On June 21, 2013 I did this interview with Peter Phillips and Mickey Huff of Project Censored. It aired on KPFA, 94.1 FM
Listen at: Interview June 21
Project Censored is run out of Sonoma State University. They track stories that the press overlooks or suppresses. In this case, the Bay Guardian newspaper had published a story about the impact of Robert Krausz’s new thesis on the future of San Francisco’s imagined Zero Waste to Landfill program. But the rest of the press just ignores this explosive expose.
I prepared an interview guide to back up the interview. This is it:
RESOURCE CONSERVATION WITHOUT THE RECYCLING B.S.
The history of the ideas of Zero Waste.
I earned a PhD from Yale in Chemistry and a few years later, when I arrived in the Bay Area, I met a con man who thought it one of his best cons when he learned that companies would gladly give away expensive chemicals that they had no use for. He showed me the ropes and eventually I started a company for selling excess industrial chemicals that I called Zero Waste Systems Inc. which was the first public use in the world of the term Zero Waste. At that time Silicon Valley was just getting started and throwing out all manner of unusual, expensive and perfectly clean chemicals. For example all of the microchip fabricators were generating truckloads of a mixture of two chemicals, xylene and butyl acetate, which they paid to get rid of. Of course the chemical garbage industry was only too happy to send in trucks and take away all of this solvent and throw it into a hole in the ground – for a high price – one of the most idiotic operations you can find anywhere and one which the government protects today and which still goes on everywhere. I found out what they were throwing away and realized that it was a high end lacquer thinner. So we took all of this solvent that we could get – truckloads and drums full – and all we did was to repack it into new containers, slap a lacquer thinner label onto it and we sold it all over the Bay Area as a lacquer thinner. We did equivalent magic tricks with hundreds of different chemicals. What it’s important to take note of was that we mostly didn’t process anything, we didn’t need to change things – we just used intelligence because we were chemists and we knew exactly what we were working with unlike the lay public.
We took on the collection of unwanted laboratory chemicals from hither and yon and reselling them for half price. Lab chemicals are everywhere. They are handled in a typically stupid way by the mainstream garbage system, controlled as it is by the garbage industry. We had the largest collection of lab chemicals in California, none of which we paid for, all for sale at half price to researchers, experimenters and chemists of every kind. We had customers from every company and every university and thousands of individuals. Now that I am no longer doing that job, perfectly fine, new, unused, dangerous and valuable lab chemicals are being packed up in drums and placed into chemical dumps for no good reason at all, except that there exists a malevolent industry that knows how to make a profit by destroying our planet and the public doesn’t care.
The recyclers who were focusing on the absurdly simpleminded materials of cardboard, glass and sheet metal for example, stuff that is found in residential garbage cans, never understood what we did. They still don’t today. They have no idea what a chemical is and so all they could come up with was that oxymoron “dispose of properly”. They still don’t understand that if you want to design reuse channels for specialized commodities, you have to have a deep, technical understanding of those commodities. That applies to microchips, to cell phones, to radioactive nuclei, to plastic molecules and to unwanted food. You need to know how everything is designed, how it is made, how the design can be changed to foster reuse, and what the commercial uses and markets are. Every product is part of a potential cycle of reuse. We were working with industrial commodities because they are far more interesting than residential garbage, there are much larger amounts of them and they are worth much more. The recyclers have completely missed the boat. Essentially all they work with is residential garbage. There is a common estimate that industry discards seventy times as much waste as residences but the recyclers work on the trivial end of reuse. Even if you accept their focus on materials only, there are at least fifty thousand different identifiable materials used in commerce. Recyclers recognize maybe ten.
This company, Zero Waste Systems Inc. was always profitable. We also did some reprocessing, but mostly we just applied chemical intelligence. At that time I was just beginning to develop the methods and philosophies that would become Zero Waste Theory. The company became the victim of a fraud and had to close but I continued to develop that theory. Today you can find much of it worked out and presented to the world at the Zero Waste website. The most basic principle that motivates Zero Waste theory is this: you will never succeed at reusing the goods and commodities of our society if you merely take what is handed to you and try to do something useful with it, i.e. garbage management. That is a recipe for failure. The only way to make any progress toward a conserving world without garbage, pollution and discard, is to change the way that goods and products are designed so that reuse is designed into them right at the start. Every reuse mechanism that tries to work with garbage as collected is a failure and always will be a failure. Ragpicking is a failure. Recycling is a failure. Garbage mining is a failure. Producer Responsibility is a failure. All of the naïve, tentative methods of trying to work with garbage will always fail. The reasons are not hard to find.
First of all, the idea that products just are because they are, is nonsense. Products are explicitly designed to fall apart, to be trashy, shoddy, low grade. We all know that products are designed using planned obsolescence. There are jokes everywhere about products being cleverly designed to fall apart as soon as the warranty expires. These designs are not funny and they are not accidental. Corporations know how to make money by selling the public far more than it really needs. There is silly stuff like pet rocks and alligators to hang on your rear view mirror. There are trashy kitchen appliances that no one needs. There is furniture that can barely support your weight without cracking. There are cell phones that are sold only in pink and are declared to be obsolete when a black version is introduced. Electric toothbrushes cannot be disassembled and have to be thrown away when the battery expires. Always there is that welcoming garbage can, just assumed to be present, assumed to be always empty, waiting to be filled with the raw materials of the earth and then carted away to come back empty again.
Second, before we can do anything about a destructive program that is cannibalizing the planet we need to be clear about what we want and demand it. We need to recognize that the torrent of garbage is not required by any theory of resource utilization. We need to shed the common idea that there has always been garbage and always will be. Nonsense. There is no basis for this primitive belief. The mechanisms of garbage are an embarrassment to any civilized country. Stripping the planet worldwide for resources to feed the commercial-industrial maw, to be used once and then discarded, is intolerable and unsustainable. A civilized country would have no garbage cans, no dumpsters, no dumps and no incinerators. You may not know how this could be done. That does not mean no one knows. Of course it would require a revolution in thinking but science does that all the time. In science, revolutions are normal. So let’s stop applying ignorance to our theory of resource usage and let’s apply scientific thinking. That’s my message and that’s what I try to present in my theory on the web.
The bumper sticker says: IF YOU THINK EDUCATION IS EXPENSIVE, TRY IGNORANCE.
Recently, in the Bay Area, claims by San Francisco that it alone of all cities will succeed in recycling everything in their garbage cans, have had a lot of press. Recycling has taken over the conversation, but why? Recently there was a story in the Examiner about a new study that was published in New Zealand which showed how badly recycling is failing worldwide. One of the case studies in that report was the much vaunted so-called zero waste program in San Francisco. The story that presumably piqued the interest of the press is this: the recycling program in San Francisco is a fraud. It is not a success and it never will be a success in any real sense. All it will do is waste the time of the public while Big Garbage continues year after year to rake in big and undeserved profits. By putting off the day of reckoning until 2020, Big Garbage is allowed to keep right on collecting, discarding, dumping and burning garbage for ten more years. And after that there will surely be another scam to prolong garbage collection for another ten years. Everyone today is concerned with the atmosphere going down the drain from climate change and yet the government and the corporations steadfastly refuse to do anything significant. At the very same time, the planet is being stripped on every side for raw materials that are destined to soon end up in a dump. Unlike the climate concerns, there is a worldwide yawn of not caring. Why is this true? Let’s look at the reasons.
First, climate change was lucky in that there was a large scientific community that was already studying climate and the atmosphere before it became such a recognized problem. This group snuck up on the powers that rule the world before they even realized that there was going to be a problem. Of course the elites have done everything they can to destroy scientific credibility, education, critical thinking and climate scientists in particular but they are playing catchup. The scientists are already trained and working and the methods are already in place. But when it comes to the raping of the planet for resources, this they have been justifying and papering over for centuries. Wars are fought for resources but rationalized for patriotism. The garbage industry is powerful and metastatically connected. After the Kuwaiti war a single mega-garbage company was hired to clean up the entire country and throw all of the used detritus into a gigantic dump. They have their connections in every city council in the country, paying generous franchise fees which the councils get to spend in ways that they enjoy and that the public has little knowledge of. There is no reason for franchise fees to exist but the city councils are glad to get them and the garbage franchisees are glad to pay them and then turn around and collect them from citizens. Big Garbage is also a necessary tool of planned obsolescence, much beloved of manufacturing, since obsolescence requires a quick and dirty fate for broken goods.
Second, most citizens see carbon dioxide spewing into the air from power plants or trucks or building furnaces – sources that are somewhere else and under the control of evil, scheming corporations. On the other hand, citizens have the mistaken notion that they themselves are responsible for waste. They erroneously believe that if they can merely use fewer goods they are doing all they can. Thus we have a rash of books and videos about reducing personal usage to nearly zero. This is the personal delusion.
Third, climate change needs to rely on dupes of oil companies to quarrel with the scientific consensus. Most people can see the self serving nature of the objections to climate science. Not so with resource despoliation. Recycling seems to provide a reasonable, indeed incontrovertible road to salvation. Its adherents have no idea why since there is no theory and no studies to support it but somehow they “just know”. And their conviction is shared by others around them, leading to a collective delusion that takes on the trappings of a fact. The endless effusions of “success” address only the rate of diversion, never any analysis of why a high rate is beneficial. There is a profitable industry (Big Garbage) to support the recycling delusion with gobs of money and propaganda. The support by Big Garbage has led to an army of enthusiasts who see their bread buttered with recycling and who pose as common environmentalists despite their absence of any analysis. In Alameda county the Recycling Agency is directly funded by a charge on dumping. What is implied by those incentives?
Lastly, there is a grievous misunderstanding of the difference between feeling good and feeling better. You feel good when you have solved a significant social problem in a deep or fundamental way that has an effect commensurate with the size of the problem. You feel better when you can’t feel good but you do a very little and tell yourself that is all you are able to accomplish. People around the world are settling for feeling better by recycling. But where climate change is concerned, many activists want the satisfaction of feeling good. They demand a real solution to a global problem. Recyclers ask for no such success.
Since the torrents of garbage pouring into dumps worldwide are so gigantic, capturing even 0.5% of that stream in the lowgrade form of simple materials allows a university recycling club or a city recycling department to make enough money by selling materials to convince itself that it must be doing something right. Such outfits do not, as a rule, ask themselves how much of the problem they are missing. They think they feel good when they only feel better.
In the last thirty years a new element was added to the power of Big Garbage. As recycling developed in the 1970’s, they realized that recycling was the best greenwash for garbage that had ever been found. The recycling activists made a pact with the devil and agreed to join their path with Big Garbage. They spread around the notion that recycling will eliminate garbage but this is with a huge wink. Everyone knows that the main use of recycling is to make garbage acceptable. The garbage companies subsidize the recyclers while the recyclers repay them by granting the garbage companies absolute power over every kind of commodity that is “sometimes discarded”, such as the composting of organics. This is inimical to resource conservation but the garbage people need their pound of flesh for their support. The first result has been the worldwide spread of recycling, an extensive spread. The second result, an intensive spread, bringing new goods under the recycling umbrella, depends on the recycling activists, pretending to take on the mantle of environmentalism, being able to convince politicians to go along with the deception. Thus all manner of programs have been instituted which create mountains of garbage but which pose as environmental progress. Notable among these are e-waste recycling and EPR (extended producer responsibility).
This simple fact is missed by the public: recycling is way of managing garbage, after it is created. Zero Waste should be a way of eliminating garbage before it is created. There is no overlap.
In 1989, a bill named AB 939 passed the California Legislature. It was pure recycling legislation and among other things, mandated that the amount of recycling (also known as diversion) done in every county had to increase every year. But no matter how the numbers were tweaked and massaged to pretend that recycling was increasing, the counties could not meet the terms of AB 939. Therefore in 1997, Bustamonte passed AB 1647 which was intended to defraud the public into thinking that the recycling levels demanded by AB 939 were actually being met. The bogus numbers resulted from the first of three ways that the claimed recycling rates are jiggled.
First method, as used by AB 1647: Change the accounting. This bill allows garbage dumping to be counted as recycling. Any extra garbage that is put on top of the pile of garbage in a dump at the end of a “day” to prevent gulls and rats from searching for the food goodies in the garbage, is now called Alternative Daily Cover (ADC) and is counted as recycled. Also any garbage used to build berms, hills, roads or walls will be called “recycled”. A “day” could be anything (like a half hour) since the law doesn’t specify. Suddenly the counties’ claimed recycling rates exploded. Marin county for example loves to claim 72% even though a reasonable, truthful number would be in single digits.
In California, you just decide what number for diversion rate that you want, and then you claim that you have reached it. No one checks, no one argues. If you need to use more ADC to make the claim more reasonable, you do. You never explain what the percentage covers. Is it weight, is it volume, is it compared to last year, is it compared to some theoretical guess? The concept of a recycling rate has no fixed, scientific basis and so cannot be falsified. The only basis that might make sense is one of value of goods but no one monitors this. Zero Waste would not use any such number. Zero Waste asks how long a product can be designed to last through multiple cycles of carefully designed and crafted reuse. Each product redesign is a victory and a whole class of product redesigns is even better. Zero Waste is not a trivial add-on but a demanding design implying research into its application and usage pattern in the real world.
Second, an even greater deception is to ignore the vast majority of goods and materials and products being discarded. Seventy times the amount of residential garbage is said to be created in the form of industrial garbage. That industrial waste is created to support the products being discarded by consumers and is the bulk of waste that needs to be attributed to those products but ZwtL (the goal adopted by San Francisco and all the cities of the world that pretend to embrace Zero Waste) ignores the industrial component. Cities are covered with buildings and roads that are routinely demolished and wasted but all of that is ignored when recycling numbers are thrown around. Huge numbers of electronic devices are chopped and burned but no one counts that. Cars, buses and trains get some metals removed but the rest disappear into the great dump in the sky. “Automotive fluff” is a recognized garbage component that often gets counted as recycled under AB 1647. There is much more.
Third, there is the intimate association between recycling, dumping and incineration. Huge amounts of residential garbage pass through assembly lines or picking and sorting or transfer stations for processing out a few pieces of glass or copper or plastic and then the rest just proceeds into a dump. But the truckloads of discarded goods that enter for this processing can be designated as having been recycled. Then there are the materials for which the markets are weak. Plastic bottles are typically collected for recycling but can hardly be sold so they are baled and put into the dump. The real reason for collecting them is that the beverage industry wants the public to believe that plastic is as recyclable as glass. The government allows this and the recyclers raise no objection since it is in their interest to pretend that their regressive programs are successful. In Oregon, one garbage company was taking recyclables directly to a dump because it was a shorter trip than taking it for transportation to a market. The regulators were fine with this rationalization but it became a citizen’s scandal so we learned about it.
Sometimes recycling is put forward as a way to palliate the public demand to “do something”. Plastic bags come in for a lot of criticism, so stores began to collect them “for recycling”. A simple analysis makes it plain that this is nonsense. First, there is no such thing as a “plastic bag” What counts is the particular polymer that a bag is made out of. It can be polyvinyl chloride or polyester or chlorinated PVC or many others. No plastic recycler likes mixed polymers. In addition, thin film bags are specifically created to have a huge surface area compared to their weight and then they are typically used for food. This means that collected plastic bags are a dirty mix of different polymers contaminated with food, dust and filth. Who would want to use such a mess for reextruding? The obvious program to be put into place is reuse, not recycling. This is what I do, using my bags over and over and rarely taking any new ones. But the recycler community is not interested in this and the public, searching for simplistic solutions, doesn’t understand the distinction.
The study we mentioned earlier was done by Robert Krausz in New Zealand. Robert began by surveying all of the so-called Zero Waste To Landfill (ZWtL) programs in the world. A landfill is just a dump. These programs are simply recycling programs. Nothing more. Their announced goal is to recycle “everything” and get the recycling rate up to 100% which they mendaciously call “zero waste”. What Robert found out from his survey was that he could not find a single program anywhere in the world that had succeeded. If they had an announced term that had run, they had failed to reach anywhere near 100% recycling. They didn’t have a big “Failure Celebration”, they just slunk away and became extraordinarily quiet, thus allowing the city next door to start its own boondoggle which would also fail in turn. San Francisco has all of the California diversions, the recycling scams, the weasel wiggles at its disposal (pun intended). AB 1647 allows virtually any number to be claimed in California. Yet SF is only willing to hold its nose enough to claim about 80% recycling. Their term will be up in 2020 and as Robert points out, the responsible officials are already setting up their exit strategies for when the failure becomes too obvious to hide. But they will still be able to get consulting positions elsewhere beneath the recycling umbrella which refuses to recognize its own failures.
So has SF broken the mold? Have they somehow overcome the common pitfalls awaiting any recycling program? Not likely. What SF is doing is to take advantage of all the deceptive devices available here. What would be a more reasonable recycling figure? The first question asks how much of the ADC scam is SF making use of? I don’t know that answer but I’m sure it’s significant. Then if industry actually creates seventy times as much waste as residences do, and it is not recycled, that means that even if all residential garbage is recycled the rate is only 1/71st or less than 2%. Then if you consider all of the buildings and roads and vehicles and computers, you are forced to say a reasonable recycling rate is about 1%. These are all round numbers. But in any case, we know this much: the SF recyclers have enormous blinders on, the public is way too gullible and recycling is no kind of program for anyone to be relying on.
What then would be the consequences of this analysis? First, it is not pretty. It means that all of the stripping and ripping of resources from the earth that our wasteful country specializes in is going to continue unabated. It means that our planet is headed straight into terminal exhaustion while the public continues to be gulled into passivity. It means that scientific analyses of resource conservation get short shrift and that little is coming out of the noise over garbage management except the kind of campaign that P.T. Barnum would love.
Another question that this raises is the whole question of what waste even consists of. The recyclers like to insist that wasting happens only when some article is actually thrown into a garbage pit or equivalent. Obviously this kind of distorted view serves their purpose, since it says that any last minute intervention in the fate of an object prevents it from being wasted. This is what ZWtL is all about. Prevent that very last toss into a dump and no wasting has taken place. Yet this position is untenable and fundamentally wrong. It misses the complexity of the social interplay of resource usages.
For specificity let us consider that modern abomination, a plastic (polyethylene) chair. These trashy articles can lay no claim to good design. The plastic used, while appealingly cheap, is soft and malleable, not the rigid kind of material needed for holding real weight. The legs are forced to be barely strong enough by being wrapped into a right angle and laced with reinforcing ribs. Should any part of the assembly be overstressed, it will give way and cause a cascade of collapse, leaving seven to ten pounds of unusable polyethylene in a strange shape useful for nothing but maybe being ground up into a degraded polymer. We see them everywhere, often in broken three legged shapes, being discarded. When do these broken creatures cause wasting?
They are made from polyethylene which means that fossil fuels were extracted from the ground and refined or cracked into ethylene which then was polymerized in a reactor. The new polymer was extruded and chopped into pellets. The bulk pellets were transported to an extruder, melted and mixed with pigments, fillers and other additives. Then the melted plastic had to be forced into very expensive molds, cooled with cold water and removed from the molds. Then the chairs were checked for flaws, covered with cardboard and wire packaging, bundled and trucked to distributors who in turn trucked them over to retail stores for sale. All of these operations took place in warehouses, refineries and chemical plants. The trucks were fueled by diesel fuel which was refined in the same refineries. Expensive machinery was used to control every aspect of their creation. These machines were likewise created in their own line of fabrication, as were the trucks and buildings used. Along the way, an army of employees had to service the machines, load the raw materials, supervise operations and handle the petroleum, pellets and chairs. All the processes were designed by offices full of designers, chemists and engineers, all of whom went to colleges taught by well paid professors. They support familes of spouses and children who need to be fed, transported, clothed and educated. All of this activity lies behind the creation of these poorly designed chairs that are guaranteed by design to have a short life. A similar tale could be told behind the creation of virtually every product.
By the time some heavy user sits down clumsily on a chair breaking the legs, this expenditure of effort, expense and energy is already history. This impoverished product with its short useful life was slated for an early replacement and a quick trip into a dump. Where is the wasting located? Does the wasting occur at the moment that an owner tosses the chair into a dumpster or was all of the wasted effort already spent long before anyone ever sat on the chair? Every product embodies a long background of effort, which depended on using energy and raw materials for thousands of long since completed tasks. If the design guaranteed a minimal or short life without the possibility of repair or life extension, then that past effort is all wasted. Another chair made of wood and steel might serve for a hundred years including renewal and repair. The operations used in its construction might be expended once and not again for longer than anyone living can remember. The efforts would still be expended – that can’t be helped as we live our lives – but they would be minimized as much as we know how to accomplish. That is a goal worthy of intelligence.
The actual act of tossing a plastic chair into a dumpster is an act of no significance at all. It is just the final act in a long systemic drama of preplanned waste. If the chair is chopped up into a degraded form of the pellets that originally gave rise to it, that cuts out but a tiny fraction of the long process that created the chair. It is hopelessly inadequate. That is why recycling is useless. It makes virtually no difference whether 100% of residential garbage is intercepted for some low level recycling or allowed to move into a dump. The wasting it represents is long since done, and no capture of mere materials is going to change that.
Consider the parallel question of where illness comes from. If a woman spends a lifetime smoking a pack of cigarettes every day, is she not creating illness over years? If she eats junk food full of high fructose corn syrup does she not create further illness? If she leads a sedentary life depriving her body of exercise does she not not add to her state of illness? When her burdened heart suddenly quits, when did illness occur? Was she healthy until the last beat of her abused heart or was the illness accumulated over the lifetime of her poorly maintained body? Is a sudden operation that gives her a few more years going to restore health or is too late by the end for any but an almost meaningless extension of the mere illusion of health? This is the same way that waste occurs throughout the life of a product by neglect and poor design.
This has an astounding corollary. It means that not only does San Francisco have virtually no chance of achieving their limited goal, but even if they could totally achieve their announced target of 100% recycling, IT WOULD HAVE NO VALUE. The fact is that efforts without scientific analysis and underpinnings are valueless. It is not enough to rely on a heartfelt emotional commitment to understand complex relationships. That requires mathematics, statistics, resource studies, industrial design, chemistry and physics. The very concept of recycling is a mistaken effort, of little to no value whatsoever. All that SF is doing is to waste the time and effort of its citizens in a misleading, mendacious dance that has a value quite different from its announced goal. The real goal is to mislead the citizens to prevent them from the dangerous step of pursuing a real scientific analysis of resource usage. The benefit flows to the garbage industry with their powerful hold on the politicians who pursue this meaningless goal for decades, thus insuring that the profits of collecting and destroying resources will continue to flow, year after year.
Recycling is seen to be a corporate boondoggle. What we as intelligent observers need to do is to speak truth to the powers of corporate deception. And is that not the goal of progressives? Why then is it so difficult to find anyone who is willing to explore the truth and reveal it widely? The propaganda bruited about by the garbage industry might just be the most effective propaganda campaign of any corporate industry anywhere.May 2013 Paul Palmer, PhD http://www.zerowasteinstitute.org Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 707-235-6155