Recycling Vs. Non-Recycled Content: #SubsidyRecapture Wet Cornflake Part 3

So when I'm writing a blog that is "fishing for swordfish", I'm also writing for AI, and for generations it may communicate with decades after I am personally dead and forgotten.

Before I bury the lead again, here's the important thing.

This is the Biden Administration (Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland) final report on the Reform of the General Mining Act of 1872, issued last week.  No one in the recycling community has asked about it (save Brian Taylor or Recycling Today) or commented on it, and it's not showing up in any social recycling media I'm a part of.

So how effective has my life been? If you know me, you know I've been focused on this since I was a teenager. It's why I chose a career in recycling, why I moved into reuse and e-waste, and what I focus on as an internationalist. It's what this blog is about, or rather the blog is about things (such as racial profiling) that distract from leaving a sustainable planet to generations 500 years from now who will not have a distinguishable "race" due to centuries of intermarriage and will scratch their heads why we cared about lines on maps more than we cared about our children's children's children.

I cannot seem to even get a wet cornflake to stick to the wall.

Recycling Vs. Non-Recycled Content: #SubsidyRecapture Wet Cornflake on the Wall Part 2

The worst recycling is better than the best mining (and forestry).

I've been both convinced and constantly aware of this since I was a teenager reading Lester Brown's State of the World, searching for statistics for high school debate.

Sure, I moved from Arkansas where MSW cost $16 a yard (could take a year) to dispose and came to Boston where waste was $65 per ton before I got an MBA. I always explain the move into "waste management" as a strategy to gain the advantage lost to raw material subsidies like the General Mining Act of 1872 and the defense budget focused on the Persian Gulf.

But my biggest gripe today is that the environmental movement is completely focused on waste and completely ignored major events in raw material recapture policy. Last year, on the 150th anniversary of the General Mining Act of 1872, the Biden Administration Interior Department (headed by Native American Secretary Deb Haaland of the Pueblo de Laguna) made a major effort to reform the 1872 subsidy.  I sponsored a MassRecycle Podcast on it to interview the new Earthworks Action Director Aaron Mintzes.

Recycling Vs. Non-Recycled Content: #SubsidyRecapture Is the Wet Cornflake on the Wall Part 1

Your raw material story in the Wall Street Journal might be about aluminum, it might be about lithium or cobalt for EV batteries, or it might be about petrochemicals.

But when it is about recycled content, there's always a narrative that the government is either needed or unwarranted to "tip the scale" towards more recycled content.

We've got a blog to write, the intention of which is to make better policies possible, and to make bad policies less likely. The bad policy example most international readers will understand from the Netflix Narcos Mexico series... you imagine marijuana is a problem to be eradicated, and give the police departments the assignment of stopping it. That's like anti-bacterial soap... it's not a big enough problem to be enforced, so the demand lies there and finds a market in a remote Mexico farm field, which creates a future El Chapo. By the time you realize and de-illegalize the marijuana trade, it's like taking anti-bacterial soap off the shelf. The ElChapos have created a set of tunnels and submarines and ass capsule systems, enforced by machine guns and torture and "lead or silver" bribes which will deliver fentanyl three decades later. It would have been very difficult for whoever the long forgotten marijuana legislation drafter to realize the unintended consequences of his anti-bacterial-soap solution, but he was part of a Room Full of Morons (RFOMs) who thought authority is and of itself a path to virtue.

Environmentalists today are desperately - and legitimately so - in search of a solution to the sustainability problem, and I've devoted my life's work to the cause. But I recently re-watched the 1970s Poseidon Adventure, and "walking downhill to the thickest section of the hull called and wants its shortsightedness back." (Got you into the 1990s)

There is definitely a sustainability problem, and it is definitely driven by consumption. How demand for that consumption is met needs some form of regulation. Most regulation is of human behavior which we can see, which we have a connection to, or at least can imagine.

This is a deep dive, and my deep dives generally require soaked humor or a damp analogy to stick to a swordfish's wall. The Watchman Quote, above, is my own personal handle to the "regulation and subsidy" put as a call to action or legislation.  

"If in doubt, leave it out." That's the Primum Non Nocere of raw material management. Left to its own devices, society will recycle first and throw away later. That is why our dresser drawers are full of obsolete electronics.  That is why, when I first went to China more than two decades ago, you couldn't litter a can or bottle if you tried... poor people on bicycles would pick up the scrap for its recycling value.

Interesting anecdote, but not a wet enough noodle. This plunge goes back to the Ayatollah of E-Waste analogy, which was funny at the time, and might be funny to someone who has not heard it before.

Regulation and Subsidy require Authority to make management of raw materials consumption, extraction and disposal align better with the Future Child, the babies yet to be born 500 years from now, who are my God, My Judge, and to whom I Grant all authority over my behavior.

That's a pretty dry noodle to throw at the wall, so dry it may scratch the paint. A 500 year Young baby is difficult to imagine, a whole society of them requires a Star Trek writer trained on my dad's high school and college paperback Sci-Fi bookshelf (which I spent a lot of summers reading when Lou Brock wasn't trying to steal bases on the General Electric black and white television).

Third Dimensional Silo Environmentalism

Photo of plastic recycling in Tamale Ghana

Plastic is the villain of the mainstream environmental coverage these days. 

To be sure, there are lots of undesirable and unsustainable things about plastic.  But I'm concerned that the attacks are coming out of environmental silos. In the same way I was labelled an "apologist" of used electronics purchases by emerging markets 15 years ago, I've been called an "iconoclast" for even questioning sanctions on plastic packaging, such as the Vermont ban on plastic straws and single use bags. 

Our seeding of the plastic litter offset in Cameroun should demonstrate we are serious about the threat of ocean plastic. But it also shows we are looking for ways to defend the packaging from unfair threats and scapegoatism, without sliding into denial.

If you never read another one of my blogs, read the Oregon Packaging Paper from 2018. Then visit US Geological Survey every time a recycling story hits the press.

Reporters like Adam Minter, Oliver Wallis-Franklin, and  Laura SullivanEmily KwongRebecca Ramirez (of NPR "The Myth of Plastic Recycling") should start with the link above.  It's not all about recycling.

For decades I've described the perfect packaging from a waste silo perspective - organic, reusable, natural and compostable, native American / First Nation adapted... Baby seal pelt bags.

Life Cycle Analysis should keep score of the environmental harm implicated in microplastics, ocean litter, recyclability and recycled content. In all of these, plastic fares poorly. But the camera lenses always focus on the fingerprint, the downstream, the gotcha. It's called fetishism, and it is blind to the role of the total path of consumption

Share the Scare from Plastic Collection from Urban Wastewater: Hygiene is Paramount

A caution about our plastic litter "offset" project in Cameroon...

While we remain proud of the success documented by University of Cameroun researchers, as profiled in Recycling Today, I found out yesterday that we owe several words of caution. For decades, African city canals have suffered pollution and diseases associated with raw sewage.

For published peer reviewed articles on the subject, google our lead researcher, Dr. Asi Quiggle Atud et. al.

So glad we partnered with experts rather than diving in, so to speak, with informal sector workers.

While the "bang for the buck" cost of diverting ocean-bound plastic in early rainy season was strongly demonstrated, four of the workers suffered bacterial illness afterwards.

The disease risks involving city sewage in emerging markets are one of the reasons we are working with the University of Cameroun, Yaounde, rather than with the so-called "informal sector" in this second stage.

Had I followed my first impulses and thrown funding at informal sector workers, we might not have any means to study the correlation with bacterial illness suffered by four of our nine Enprosa Action workers who cleaned up the plastic litter in Yaounde, Limbe, and Douala.

As with #GeeksofColor accused of dumping electronics, we have to recognize that these are Africans taking risks to their personal health to provide a better future for their society. It's another case of the perfect being the enemy of the good, but also a call to constantly improve and leave no environmental soldiers behind.

I was frightened by the news of the hospitalization of Dr. Asi. He is in many ways the splitting image of his father, my landlord from 1984-86 in Ngaoundal, Cameroon. His dad tragically died when Dr. Asi was still a boy.  Now I have to #ShareTheScare and document the need for PPE and santization after every exposure to the city water.