Environmental Morality Debate: ADC is Landfilling. Exporting is Dumping. You're Throwing Away. Garbage!

1980s Moral/Environmental Superiority

"You threw your television away??  I reused it.  I sold mine at a yard sale, or donated it to a charity.

Yours went into a landfill where it will be blown in the wind and seep into the groundwater!"

1990s Moral/Environmental Superiority

"You threw your television and computer away??  I reused my computer, and the television was recycled back into a new television, the plastic, metal and glass reused.

Yours went into a landfill where it will be blown in the wind and seep into the groundwater!"

2000s Moral/Environmental Superiority 

"You threw your TV, PC and cell phone away??  I reused my cell phone.   The TV and computer were recycled back into new metals, plastic and glass products.

Yours went into a landfill where it will be blown in the wind and seep into the groundwater!  Or worse, got shipped to a country with poor people."

2010's  Moral/Environmental Superiority  

"You threw your TV, PC and cell phone away??  I sent mine to a shredding machine.   The metal and some of the plastic were recycled back into new metals and plastics.

The leaded glass from mine went on top of yours, as wind cover.  Like yours, it will be blown by the wind and seep into groundwater.

But mine will be on a layer on top of yours today.  Tomorrow, when the landfill reopens, another CRT will be dumped on top of my "yester-daily cover".  And another layer of shedded CRTs will be placed on that.  And so on..."

Environmental Moral superiority just ain't what it used to be.

In certified programs, almost nothing gets reused anymore.

This is "moral relativism" not across geographic boundaries, but across decades and their relative economies.

What does this "moral environmentalist standards evolution" tell us about Environmentalism?  Harken back to the Priestatollah Blog ("E-Waste Whiplash").  Beware moral fetishes attached to scientific environmental problems.   Environmental health studies, like human health and medicine, need to stay firmly in the science camp, and let's keep our ears, eyes, and minds open to scientific method, healthy reasoning.

We all got biases.  Here's my bias.  About 2/3 of Good Point Recycling's payroll has been tied to big, heavy CRT recycling.  We responded to the Vermont laws (Procedures) which banned "land application" (which includes ADC), we responded to the Vermont RFP which banned "land application", and we were even banned from having hazardous landfill disposal in our 2012 Closure Plan (the plan for being out of business...  ANR said even PLANNING to dispose of CRT glass in that eventuality was illegal).   But we lost our VT contract to a company which land-applies the CRT glass.  ANR explained it was "out of state" and therefore not illegal under their procurement.  In other words, Vermont companies cannot fairly compete for work in Vermont.

I had to personally cut payroll from $26,000 per week to $11,000 and we are still making sacrifices.  No one at ANR, I venture, has ever had to do that (lay people off).

So... we are pissed off.  I'm told "you can't fight City Hall" and that in Montpelier even criticizing or complaining about Vermont ANR decisions is suicide.  The fact that national reporters and trade journalists are reporting on the double standard gets blamed on me personally.  A key ANR staff said we have "burned our bridges" because of the national reporting and questioning.

In the smoke of Vermont's circular firing squad, environmental outcomes are collateral damage.  But what about the bigger picture, the Ethics of E-Waste?   How bad is the devolution of recycling standards?  Is daily cover environmentally dangerous?  Or simply a lower-in-MSW-hierarchy method which will eventually be accepted?  I have to separate my causes.

As an analyst, I can document the evolution of the standard, but I should steer away from my own biases.   I need to resist fetishizing the material or making moral "Priestatollah" statements about Vermont's CRT management.  New England was very smart to start CRT collections more than a decade ago, when there were more markets (especially reuse) for the material.   States which wait for legislation are going to have fewer "environmental" choices.  A lot of good has been accomplished, and throwing that away in the final chapter makes little sense.

Whether Good Point Recycling goes into a different business (one that doesn't require 50,000 s.f. and 40 employees) or not, it's important to report on the recycling CRT controversy fairly and objectively.

Environmental  Morality

Panel glass.  Funnel glass.  Frit.  Cullet.  Fluxing Agent.  Ore.  Angelsite.  Leaded silicate.  It's the mining stupid.  Extraction is always more determinate of net environmental impact than final resting place.  Some trees get cut down to make writing paper, and some trees get cut to make toilet paper, and whether your recycled paper saves a tree isn't decided by whether you write a letter or blow your nose.

Environmentalists have been guilty of attaching a "fetish" to the used fiber, calling the writing paper a "higher use", which set "recycled content" up with a bad name for several years when copy machines got dusty.  The net environmental impact of recycling paper into writing paper and cutting down trees to make tissue paper is probably negative.  It's certainly negative economically (recycled tissue costs less than virgin, recycled printing paper costs more, for reasons engineers can understand).  It probably negative for carbon and other environmental measures.   But we environmentalists are proud.

So I'm admitting that the "final resting point", the "eventual disposal", or point of physical inertia where leaded pb silcate comes to a resting point, should not be a "fetish" that makes us feel guilty.  What we want to measure is how much mining and virgin production, or tree cutting, is avoided by the recycling.

Silicate is plentiful.  Lead ore is expensive.

Glass/silica scrap has been a problem in curbside programs for decades.   It has so many names and chemistries, colors and melting points, but at the end of the day you are competing with a virgin material called "sand".  Whether sand is put on the top of the day's garbage as wind cover, or dirt, makes little difference.

With CRTs, the problem is that is lead in the cullet.   But it's chemically bound in the silicate, and the temperature necessary to melt the silicate to get the lead out really only works (economically) if you are heating silicate anyway - at a CRT glass furnace, a lead smelter, or a copper smelter, or a glass product maker.  You have to add value to the silicate in the process, the lead itself won't pay for the hassle.  As we replaced more and more glass sorting line labor with shredders to grind the glass into "aggregate", we set ourselves up for low end, unwashed aggregate, being used as "alternative daily wind cover".

Shredding isn't inherently evil.  Making recycling less expensive is a good thing.  

The problem with shredding is that rendering leaded silicate into small fragments, and rendering non-ferrous metals into ZORBA, or plastic resins into fragments too small to sort... is not economically a "value added" proposal.  We like it because it puts a "fullstop" on our fetish.  The TV is no more.  It is rendered invisible as a TV.  Our ownership, our company label, our guilty fetish, can no longer be tracked to our local recycling depot.

Economically, shredding has trouble competing with hand disassembly and repair in poor nations, which is perhaps the origin of the money going into CAER.  In Africa, where pennies matter, the free market says that using the TV as long and as many times as possible is what gives it the most value.  They still fix, they still repair, they still harvest parts.   When the television is truly exhausted, and the copper and aluminum taken away, it makes little difference to the average African whether the CRT is put into a landfill intact, broken, or shredded in small pieces.  The guilt fetish isn't attached.  Even when bored kids burn plastic at the African city dump, none of the lead or glass is released or volatilized.  The state of the material in its resting place, as the first layer of intact CRT glass or a second later of fragments or a third layer of intact CRT or a fourth layer of fragments, it really doesn't matter.  There's no fetish attached to things as being in a recognizable state in the dump.

Moral Environmental Fetishes Beyond E-Waste

 But I'm cautious about morally slandering shredding and anti-gray market industries.   As Adam Minter's "Junkyard Planet" points out, the design of shredders for car bodies solved a real environmental problem with real American scrapper ingenuity.  My company sends significant portions of sorted e-scrap (primarily printers) to large scale e-certified shredders* (by e-certified I mean either e-Steward, R2 or RIOS or ISO).

Take the Science News article on the discovery of "plastic rocks" found in the Pacific, dubbed "plastiglomerate".   Plastic waste dumped or washed into the Pacific Ocean is getting incorporated, like seashells, into volcanic dust, forming a new geological material.  Hypothetically,  in geological time, it's possible that ocean litter will eventually be managed through the evolution of digestive microbes.   Citing a comment from Slashdot.org (where I found the parent article):
"This may be an interesting parallell to what happened during the Carboniferous era, when apparently plant matter didn't rot away until the fungi evolved the ability to break down lignin. As a matter of fact, there are a few fungi that are able to attack some kinds of plastic too."- janderson
This reminds me that my complaint with about the devolving tide from reuse needs to cite the slide from highest and most preferable end markets without necessarily reverting to the same "associative" attacks on shredding that have been used against export for manual disassembly and reuse.

Is using CRT cullet as daily cover really an environmental problem?  Possibly - the surface area through which the lead/pb is exposed to the environment is increased by shredding.  Is "daily cover" superior to just landfilling?  No.  It's only cover for a day, then it gets garbage put on top of it tomorrow.   The difference between a CRT thrown directly into a garbage truck and one shredded as cover is slight in geologic time.  Future landfill miners would find one large piece in the middle of the mine (the disposed CRT) and layers of many small, sandy layers.

The moral distinction between the two recyclers is not apparent to the researchers, so long as each recycler got the non-ferrous metal and plastic off.  It's throwing away the resource that's in demand, and must be replaced by mining, which is the "environmental moral hazard".   And it is the villification of one or the other recycler - the African who strips the TV by hand, the Indonesian who rebuilds it into a new TV, or the Polish-UK-USA shredding company that sprinkles it on top of daily garbage - which leads to social injustice, my critique in the blog.

So I'm trying to make a clear distinction between the social injustice and environmental harm.   Anticompetitive behavior, disguised as environmental concern, has roots are in economic advantage - reduced competition from low wage disassembly and secondary reuse markets.  It exploits irrational "fetishism".  The "fetish" in question is that a recycled copper wire needs ten times the social regulation and certification of the same amount of copper exploded from rock, soaked in cyanide, and exposed along with mercury and lead (rocks don't come labelled "copper ore only") into the OK Tedi River basin in Indonesia.

"Second hand" or "previously owned" are dangerous terms which Chinese officials are seeking to fetishize as "waste" in order to protect polluting manufacturers.  When a Chinese resident gets a used display device, less pollution is created than is created either by crushing and remelting the device, or crushing it as daily cover and mining lead/zinc ore to be refined in primary smelters.  It is the mining and production which is creating China's pollution, and China's war on reuse is a prime example of "environmental fetish" using the guilt of western generators, associating it with #povertyporn images, photographs of kids at dumps.

In the big, big picture, waste can be measured scientifically.  The harm from the waste can be measured.  It's all science.   This blog is about the misdiagnoses which cause alarmist articles in The Guardian and crackdowns by Interpol, damaging geeks and tinkerers who are the blessing of emerging markets.

And what about the residue in the landfill?   American comedian George Carlin had a hugely insightful routine about the fetishism around "waste".  Maybe the universe wanted plastic, and we evolved simply to litter the plastic the universe needed.  He was not one to suffer Eco-Pharisees blindly.

The George Carlin "Plastic, Asshole" routine is something else I found via Slashdot... it has been invoked many times in the commenter-and-trolls debates there, and on Reddit, and in other forums.  In conclusion, I'll repost my /. comment on the plastic article and Carlin citation.
Parent link George Carlin (Q:"Why are we here?" A:"Plastic, asshole.") routine was insightful. 
Reporting on environmental problems needs to better distinguish between serious harms like habitat loss and species extinction, resource conservation issues (one generation using everything up - like fresh water - disadvantaging later human generations), and what researchers call "fetishizing". The "fetish" is used when people are made to feel guilty about something (e.g. "waste") and continue to attach guilt and responsibility to the item based not on risk but on past human ownership. This can lead to regulations which disadvantage recycling (secondary copper smelters), secondary markets (e.g. used display devices and cell phones) disproportionately to the risk.
There are some interesting academic papers on environmental fetishes and untended consequences of fixations based on previous human 'ownership' and 'guilt association'. Many environmentalists are scientists and are aware of the 'quasi-religion' of moral risk association, but are afraid to speak openly about it the same as the Renaissance's great thinkers were afraid to publicly pose their doubts about Christianity. The philosophers doubted much about sources of Christian ethics but were concerned about replacing it with anarchy. Scientific environmentalists have similar concerns about exposing "fetish" environmentalism without discrediting actual moral progress on stewardship.

No comments: