The "Good Point" blog is about "Ethical Electronics Exports, Fair Trade Recycling". Composed by Robin Ingenthron, founder of Good Point Recycling and the WR3A non-profit, the site discloses the company's position, policies, as well as the personal opinions of its founder. It has become an important source of inside information on the "e-waste recycling" business for academic research into recycling policy. The website invites dialogue, promotes discourse, and twitters recycling policy forward, using humor, music, and mind-bending analogies to convey important issues.
The recycling industry has been accused of misleading consumers. Ingenthron hopes that a "warts and all" blog which fully discloses the company's opinions and practices will temper cyncicism about green businesses. Frequently cited by the recycling trade press, the Vermont blog has been labeled "bracingly honest", a "creative approach", and a "refreshing" break from recycling dogmas.
As a passionate defender of "fair trade", Ingenthron writes, "Our company's first motto was that we are who we say we are, and we do what we say we do, which is kind of a sad commentary on the e-waste recycling industry." He hopes that in the future, people can once again take that for granted.
Meanwhile, a growing number of academics, entrepreneurs, and government recycling coordinators use the SEARCH function on the blog to mine answers to specific questions. They find external links to film of operations overseas, data on the company's Mexico operations, export policies, its domestic recycling capacity, hard drive data management, and more. The Good Point blog offers insights into positions staked out by EPA, ISRI, NRC, NGOs, and International institutions on mining, disposal, and recycling alternatives. Perhaps our most important followers are overseas.
Before creating American Retroworks Inc. and WR3A.org, Robin Ingenthron was Recycling Director at Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. His division implemented the first CRT "waste ban" regulations, the first market research on CRT reuse and recycling, and the first state RFP contract for municipal "ewaste" recycling (a state contract is enforceable by the Attorney General, giving it more teeth than a "Pledge" or "Certification").
Ingenthron has a BA in International Relations from Carleton College, and spent a semester at the UN in Geneva. With the US Peace Corps, he trained in Congo and taught school in Cameroon. He was hired by Peace Corps to stay in country as a "cross cultural trainer" before returning for an MBA Peace Corps scholarship at Boston University. He worked as a consultant for operating systems software industry, and as a co-director of two recycling non-profit organizations.
Good Point Recycling is a member of Vermont Businesses For Social Responsibility, Association of Vermont Recyclers, and the World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association [WR3A] an organization which establishes "Fair Trade" standards for surplus electronics exports, ensuring no "toxics along for the ride".
Blog 1,430. Fresh on the media blitz of author/journalist Adam Minter's second blockbuster - Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale - there are a lot of questions about how to deal with the growing mountains of secondhand stuff. First, a shameless self-promoting plug. Based on my experiences - Africa Peace Corps volunteer 1980s, grandson of Ozark hillbilly families with no electricity or running water, tales-of-the-Depression-dinnertable-correspondent, used electronics recycling company entrepreneur, and former state Recycling division director (MA DEP) - I've had a chance to answer more than a few dozen of Adam Minter's questions over the years.
In fact (shameless plug), we met in ten years ago next month. December 1, 2010, kicked off a period of "dueling banjo blogs", when Adam was writing about secondhand and scrap markets from Shanghai (ShanghaiScrap.com). Here, I was writing blog about my heroes in emerging markets, telling positive stories about differently abled poor people ingloriously described as "primitives" by white savior barbies who insist all used electronics be shredded rather than traded, and who described the purchases of secondhand stuff "illegal dumping".
Yesterday, before going on air (NPR On Point), Adam sent me an email reminding me of that inspiration. We met when he had just given a shoutout to the Best Recycling Blog in the World. Shameless plug, but I'll take it again, because the blogs he was attracted to were about racial profiling of secondhand reuse markets as "primitives". I'm proud that he has carried that message forward in Secondhand, and has joined the fight for Right To Repair, and against shaming secondhand trade with poverty porn.
SEVEN SECRETS OF SECONDHAND PROFESSIONALS A Guide Through Adam Minter's Dilemmas
Triage. At Good Point Recycling in Middlebury, Vermont and Brockton, Massachusetts, our 40 staff have to manage up to 500,000 pounds per month of used electronics. A few of those devices are recently "electively upgraded", with a good resale value. But alas, like by Minter's other Secondhand firehose drinkers (Goodwill, Salvation Army, Japan's BookOff) we find that the vast majority has been in a closet for way too long. We send very little (5%) to the dump - mostly Ikea-grade wood from older electronics. But most of the items are going to be de-manufactured or shredded into little pieces of copper, aluminum, glass, black plastic, white plastic, circuit boards, etc.
There is a lot of value, a lot of waste, and a lot of emotional baggage. Fortunately, some things are easier than we make them out to be.
So there's a training program for the staff, based on the concept of "TRIAGE". There's a first sort, to get stuff to the department where there's an expert in that stuff (usually, de-manufacturing). Then there's a "second sort", which may mean testing the electronics to see if they work, looking up demand for them online, or removing 36 screws with 8 different screwheads using power drills. Sometimes, with things like "vintage" or antique electronics, or items that might have a hazard like lithium battery, there's a third sort, or reason to ship the third sort equipment to a different electronic specialist.
And also this hits home... All of us eventually are called to sort and settle our loved ones possessions. Last month I flew to my 77 year old mother's home in very rural Marshal Arkansas. 29 years before my dad passed away in 2017, he had moved his own mothers STUFF from his super revered grandfather's home in Taney County Missouri. I wish I'd had 40 employee company when he did that, a lot of valuable antiques were lost, and dad tried to save a lot of things that had only sentimental value.
Dad moved a few tons of those things to an abandoned house on their new property in Marshall, down the hill from mom's. As giant oak trees are wont to do in Arkansas wind storms, one had sliced the abandoned house practically in half, and by the time I got there several rains (and a couple of meth-heads) had been through the place (one methhead kindly forgot all the silverware in a cottage cheese bucket near the door, probably set it down and couldn't find it again). Anyway, I came down as a professional to "TRIAGE" the damage, and cherry pick the 20% of non- ruined stuff worth saving.
The thing I'm most grateful for finding in the destroyed home was a wood carving by my grandfather, Clarence Fisher of Ridgedale, Missouri. He taught me early on about quality, repair, and the good-enough market. He was probably born to the poorest hillbilly family in the county (his father did not read or write, signed his name with an "x"). A self-taught carpenter and subsistence farmer, he left a deep imprint on me. Adam Minter had a similar relationship with his own grandfather.
The carving I salvaged from the house is the lower one (the top carving Pa gave us as a gift, it was his last carving). He told me he was worried he might not be able to do one for everyone in the family. But later it turned out he had an idea, to make a wood carving template, so he could "mass produce" them, or some other carpenter could. That lower one I found on the floor of his daughter (my mom in Arkansas) in the house the tree destroyed.
Adam is going to get a lot more coverage this month - C-SPAN, NPR Marketplace, and Fresh Air. And check the reviews so far in Nature, Publishers Weekly, Waste Dive, Recycling International, and NPR to name a few. It's a great read, and if you want to hear some secret advice on the dilemmas he addresses, directly from a Reuse Pro, read on.
The good news is that after training the rolling turnover 40 employees for 18 years (yay, we celebrate 19 years of Good Point Recycling next Earth Day, plug plug plug!), I know a few shortcuts. Here they are.
1. THE 80/20 RULE
Also called the PARETO PRINCIPLE, The Eighty-Twenty rule applies to most businesses and endeavors in life. It's the force behind Triage. It applies to practically everything.
- 80% of medical costs are spent on 20% of patients. - 80% of liquor is sold to 20% of imbibers - 80% of revenue comes from 20% of clients - 80% of the value is in 20% of Secondhand Goods
It's not perfect, but clear your mind of GUILT about the 80% of stuff you are going to wind up recycling or throwing away. It's important psychologically to adapt a goal of 20% recovery when you tackle a cleanout.
Take Adam's excellent story about SpeedQueen Washers. If you own a laundrymat, you know not to buy anything but the sturdiest (American made) clotheswasher there is. We train our staff to know where the cherries are, which are the "SpeedQueens" of computer keyboards, etc. You have to "step over the bodies" of other things that are unlikely to be the top 20% of the stuff.
Sometimes there's something so old or so nostalgic you hate to toss it, but it's just too big or too damaged to ever find a home. My dad had saved his father's law library in the little brick house. When a tree goes through a roof, and books get wet, they get moldy. Mold is terminal. If you even TRY to donate a wet book, you will probably damage all of the other books the mold will spread to. Same is true for clothing, the top three rules at Goodwill Industries are "Dry, Dry, and Dry".
Adam writes a great story about Japan's BookOff company, which is the paramount expert on saving the 20% of books worth saving.
But good news - you don't have to DESCRIBE the lost books to your great grandchildren. You can PHOTOGRAPH THEM. I take pictures of old stuff I can't keep, and I actually really enjoy stumbling across those photos later. Here's a shot of the law library. When it comes to old photos, I obsessively digitize every one if I know there's family history.
I've taken pictures of all of my grandfathers wood carvings. I have no idea whether my kids, or grandkids, will value the carvings as much as I do.
3. LOOK UP CLOSED SALES
I have a whole bunch of people whose job it is to look up objects they can't recognize. In the vintage electronics game, the ubiquitous junk - like Sony CRT Televisions - has no value because there are so many of them (I set a tiny fraction aside, when something common is later rare, it becomes a collector's item). But if there's something electronic you've never seen before, it's either A) older than you - a potential collectible, or B) engineered for a very particular use - like an X-ray or oscilloscope - and therefore costly and worth it to someone for parts or repair.
Go to Ebay and use "Advanced Search".
And here are 3 antique Missouri Law Books, like the ones ruined at my parents abandoned guest house. Sold for $14.98. But these three were dry... the ones I had to throw away were not worth $5 each. Best thing, in retrospect, would have been for my dad to sell them on ebay 3 at a time 20 years ago.... See #4
4. IF SOMEONE WANTS IT, SELL IT
This is the opposite of #5, below, but part of the balance. You defer making a purchase because you DESIRE the elective upgrade, UNLESS you have a ready buyer for your old secondhand one.
People who say we should keep using the same cell phone for 10 years rather than upgrade it after 3 years are forgetting about the 3 billion people who cannot afford a brand new cell phone. If Africans had not been allowed to buy old cell phones 15 years ago, no one would have build the tens of thousands of cell phone towers that now bring Whatsapp across the continent. If in the 1920s, no one in St. Louis was willing to sell my great grand uncle Charlie Fisher a used car, Taney County would not have developed. Rather than feeling guilty for being rich, sometimes the right thing to do is sell or donate something. A used CRT television sold to Nigeria or Ghana in 2000 probably got 15 more years of use (Africans are excellent at repairing and maintaining electronics - for now).
Far too often the guilt associated with buying something new leads to unintended consequences - like "saving the old phone in a desk drawer for later" because you feel bad. If you know someone wants and will use your secondhand thing, go ahead and buy a new one.
Adam Minter spent a LOT of time in Ghana with us, to understand how things people buy, and spend thousands of dollars to ship across the ocean, are used, reused, and repaired for decades. Even the things Africans eventually discard in their own cities, at dumps like Agbogbloshie, can wind up getting salvaged by THIRDHAND recyclers, like Oluu Orga (below). I taped Olu's story, how he started off as a scrapper in Agbogbloshie but built a third-hand business sending "rich Accra stuff" to his poorer northern Ghana cousins. Adam has an important interview with Oluu in Secondhand.
Twelve years ago, I filmed a sale of computers my company sold for reuse to Senegal. No doubt, a number of the ones shown in this video are being discarded today, perhaps at a dump like Agbogbloshie. In the On Point interview, Megna and Adam did a little too much soul searching for even those eventual discarded computers, IMHO. Most of what is going on is hand disassembly, removing of screws, and separating computers the same as we do. It's black people doing it ("Get over it"). By far, most of the burning is automobile wire and tires, and the whole guilt association with selling to Africans has led to really bad consequences. We are lucky that Adam really spent time on this, and includes interviews on the case of Joseph "Hurricane" Benson in his closing chapter.
Don't boycott Geeks of Color. Seriously. And don't arrest Joe "Hurricane" Benson anymore. Seriously, the White Saviors vs African Tinkerers crusade has gone on far too long.
5. DEFER NEW PURCHASES
Delayed gratification (the "marshmallow test") is one of the healthiest psychological states we can achieve. For more than a year, I've been looking at new office chairs. Mine is more than 15 years old, and my back is hurting. But I know it is too beat to be donated (photo).
I bought the ergonomic pillow instead 2 years ago. Then I bought another one. I am sure at some point I will indeed buy a new office chair. But if I die unexpectedly, my kids won't be confused or upset about sending this one to the dump.
(Second chair photo) God forbid they do what I did, to please my father. His grandfather's (newspaper owner and Missouri House of Representatives majority leader William E. Freeland) desk chair is broken in two, in the basement of my house. I took it when my dad was cleaning out his mothers, because it made him happy to think I'd be sitting in it.
I believe that a certain amount of stinginess, depression-era-make-do, is good for your kids. I like to cook on my great grandfather's cast iron skillet, and it's depressing how fast the cheap non-stick Walmart skillets lose their functionality. Especially if you are raising children, giving them the sense that you can be proud to use something old is a gift to them. Millions of dollars of new equipment manufacturer advertising is going to be spent to make them ashamed to drive an older model car, but if they can start to feel pride for reusing a lunch box, that can save them a fortune in the future.
My mom used to give us kids cans of spray paint (psychedelic multicolor) to update our lunchboxes and old bikes. Although my wife and I could afford not to for our own three kids, we passed the tradition along out of principle. I let our youngest son spraypaint our plastic lawn chairs in psychedelic camouflage style when he was 8.
6. BURY IT
It's a long shot, but if you plastic bag something and take it personally to a dump (professional lined landfill, not an incinerator or unlined leaky dump) there's actually a decent probability that the landfill is going to be "mined" in the future. I've considered investing in a ultra large (mattress size) shrink-wrap machine to put my parents stuff in after I photograph it. Then I'd take the bag to the landfill and give it a burial, create a digital album, and tell my grandkids that this "stuff" is buried in Coventry Vermont landfill, if they ever want to go find it. You could probably even market landfill "legacy cells", and market special spots as cemeteries of Stuff. According to US Geological Survey (USGS.gov), it is fairly certain that all of our landfills will be mined again in the next century or two, as regulation of polluting copper, gold, aluminum bauxite, etc. becomes too expensive.
WAIT I'M NOT READY FOR PRESS!
PLEASE SEND IN ONE MORE SECONDHAND-THIRDHAND IDEAS! IF YOU HAVE FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE IN RE-USE, I'D BE GRATEFUL IF YOU PASS IT ALONG.
To be continued?
Artist: Clarence Fisher
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
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.
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.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
↑ Greed, Fear, and Nurture. We care about what improves us, what threatens us, and to the extent our children or herd is threatened, we care about the future. Put a deposit on a bottle to harness "greed", put a fine on disposal to harness "fear", but most of us in the environmental community care about the planet the way we care about babies. If it's rooted in (or absent from) our brain, then the psychological explanation may be that species who care about the young - or future generations yet to be born - thrive while those that do no, suffer.
Some person in the past cared about a baby who became my great-great-great-great-great grandparent. And I care about great-great-great-grandchildren yet to be born.
How does this evolutionary history of our species' brain development predict the waste-centric or fetishism of waste policy? (See 2013 paper by Graham Pickren et. al. for waste fetishism reference)
While "caring" is excellent, and may provide the best hope to preserve our planet from the impending mass extinction event, we men and women have finite intelligence. We are confused in nature by things like camouflage, false positives. Objects in our convex resolution rear view mirror are definitely closer than they appear.
Everything in my business life is about postponing extinction. I am motivated by nurture of future generations, yet to be born, who will decry my generation's failure to save elephants and tigers.
(I loved dinosaurs as a small child, and so understood extinction. My mother showed me "animal cards" of other yaks, wildebeests, gorillas, etc, and some of them were becoming extinct. That was most probably what seeded my life and career).
Many of us chose to try to live a life that would hopefully make a positive net impact on the planet (offsetting more harm than we create), and short of that, be considered an honorable attempt from theoretical human descendants with postulated knowledge of my behavior. I made that decision as a teenager, still influenced heavily by teenage guy stuff, and in retrospect can see how positive social opinion - even among "woke" peers - is often a conflict of interest with truth. But 500 or 5,000 years in the future, I assumed (using postulated experience and hindsight for "Higher Power") any difference I made could be judged as I myself, in my best self heart of hearts, would judge it.
My personal western civilization consumption was incompatible with avoiding the extinction apocalypse (is it too off-putting to call it a habitat holocaust? Probably not a frictionless analogy). Offset would be easier to achieve while in society, leveraging other behaviors (by making good choices -like recycling - easier and convenient), but I was probably already aware of the "moral licensing" (excusing greater consumption, 'spending my own offsets', and failing to set a less impactful example). But we must also have a healthy suspicion of "good examples" as they are held up in pop media... like boycotting electronics technicians in Africa (or putting Joe Benson in a UK prison, an injustice 100% on the hands and conscience of the environmental movement).
Offsetting may not be enough, but it buys time. And time is leaking like a firehose.
So acting out of care and nurture is a "good instinct". But prescribing the steps to achieve the goals of that caring requires pure scientific method, and has nothing to do with popular opinion. Babies were dying in Africa because diarrhea was seen as fluid loss and contaminated water was being fed to the babies as a waste-centric-response "treatment" or solution. (Longtime pals get the reference to Infant Formula action network, where I first took on changing society in an organized way, via a Nestle candy boycott).
One person may express their nurture by paying for a family burial plot at a church that promises an "in" with heaven. Price is cheap for a guarantee of eternal salvation. When the "interests" of greed and fear are projected externally, we tend to prioritize things we know about, which are things we see, which become within our "Ethical Orbit".
The ethics of environmentalism need to be scientifically based. Gathering our personal wokeness and calling out older people is not going to cut it. Throw yourself into a solution, like I did.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
On November 14 (America Recycles Day Eve), the University of Vermont Recycling staff will greet best-selling author Adam Minter at the Davis Center (590 Main Street) as he speaks about his new book SECONDHAND, Travels in the Global Garage Sale.
Minter chose Vermont as a launching point (to the surprise of his publisher, Bloomsbury Press) to thank Vermont for hosting him at the Fair Trade Recycling Summit (2013), where he met several of the fascinating people he profiles in Secondhand.
According to UVM Recycling Director Corey Berman, and Middlebury recycler Robin Ingenthron, Vermont's emphasis on reuse is something that Adam saw, firsthand, put to good use in Secondhand.
"Downsizing. Decluttering. A parent's death. Sooner or later, all of us are faced with things we no longer need or want. But when we drop our old clothes and other items off at a local donation center, where do they go? Sometimes across the country—or even halfway across the world—to people and places who find value in what we leave behind."
Secondhand takes readers on a globetrotting journey to see how items saved or discarded, donated or sold by Americans make their way into reuse, repair or remanufacturing processes. In Vermont's example, he followed a load of computers from Middlebury to Ghana, and interviewed the "tech sector" importers who provided Ghana's information grid with affordable electronics. Minter also treks to Japan, India, Mexico, and other "reuse trade routes", and winds up with important questions about how important our stuff really is, and who should write the rules about it.
Date: Thursday, November 14, 2019 Location: Sugar Maple Ballroom – Davis Center (Address is 590 Main St.) Time: 2:30 pm – 4:30 pm.
Directors Juan Solera and Albert Julia's English-language documentary, Blame Game, can now be viewed on Amazon Prime. The documentary was aired at the 2019 E-Scrap Conference in Orlando, Florida, and Good Point Recycling of Vermont sponsored the travel costs for the directors (from Spain), on behalf of Fair Trade Recycling.
The Event was well attended by E-Scrap standards. Jim Puckett of Basel Action Network opened questions from the audience, stating it was the best film he'd seen on the subject. He then went on --- very curiously -- to ask why the filmmakers had not given more air time to proponents of the Basel Convention?
The curious insinuation was that he had not been interviewed. But he had been. The directors had honored his own demand not to include his interview, perhaps because he had made a false claim on camera.
Directors Solera and Julia seemed dumbfounded, and staggered to answer. The documentary had iincluded interviews with Basel Convention expert Katharina Kummer Peiry, UK prosecutors, and Greenpeace. But they were dumbfounded by Jim's question, because they had actually interviewed Jim Puckett himself for about 10 minutes. When the last question to Puckett was whether he knew who Joe Benson was, Puckett became furious, walked off camera, and shouted that he would not sign a release form and would sue if they used his interview. Juan Solera said Jim then called him in Spain and berated him for including two questions I'd suggested, one on Benson, and one of his claims about the percentage of exports that are reused vs. discarded.
I asked Jim a few hours later why he had claimed not to know who Joseph Benson was. Jim said that he considered Benson "collateral damage". As readers know, Benson was the first person to be framed with a hidden GPS tracker, and sentenced to 60 months in prison, due to BAN's claims that it was "common knowledge" that 80% of the TVs he exported would be "quite quickly" dumped and burned.
No Fair Trade Recycling member had sold to Benson, but we could see plainly that the TVs in the BBC Panorama video were all the same size and brand, a tell-tale sign of a hotel takeout. Benson had been buying TVs when hotels upgrade them. The only physical evidence that TVs he exported were "illegal" or "waste" was the BBC reporter Raphael Rowe's claim to have "snipped a cable" in the TV with the GPS tracker, carefully reassembling the TV. Like poisoning and apple, Rowe claimed this was evidence that the TVs Benson exported were going to be scrapped....
But, Rowe and his camera crew had to follow the GPS tracker to Ghana and then PURCHASE it for 40 British pounds sterling. From a house, not from a scrap pile in Agbogbloshie.
Blame Game does not follow Benson's story as well as we hoped, and by cutting out footage of Puckett and Michael Anane making false claims, they make a journalistic error (Solera said they had to cut things that they knew not to be true, and that Puckett had threatened legal action. I think a public person who makes a living as an expert, who is caught lying on camera, has no legal recourse to ban the lies from being broadcast).
Wahab Muhammed Odoi bravely sat in for the interview, and attended the conference to answer questions. He and Solera said that EWaste will always be found in Africa, because Africans have owned TVs for decades. Puckett then claimed that he had stopped Ewaste in China, that there was no ewaste there anymore, seeming deaf to the logic that most ewaste is generated by African and Chinese consumers... and that even if he had stopped imports of used goods (he has not), that ewaste will indeed continue to exist every place that had TV stations in the 1970s.
Still, Solera and Julia's documentary does much to correct the wildly false impressions conveyed by Pieter Hugo and Placebo's "Life Is What You Make It"... Blog readers may remember I was blocked by Placebo and labelled insane by Rainbow for writing an open letter to them, referring them to vetted research like Memorial University's Reassembling Rubbish author Dr. Josh Lepawsky and others. My letter identified several sensationalist claims about Agbogbloshie, and tried to convey the sense of exploitation of "poverty porn" images by people in the video.
Juan Solera and Albert Julia also struggled in their documentary with how to portray pollution and poverty without "exploiting" it. They try, though at times the documentary feels like it has been assembled by committee... one senses that the directors could not bring themselves to cut out film that would tend to sensationalize and exploit... no doubt the parts Jim Puckett appreciated. But Juan and Albert and Fernando took the time to film both sides, and made a huge effort to distinguish themselves from those who benefit financially by exploiting misconceptions. (See photos in the June 2016 open letter to Placebo).
In related news, Sasha Rainbow, the director of that 2016 Placebo MTV video (that heralded Agbogbloshie as the largest e-waste dump on earth where most of Europe's junk is illegally dumped), has finished her short film "Kofi and Lartey". Her quote below opens by stating "There has been much documentation of Agbogbloshie in recent years, but in most cases it has come from a sensationalist perspective." She no doubt learned that from featuring @Alhassan Ibn Abdalla. I know Abdalla and follow him, got him an interview on BBC in 2015 flood and forced Agbo relocations. He is an activist on slum dweller human rights. Glad she recognized the "sensationalism" mistake, and learned from him. No hard feelings, Rainbow).
In the 1970s Environmentalists all knew that the least sustainable human activity was mining and refining, extracting petroleum and mineral ores and trees from the forests, coral reefs, and mountains. Conservationist knew that to conserve endangered species, we had to conserve habitat. The human activity that digs deepest into the remotest habitats is raw material extraction.
Why are the natural resources in such remote places? Well... they aren't.
No matter how rich in copper ore Mount St. Elizabeth of Vermont might be, the pollution that would occur from the hard rock mining would be unacceptable to neighbors. The population density in New England had led to more environmental regulation.
Property value is at risk when ore is blasted from veins of ore, smashed with 100 ton tractors, and leached with cyanide in the open air. You cannot obstruct the view of a Martha's vineyard cottage with an oil deck. However rich the vein of gold, you cannot open a Carlin Trend, or Witwatersrand Basin dredge in Central Park. It is easier to make paper by cutting down 100 small pulp trees in northern Canada, to truck them 200 miles to a hydropulper, than to chop a single rich softwood from the Arnold Arboretum in Boston and pulp it at the James River Paper Mill in the same city.
Ok, granted, those are not majestic Sequoia trees. These are low income housing for owls. But the fact is that trees appreciate if they are left to grow longer, and the Forest Industry knows that pulp demand needs both recycled and virgin sources.
Indonesia forests being replaced for pulpwood or palm oil
The more polluting an activity, the farther away the investment. Out of sight, out of the regulator's mind, and out of reach of enforcement. That is why a CRT glass pile in Columbus Ohio is getting more attention than the Kabwe, Zambia mine that produces the same material - leaded silicate (anglesite) - with far more pollution at far greater environmental cost. This was frustrating to teenage environmentalists at Fayetteville High School in Arkansas in 1979. We knew where our consumption was hurting the planet, and we felt guilty about it, but it was hard to fund the activity to regulate it. Chimps and wildebeests don't vote. The destruction of habitat in Kabwe, Zambia, or the fishing villages of OK Tedi in Papua New Guinea, or the reopened tin mines on the coral islands of Indonesia to produce tin solder for electronics. Bangka, Belitung, Kabwe and OK Tedi never got the attention of the Mobro Barge. If you survey environmentalist in the 1990, on the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day, only the Mobro garbage scowl was on the lips of the speakers, and only the NIMBY reaction to local dump closures was in the papers.
The ocean tides are driven by a relatively small object in our solar system. The Moon. It's nothing next to the sun, or even Jupiter, but its gravity is closer to us. And this has been the weakness of the environmental movement a democracy - we make other voters care about things that are closer and more visible, even when we know that we can grasp at all the plastic straws in the world and never approach the impact of the petroleum spills (BP, or Nigeria, or the oil barge of Valdez Alaska) at the sources that meet our demand - not just for plastic straws, but for oil and gas to heat our planet.
Recycling a single aluminum can reduces enough carbon as would be produced by burning half the can's contents in gasoline. That's because of the energy it took to produce that can out of the bauxite mined in Ghana or Arkansas. So we were willing, in the 1980s and 1990s, to help pay for the cost of collecting that can with a) deposits, b) anti-litter campaigns, c) landfill cap and closures... and in the 1990s, we came up with a fourth source of recycling funding - Producer takeback, or EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) laws.
The point of the Ethical Gravity is that we used EPR to design a Ptolemy System, a "Circular Economy" that revolves around us. We care about Africans if we see that the waste they burn is "ours", and environmental groups created a hoax that familiar stuff is being dumped at Agbogbloshie in sea containers from Western recycling centers, rather than collected from African businesses and household generators who reuse those devices for decades before they discard them.
If you actually want the Producer, the Original Equipment Manufacturer, to pay to recycle the aluminum can in your city dump, one way is to tax that producer to pay people to pick up the can. That's what Vermont's container deposit system does, and manufacturers hate it, and call it (correctly) a regressive tax on consumers.
But if we simply renegotiate the General Mining Act of 1872, and the IMF and World Bank mining loan policies based upon it, we'd be taxing the Producers at the beginning of the pipe instead of at the end. That would direct capitalist investment - quickly - into recycling ventures.
And that is what pictures of kids on piles of Chinese scrap, or kids carrying TVs on their heads at the Agbogbloshie dump, are designed to distract us from.
Photo close ups of kids affect us more than satellite imagery of the Kabwe or Ok Tedi disasers - visible from outer space - because the pics make the damage appear closer to us. Like the teardrop of an Italian American, Iron Eyes Cody, produced to distract us from the bottle bill which affects us from the begining of the consumption, or the General Mining Act that made the extraction of the bauxite for the can, or extraction of the petroleum to melt and refine it, through raw material subsidies (GMA 1872).
Capitalism, Communism, and Socialism have one thing in common - they don't like up front costs. They like to defer cleanups to later. They only look at pollution after it has occured, and promote "end of pipe solutions" to address it when forced to. Which for the 14 of the top 15 CERCLA Superfund cases, at hard rock mines on subsidized mining sites, still has yet to be paid for. A tax on royalties of the minerals to extract the original material would make that material more valuable, and the aluminum can might never have been thrown out on the road in the first place.
Leaded silicate (anglesite) mined from Kabwe, Zambia
Environmental protection laws are not about protecting the environment.
They are about protecting real estate value.
The real estate that's the most valuable, in cities, is where the recycled feedstock is.
We cannot change that, but we CAN change the value of the copper ore, iron ore, coal, feldspar, gold, bauxite, and lead ore in the ground. Change the General Mining Act of 1872, and start charging more than $5 per acre to mining companies blasting federal lands. Then encourage Zambia, Indonesia, Philippines, D.R. Congo, Malaysia, and other mining/forest hotspots to do the same.
Taxpayers will enjoy two benefits - income from the sale of the virgin material and investment in urban ore. Recycling stocks would quadruple in value overnight if the GMA 1872 is finally changed.
Changing the environmental laws to revolve around the cost of the extraction means that damage done to farway places, and other species, counts as much as if the laws revolve around us. Like Copernicus and Galileo, we have to see the gravity of the situation.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
This is really worth a listen. It's a brief history of Keep America Beautiful, the history of ethical concerns over litter, and how voters are sent "grasping at straws", or recycling, rather than focus on the environmental legacy of extraction.
NPR's series Throughline takes a swing at how voters are influenced through guilt, and how that guilt can be diluted, harnessed, or its trajectory influenced by PR.
The broadcast starts early on with my state of Vermont, which passed the first anti-single-use law to prevent litter. That led to the Keep America Beautiful industrial organization, which leveraged white guilt through TV PSAs... but also acts as a "gatekeeper" or authority over what voters are told to keep in mind when they feel the gravitational pull of their liability or responsibility. (I'd previously started a draft blog a month ago on the Crying Indian, but this program does better than I can).
Industry creates environmental awareness around litter because it's closer to more people's personal responsibility and "ethical gravity".
As I shared in a retweet of MIT's Jeremy Gregory's link to the NPR story, this keeps us away from extraction, mining reform, externalization of forestry and oil drilling.
The environmental impact is mostly at a point of extraction & creation. The focus on end of life is fetishism - similar to the way we spend 9/10 health care dollars on the last year of life. Probably [Steven Pinker] @sapinker could explain fear of / obsessions with "end points in plain sight".
Will have more to write about this, and explain what I mean by "ethical gravity" and personal sense of liability for a piece of litter, as opposed to the environmental costs of the mining or forestry or carbon or energy behind the production of that litter. In fact, the whole plastics packaging debate completely ignores how much more efficient plastic packaging is at protecting - and extending the lifescycle - of food products (compared to selling food and drink in glass or cans or cardboard).
A lot of my meditation on ethical gravity, and the use of guilt and liability and risk aversion to herd behavior, crosses into topics that are not about waste at all, but cultural appropriation and race. That may fill my draft folder for awhile, as I've been labelled an "iconoclast" when I ask questions from a reservoir of deep thinking. See the 2011 blogs about Priestatollahs and the fight for ethical authority. The war between OEMs and the Charitable Industrial Complex will someday perhaps soon be used by Artificial Intelligence to influence all of our votes and direct us all to greater environmental sustainability (or Skynet).
This is part of the problem in carbon policy... carbon is hard to see, and visualization defines our ethical orbit. Some people will care more about a discarded plastic straw than about ocean floor mining to produce electric car batteries, just as many people donate more to save sad abandoned pets over endangered rhinos. For me, extinction is far sadder than kittens suffering. Some people think that's cold.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
Corporate conquests, raw materials, industrialization and economic development... I'm beginning to think that African classrooms should be receiving USA 1970s high school history textbooks.
Histories differ, context differs, trade relationships differ, languages differ, currency differs. The development of Western Guangdong Province looks nothing like the development of coastal Shenzhen. The WSJ reported last week that Viet Nam would not instantly replace China as an outsource. In Harvard Business Review this month, author Ndubuisi Ekekwe of the African Institution of Technology and Fasmicro Group published an essay with the headline "Why Africa's Industrialization Won't Look Like China's".
It's not a bad short essay, but it could have been even shorter. If the western edge of one Chinese Province looks nothing like the eastern edge, why on earth would we expect a whole continent to develop by the pattern of eastern Shenzhen?
Ekekwe seems to imply that China opened Shenzhen zone and presto. Having studied African and Asian and South American transformations from "third world" to "lesser developed nations" to "emerging markets", and having studied the industrialization of the United States between 1800 and 1940, I can attest that the only way to write a short essay is to predict it will be different. Africa lacks the whole Japan, Taiwan, S. Korea war economics, diaspora context that led to the "Asian Tigers" of the late 1900s. But, if you look at people as individuals, and see what they are doing, you can recognize patterns that are not out of place on any continent because they are, by definition, out of place in that place. Things are happening in some places in Africa the way they happened in Vietnam and Peru and India, perhaps. But if it's a broad topic like "Industrialization", Texas did not develop as New Jersey did. What is interesting about the article is where it predicts the future, and how Artificial Intelligence and Robotics will alter the "cheap labor" assumed to be the key to China's industrialization and growth. I would add that the secondhand or secondary economy, trade in used goods, is also going to impact paths to development. 50 years ago there were basically 1 billion rich people reselling and donating to 3 billion people in "emerging markets" (with a billion on the sidelines, too poor for secondhand). Today, there are roughly 4 billion (by the standards of the 1960s) rich people reselling and donating to 3 billion (with only a half billion on the outskirts). Imagine running your dad's 1960s used car dealership when half his customers now buy new cars, and there are 3 other used car dealerships in town. If I were asked to make a prediction, I'd suggest that Africa's future wealthiness will occur differently than anyplace else. And that one end of Ghana (to the north) will develop differently than another (south). But if I were asked to make a prescription, I'd agree with two of Mr. Ekekwe's - transport infrastructure and education - and add a third... one that is a rare gem of fake economics transposed from the top a mere 147 years ago, but which I've always argued (since high school) robs emerging continents of America's path to the world stage. Raw Materials. King Copper. The end of the "copper barons" reign on the USA economy, which drove development of railways and telecommunications (telegraph roads) out west, arguably ended 100 years ago after the great labor war in Bisbee Arizona.
The USA had seen its relevance to the new "electric" world economy tied up with unlicensed, unbridled, copper mining. Those mines would lead to great environmental catastrophe (14 of the 15 largest Superfund sites at the end of the century). Under the theory that raw material, like copper, is less "intellectual property" and creates fewer jobs per ton, the USA passed the General Mining Act of 1872. The Act was a page in the playbook of genocide of native Americans (during the Apache Indian Wars of the same year), and plan to populate the Gadsen Purchase (AZ and NM, where my great grandfather was in the Indian Service). It was also a giveaway to wealthy "robber barons", like those that control too much of the wealth in Africa's raw material economy. The high school textbooks of Arizona and Montana look a lot like the anti-colonial textbooks in Africa. My prescription to developing Africa would be amend General Mining Act of 1872 and the World Bank, and IMF policies based on subsidized natural resources to promote intellectual value added / manufactured goods. Force extraction industries to charge as much as the raw material is worth, making copper more like "rare earth metals" which play hardball with supply and demand forces. And tightly control the environmental damage, charging as much as it takes to develop sites in a way which defends Africa's delicate inland ecosystems.
I accept the point that Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and the "market cannibalization" of secondhand sales have made employment per ton less exponential over extraction. My hope is that raw material mining and petroleum extraction can, like agriculture, be made into something less painful to look at, less dependent on child labor and slave labor, and a source of sustainable renewable profit. If every nation is "industrialized", it becomes less of a stigma to be King of raw material or agriculture. When every kid in every slum on planet owns a smartphone (and a backup flip phone as well), the vision of "industrialization" imagined by Deng Tsao Ping in the 1990s needs a facelift.
There are only so many "economies". As "industrial" becomes less of a Hollywood buzzword, and sustainable ag and circular economies of reuse and repair catch up, Africa will have nothing to be ashamed of whether it's making CPU chips, copper cathode, or cotton blouses or the best coffee on the planet. It should start by marketing itself as the Economy of the Happiest Humans On Earth. People are happier there. That's something we should try to copy.
USA Health Care debate is clearly about the allocation and distribution of cost. I keep hearing it expressed as a poor health care. Most instances where USA death tolls are higher could be attributable to relative affluence (affordable illegal drugs, affordable guns, affordable sugar).
Take Cancer. USA's system developed the best responses in the world, and help explain not just the increased rates of survivorship in the USA, but actually floats a lot of other boats as well.
The hypothesis being debated by politicians is not that cancer rates would be lower in a single-payer system, or that treatment of injury would improve, but that costs would be distributed differently. Right now you get very affordable health care if you have Medicare (are over 65) or are eligible for Veterans Administration hospitals, or perhaps are poor enough for Medicaid (I know less about that). But under those systems, you are better off if you have an extremely expensive ailment (like cancer) but not clearly better off (red tape) than if you go to the emergency room of a private hospital.
This blog was developed after a conversation with one of my kids who attended United World College in Bosnia y Herzogovina. All 3 of my kids have lived as ex-pats and wind up trying to explain a system that most people don't even understand in their own countries. If a nation can't even manage its own appliance repairs, how can it manage human bodies?
The answer is as complex as the question is simple. In the USA, people who are the smartest in their class go to Med School or get employed by pharmaceutical research firms. Those people are not available to fix laptops, the money is in fixing hearts and livers. In Ghana, only a slight fraction of smart people have the opportunity to go to med school. I means there are more smart people available to repair laptops.
Cost - Benefit of Biology Repair
At a meta-level, the debate is about repairing the system we have for repairing health. The debate over the USA Health Care Insurance not about USA treatment of illness, vaccination rates, or gunshot trauma, or the root causes of those risks. It is "given this person needs health care, how does the system calculate those costs, and how do they get paid for?"
That episode gets to the crux of the matter... how much is this repair (treatment) worth? We can objectively tell whether a car or laptop is "worth repairing". We know that that objective decision is arrived at differently by people in different supply-demand economies (Adam Smith). But what is human life worth? And how do we make rational decisions while surrounded by loved ones driven instinctively by a million year old evolutionary principle (fear of death)?
In certain places, even rich people understand the economics. "You have to step over the bodies" is the training advice given to medics on battlefields. If you stop to treat a dying man with 4% chance of surviving his would given an hour treatment, 6 others who had a 50% chance of living with 10 minutes of treatment will die. If a wound is so big that 9 pints of blood are lost every minute, you cannot empty the blood bank to give the person another hour of life. At least, not until you solve the supply problem for blood. That problem - cheap artificial or substitute blood - is most likely to be solved someday in the future in the USA Health Care system, This is because someone obscenely rich will create a market for it. Perhaps NASA or the US Military Spending (cost of soldier) will play a role. For geeks, think of it as "free RAM"... it would change your repair diagnosis decision for a number of machines (as Chromebooks changed the market around hard drives). The excess in health care expenditure per capita includes both more expensive costs and more available expensive treatment. Think of it as an average cost of a car, in a country where more people buy a Tesla. That doesn't mean that Chevy is or isn't more affordable, but you can't really tell from the statistic exactly how the income is being distributed.
US Political Debate
Skeptics of single-payer systems point to the red tape and inefficient costs and exploitation (double testing, prices gouging). I have witnessed this in Medicare. Skeptics of the current system point to people who have "cheap" private insurance that excludes things (like cancer or pre-existing conditions) in the fine print and who wind up with crushing bankruptcy when the treatment they require is not covered.
My dad's doctoral thesis professor, William Stephenson, wrote a book called "Play Theory" after developing a really profoundly deep-diving polling system called "Q Method". Based on his research, the discussion above is too complex for most people to follow, and they will naturally adapt the opinion that is the most "familiar" (the most likely to have been heard expressed by a friend or family member). That leads to tribalism and divided Congress, and it can be exploited (weaponized) by foreign powers over social media. I think the way the nation votes for BernieCare, ObamaCare, TrumpCare has less to do with the understanding of the cost distribution system and more to do with finding a simple motto or slogan ("Socialism doesn't work" or "US Health Care System is Broken") than with improvement of the system.
Under the USA system of Medicaid and Medicare, young healthy people are taxed to pay for the cost of elderly and poor and veterans. Unlucky young people (cancer, accident) wind up with bills they cannot pay after they are treated. The bills don't get paid and hospitals put the unpaid expenses onto Medicare patient bills. It provides evidence for both skeptics. But economically, the cost is distributed.
In small countries like Holland, it's pretty easy to distribute the excess health care cost onto a tax on gasoline. In oil rich nations like Norway, its even easier. It's pretty hard on Texans (who have the longest driving commutes), not hard at all on Manhattan residents (who tend not to own a car because of the cost of the garage).
Under Q-Method, I'd ask 100 subjects to rank the following 2 questions in the order they most agree with each. I wouldn't be concerned with how strongly you agree or how violently you disagree, I'd find out the order you'd put them in, even if you agree or disagree with each. This would divide the 100 interviewees into two groups. Their opinions would most likely be predicted, under Play Theory, by the amount of time they spend every day with people who express one of these opinions.
Politicians who say they have a simple solution are lying.
Politicians who say it's too complicated avoid taking a stand on a difficult problem.
The system is rigged
Reporters who write short blurbs leave it to bloggers like me to explain things to people overseas, who understand that USA health care is different but who mistake election year press controversy for a health care crisis. Most people are healthy and most people don't like to pay taxes, but most people want to be treated if they become pregnant or injured and the health care costs suddenly arise.
My solution would be to make everyone under the age of 25 eligible for Medicare, But even that's far more complicated than it sounds. There are people who believe that every life, even the babies who come to term with a critical congenital brain defect who will never be capable of consciousness (born with a brain stump) who would insist that it's moral to tax everyone to keep that body alive forever (and to imprison the mother who was told about it and ends the pregnancy in the first trimester).
And thus we enter another uncomfortable democratic election debate people prefer to oversimplify, and treat via slogans... yes I will type it. a b o r t i o n s.
For most of us, ability to think is a software problem, not a hardware problem.
Primum non nocere - first do no harm.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill