dream, my karma yoga dream of creating alternatives to the hard rock mining pollution and exploitation Gettleman describes, of meeting needs affordably with reuse and repair, bridging a digital divide.   Here at the end, there were 44 jobs created, and 13 million pounds per year of electronics being managed, as safely and altruistically and sustainably as I could manage.   It was beautiful.

Something will come next.

Just as I left Boston, Massachusetts dream job of Recycling Director, I can leave Good Point Recycling.  God may have a plan for me doing something which diverts the environmental malpractice.   If anyone thinks that by hurting my business, they will silence my passion,

Darth Vader: Your powers are weak, old man.
Obi-Wan: You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

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