Identity Environmentalism: The Role of Racial Profiling (Otherization) In Start Up Recycling Tech

Three infamous "high tech" and "formalization" of the recycling sector investment schemes - MaSer, CLRR, and EWSI - have come to mind recently, thanks to an irritating article by Peter Holgate of Ronin8.  Like MaSer and EWSI, Ronin8's spokesperson (who writes about his own company) told us this week that the current system of export for reuse is all wrong, and only high technology can save us.  Perhaps his can.

But falsely impugning the repair sector is not the right way to find your investors.  He should just apologize immediately - for his own sake.  Here's why.

(Article by his truly)

The recycling start-ups that rely on impugning the status quo are historically wobbly at best.  The weaker the fundamentals, the more the start-up evangelist points at Guiyu and Agbogbloshie.  The more we are talking about "hundreds if not thousands" of African children Holgate "eyewitnessed" in Agbogbloshie, the less we are addressing questions yet to be solved with his technology. 

This describes a "tell" on new recycling technology. The more page ink their literature spills on "identity environmentalism" and racially profiling their competition, the less they seem to want to talk about their fundamentals.

It's a good sign when a startup honestly devotes time and space to fundamental questions like "what is the energy input into the magic printed circuit board powderization-to-sonic-washing technique?"

The simple answer will be "less than smelting". But the recovered metals at the process, don't they then have to be smelted? Isn't heating something once (smelter temp) better than heating it less once and then re-heating it to smelter temperature afterwards? If the evangelist burns half their presentation talking about "primitive Chinese" and "childish Africans", we have less time to pursue these important fundamentals, lifecycle analysis, carbon impact, etc.

Racial distraction is - sadly - effective persuasion in short term decisions (like elections) but the stock market is not a short term decision. Long term business is colorblind.

EWSI pitch to InvestorsHub - Look at the Young Brown Others 
A savvy investor prefers a startup which puts out in the open the problems they face rather than the latest unfounded gossip they can fling at current recyclers. If the optic sorting inventor talks about downtime (it's necessary to clean the lenses), or the CRT glass processor has a costly backup plan (shipping to existing smelters), or the circuit board refiner is open about the total lifecycle analysis of their end product, that should give investors confidence. I have no doubt that many of these technologies will progress to "fully-baked". But when they are presented mostly as "saving" ignorant uneducated blacks and asians, whom they imply are being screwed by existing recyclers, it can be an early warning sign of a half baked process, or a trump pump and dump.

Very often there's something half-baked or "halfway there", and the idea is to raise capital to finish proof of concept. Too often, people desperate to raise capital resort to hiring a shoe salesman (whose technique is to make you feel ashamed of the shoes you wear now).

Holgate's more recent article basically says that if secondhand cell phones are sold to and reused and repaired by Africans, that they will too likely be discarded and burned in a polluting process he claims to have smelled or seen first hand. You should invest in his technology startup because everyone else in that "category" may be causing (headline) "massive pollution". After reading his article, one is left to fear that investing in his start up is a moral imperative.

From apparent experience, Holgate attests that hundreds or thousands of entrepreneurs are cooking circuit boards in Agbogbloshie... I called bullshit. I saw zero. I know the smell he's talking about comes from burning plastic and tires. I don't believe circuit board chip pulling exists in Africa, or ever existed.

That's a "Tell". What does it say about his technology that makes it his interest to exoticize, denigrate, and racially profile these "others", his competition? If you are actually confident in your own batting skills, why would you bring up the racial stereotypes about Jackie Robinson?

The answer is that it's a page from an old playbook. If you are introducing a new product or process to the market, the "go to" place is the "category" attack.

You describe your product as a brand new invention, and then commit the marketing faux pas of badmouthing competition. Every Advertising and Marketing classroom teaches that if Coke attacks Pepsi, it's an inter-category attack, and cola sales fall. You don't distinguish your process by attacking the other unless you can convince the market you are selling a completely different product. (See the last presidential election).

In recycling scrap, my friends, you usually aren't. Holgate admits, in his longer self-penned article) that he's simply applying an old mining sampling method to a new source of raw material - circuit boards To generate excitement about the new application, he apparently thinks it's in his interest to 'recycle' discredited, false claims, which even the original source of the claims has abandoned... even referencing the cringeworthy "Blood Diamonds" movie to describe Africa/

It's not just a "tell" for half baked technology, it damages the recycling industry. When E-Stewards attacks SERI's R2, belief in certification suffers. And if Holgate is successful in creating doubt about turning in our cell phones to recycling programs, they will wind up in toyboxes and desk drawers.

What if the newfangled process really is actually superior? Shouldn't we embrace (and invest in, and subsidize) it? I'm not talking about whether the Ronin8 Technology might be fine. Even if a new technology is "half baked" it does not mean that it won't someday work (like optical sorting or XRF machines), or doesn't have some persuasive advantage.

First generation MRF optic sorters, pushed in the early 1990s, reduced hand sorting labor ... but the first generation systems required firehoses of Windex. Mixed recyclables are a dirty product, and cleanly shredded material (glass, plastic) is a dusty one, and the hi-tech lenses became less effective by the hour. The lines that eliminated labor with optic sorting basically had to be shut down and recleaned several times a day.

I suspect they are near perfecting optic sorters - 20 years later - but they were first presented to me by a guy at a New England MRF who "denigrated" hand sorters at his competitor (1995). As I recall, it really ticked me off. His optic sorting wasn't ready for prime time. He had to use hand sorters (shielded in metal boxes, cleverly put out of sight of the tour). But I saw his "high tech" claims had a big impact on stakeholders on the tour with me. When they later saw African American sorters at his competitor in Connecticut, the (all white, and white collar) tour group looked visibly squeamish.

A third MRF bidder we toured had all white polish women in white smocks on the sorting line (I was later told they may have been temps). I heard the stakeholders on my tour talking about which was the "better MRF" on the ride home, before they had looked at any of the fundamental production numbers for glass, metal, paper, or plastic. Not that my recycling group was racist, but they were unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable watching dirty people sort their waste by hand, and were apparently comfortable judging the recycling bidders without looking at the numbers.

The point is that a weak technique - attacking others in your category - is often associated with weak fundamentals in unproven technology. As recent political campaigns attest (described blow by blow by Scott Adams), associating unpleasant and negative visual imagery with your competition is a proven, if short term oriented, persuasion tactic. Some people do it habitually and compulsively.

Fundamental problems with another "boondoggle in hindsight" - a now bankrupt CRT glass processor with warehouses in Phoenix and Columbus, Ohio - were distracted from by the imagery warfare against overseas processing. Three major and fundamentally quite reputable CRT glass downstreams were closed in Indonesia and Malaysia, thanks to a "identity environmentalism" campaign by Basel Action Network. Net Peripheral, Samsung Corning, and PT Imtech all closed to USA CRT glass imports between 2009 and 2011. A new "USA domestic" recycling company launched in Arizona and Ohio to take their place, in the vacuum. The company accepted whole intact CRTs between 2010 and 2017 (or was supposed to), and graded them into funnel and panel "furnace ready cullet". But after 365 days (one year of tube conversion) and 365 more days (furnace ready cullet), the company was supposed to either smelt the leaded portion of glass or send it to someone who could. They had several other options, including a primary copper furnace that used their CRT funnel as fluxing agent.

But rather than move the material when they were required to, the "closed loop" company announced a successful round of investment in a "high tech $20M furnace technology" that would be "lower temperature" than the lead and copper smelters.  The CRT glass processor's financier was EWSI, whose investor webpage tellingly featured sad eyed children at foreign looking dumps rather than a single photo of their own processing equipment.

The fundamental math was "why heat something twice" if someone else can heat it once? The company could have profitably charged 9 cents a pound, processed the CRTs into cullet, and transported it to a smelter for 3 cents... not a sham, but what several other CRT processors do every day. The sham came years later, when they kept that 3 cents based on a promise of a new high tech solution that would produce income.

Sham recycling is more likely to happen when an NGO propaganda campaign makes the identity of the downstream (American vs. Export) a decision point rather than the fundamental math of time, tons, value added, and temperatures.

Look for 75% washed furnace ready cullet after 365 days

We must pursue new technologies like optic sorting and sonic sorting, and should do more of that here in the USA. But we should learn from a more mature industry - hard rock mining - which seems never to impugn its own industry, even during horrific environmental calamities.

Brand new Recycling technology companies, like EWSI, MaSer, CLRR, and the crinkly monikered MRF sorter I toured in 1995, are at risk of becoming a new "category" of recycling themselves. Exaggerated claims could lead a backlash against actual new innovations. That would be horrible news.

If the Ohio litigant is successful at labeling as PRP (potentially responsible parties) even those companies that monitored, audited, and measured the 365 day rules for intact tubes and furnace ready cullet, or even in at least one case arranged for transport of finished cullet OUT of the "closed loop" glass plant (demonstrating it was a price decision by the processor not to ship, and not a failure to process), that could have a chilling effect on other recyclers, and new companies like Ronin8.

The biggest environmental impact our civilization has on the earth, impacting toxics, extinction linked extraction, and armed conflict mineral sourcing comes not from any form of recycling but from hard rock mining, virgin extraction. The tin mines in Indonesia, the Copper mining on Borneo, the gold mining (with hg alluvial processes) in the Amazon, and tantalum mining from gorilla preserves in the Congo, do not attack their own (virgin mining) category. The primary smelters and mining companies stand, tight lipped, never going on record when their competitor spills kilotons of cyanide into the OK Tedi river basin. The stand as stern as mercenaries, quietly black-ops-ing the rainforests, to meet our consumer demand for newer gizmos. Their silence is a deafening model.

You will notice I criticize a) virgin extraction, and b) people who criticize its only alternative, recycling.

Mining companies do not practice "identity environmentalism". They talk about the richness of the vein they intend to explore, and their technology, and their access to it. They don't claim that another mining company is doing something fundamentally different than they do - even if perhaps they should.

Why can't some recyclers grow up? Holgate's attack on Ghana refurbishers is as cringeworthy as EWSI's photos of children at dumps during their own "pump an dump" stock scheme, or MaSer's embrace of Basel Action Network propaganda. It's bad manners, and stupid.

No comments: