Ethical Gravity 4: Moral Moving Targets, Beautiful Gray Markets

Is an "illegal" market, or a "black market", unethical?

It is illegal to sell the Holy Bible in many nations, but who would consider it unethical?  It is important to distinguish ethics from laws passed by authorities to grant - well, more and more authority.

Beautiful, beautiful gray.

So it can be perfectly legal to sell somebody a banned book in one place, but move the same seller, same buyer, and same book to another place, and you have a completely "kosher" transaction. Some people consider one transaction "ethical", and the other "unethical". This is Ethics 101.

But if ethics actually stem from moral integrity, it is courageous to find another legal way to make the transaction.  It doesn't have to be a Bible (though I find that some conservative/authority-directed followers are quicker to check their privileges with the analogy), it could be a cell phone manufactured in a country under a trade war ban, sold in the airport, or presented as a gift to your host during your visit there.

In fact, I gave away a working laptop during a trip to China, when Chinese law said that working equipment was "dumping" (that's "dumping" in the sense of "unfair subsidy" under WTO rules; China argued in 2003 that its electric appliance factories were being unfairly injured by the sale of used electronics from rich countries... "dumping" had nothing to do with the environment).

What brings this to mind?  I'm in Brockton, MA. It's early morning. And Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is sending an inspector to Massachusetts to vet whether our processes meet the standards of the Vermont state contract. We sold our facility in Middlbury, Vermont, last June, and have moved most of the demanufacturing jobs to Brockton.  I managed, with great effort, to do it without laying off any Vermont staff by creating a new division that separates out tested working parts from flat TVs for reuse. 

Some of those parts are backlights, and we have a process for backlights that is extremely economical. The question is whether Vermont will allow those jobs to happen in Vermont, or whether we move the future growth of the company to Brockton.

The ethics of reuse are solid. The greatest environmental cost occurs during manufacturing and extraction, costs inflicted before the device is sold or used. We can't go back and clean up those toxics, restore those extractions.  All we can do is thank the earth for its bounty, and make as much use as we can of each device, extending its life over more years.

Sierra Magazine's interview of David Allaway makes the point clearly in "Zeroing Out Zero Waste"
David Allaway is a senior policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the coauthor of a controversial report that challenges many long-held assumptions about recycling and environmental impacts. (For more, see "Stop Obsessing About Recycling.") 
So without going to deeply into the weeds, Vermont is slowly forcing our company out of state. As a former regulators (8 years + consulting at Massachusetts DEP), I'm generally more able than most to decipher "spaghetti code", when regulations overlap and contradict. But the former federal prosecutor for the state of Vermont told me that an ANR attorney told him that this is personal, and that the intent of ANR's interpretations is to "#$% Ingenthron any way they can".

So, I had to put the beautiful building for sale in 2014, when our contract dispute with ANR spilled into the regulatory department. I had terminated recycling with CLRR and notified public and private entities that if it did not resume shipping furnace ready cullet, that it would be in violation. I did that despite a promised price cut, and despite having laid off half our staff to pay the attorneys.

But it is not easy to sell a building.  I managed to lease out half the space in 2017, and met with ANR to negotiate which jobs for sure they would consider safe and unregulated.  I assumed that the harvest of tested ROHS compliant leadfree circuit boards from plasma, OLED, and LED TVs would be safe.

So that's all that's left in Vermont. But here I am in Brockton, at 7AM, waiting for Vermont to see what Massachusetts is allowing.  They are auditing our Middlebury operations at the exact same moment, forcing me to choose which site I am there to defend...

It's grey outside.

It's early dawn, the sun below the horizon, 6 days out of Daylight Savings Time.  November in Brockton, Massachusetts. No snow, but biting cold. It's not formally "winter". It's not exactly daylight.

Grey can be depressing. But gray is also beautiful. When cumulonimbus clouds ache with the heaviest grey underbelly, pregnant with snow, and the sunlight flashes onto them with a ray of dawn, the gritty city of Brockton is, for a few minutes, beautifully grey.

Gray denies black and white. Gray is the color of mitigation. Guilt or innocence may be divided by a dark grey sea of circumstances and changing factors.  It can be unethical to deny the mitigation of illegality.  It can be more ethical to be illegal, in a finite circumstance. Emmanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill ptarsed the moments of time, and the factors of scale, to define proper judgement.

Environmental Ethics has the same challenge. Rules are Rules, but ethics are not binary.  In the ethics of recycling, I've learned to love the nuances of the gray market.  And so I'm increasingly concerned that the term is increasingly difficult to find in print.

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