November 16th, 2013

When Good Advice Has Bad Effects

In _Junkyard Planet_, Jesse Catlin and Yitong Wang wrote a paper which is quoted as concluding with: "Therefore, an important issue would be to identify ways to nudge consumers toward recycling while also making them aware that recycling is not a perfect solution and that reducing overall consumption is desirable as well."

I would argue that this is probably a terrible idea. Lots of people in every generation have felt Just Terrible about what to do with things they are done with. One of the ways that people dealt with the guilt associated with buying a new refrigerator, which was going to have all kinds of beneficial effects associated with reduced energy consumption, was to Not Stop Using the Old Device. They'd move the old fridge out to the garage or basement or wherever, plug it in, and put beer or whatever in it, thus buying themselves the worst of all possible world. The energy spendthrift fridge was not decommissioned. Its materials were not disposed of safely (and as it aged, the likelihood of a leak increased) or recovered for use elsewhere.

People decide whether or not to buy new shit based on (a) can they afford it and (b) do they have space for it. If you try to insert sustainability or other eco-guilt into this mix, they just stash the old device somewhere, rather than moving it along to somewhere where it can be re-used or re-cycled.

I know. I've seen way, way, way too many people do it, and I've read about even more people doing it. This is the Normal response to advice about problems associated with recycling. We need something better.

He then goes on to advocate to make products last _longer_ and be even _more_ repairable, when a big chunk of what makes American products so wasteful is that they last so fucking much longer than anyone wants them around. Better to lightweight the hell out of them and reduce the initial resource use.

He even gets into paper notebooks with paper inside and cardboard and plastic covers. This is particularly hysterical, because he laments how it needs to be deconstructed for the components to be recycled. I almost always _have_ deconstructed stuff, and I've usually put some components into the trash rather than recycling, because I'd read that their dimensions made them unlikely to make it through the processing stream. But of course now I just barely use any paper at all anyway. Would that steel spiral in Mead notebook make it through to the scrapyard?

_Junkyard Planet_, Adam Minter

I'll just start with the obvious: this is an amazing book. It is absolutely worth reading. There might be something written in another language that covers the same ground, but I know of nothing like this in English, and I read a lot of books about what happens to stuff when we're done with it. Minter quotes several of those books.

Minter comes from a family that ran a metal scrap business, and that is, overwhelmingly, his perspective. He pokes his head into a municipal recycling facility and sees paper and plastic sorting, but his heart isn't in it. At all. And he's shockingly ignorant of the rise of used goods in the United States in the last 10-15 years. If you want to know how to get stuff you are done with to the next best location, don't ask him -- even if all his friends do.

He has spent a large fraction of the last 15 years covering the scrap metal trade to China, and the globalization of the "waste" stream in general. He mentions Africa in passing, but spends no time there. He does describe a visit to India, and supplies a nice explanation of the shipping realities that tie India to the Middle East, rather than the US. The detail on China is great: he covers plastics recycling, electronics reuse/refurbishment, dismantling and so forth. He describes where the materials feed into new products. He meets, interviews, and conveys a nuanced sense of the personalities in the various industries.

It's amazing to me that in the description of auto shredding (the Huron Valley and Omnisource facility descriptions are absolutely incredible, particularly the interaction between tax and customs policy in China and what kind of mechanical sorting is worth doing here in the United States), he notes that under $2 in coins is found in a typical shredded automobile. Those suckers are gone over very, very carefully, if that's all that is left.

The way Minter thinks about environmental and health concerns is marginally better than many activists: he's at least thinking about it in a compared-to-what sense. But that is the weakest element of the book. For a guy who did such a great job drawing together the obvious, but until now largely ignored, parallels between the United States a hundred years or so ago and China now, when it comes to scrapping, he really failed to think through the implications for policy. While he does a nice job of describing the difference in how China at the national level chose to handle Wenan's (there's supposed to be an apostrophe in there) plastic recycling vs. Guiyo's e-waste processing (shut-it-down-and-scatter-it vs. concentrate-and-upgrade), he applies no gloss whatsoever to whether that implies that China learned something from the former, or whether the two situations were different in some salient way that justified different responses, or if it was Just Random.

Minter does mention a couple instances of mining existing US landfills (I think Huron Valley mining for previously landfilled SNF), without ever getting into the national policy mess associated with extractive industry (we still have built-in incentives for mining virgin ore, despite all our efforts to limit extractive industry due to environmental impacts). But it's nice to see these mentioned; I expect that to grow over time, if we get better at processing.

In any event, it's a great book. Obviously, I always have complaints, but this is an enjoyable read and tremendously useful information. I look forward to reading more by Minter in the future.