E-cigarette e-waste litter is an environmental health harm that can be stopped before it metastasizes

My op-ed in the American Journal of Public Health that appeared this week discusses the new tobacco waste stream of electronic cigarette waste. Electronic waste is already the fastest growing waste stream globally. Creating a new product that has no current responsible recycling infrastructure, and that may be littered widely, contributing to plastic sinks such as the Great Pacific Gyre (garbage patch) in the Pacific Ocean, is a mistake. This op-ed discusses the problem and some of the solutions that can be taken to avoid a possible environmental health and ecological disaster.

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Photo of a dropped Juul vape on SF MUNI by Julia McQuoid, used with permission

Regarding this article and other research I am conducting, I also wrote a piece in the online academic blog/forum The Conversation on e-cigarettes as the Nespresso of tobacco products, environmentally speaking.

This article was republished by the University of California, Salon, Phys.org, The Houston Chron, the Connecticut Post, The Fresh Toast, Business Insider, EcoWatch, The Chicago Tribune, and many other news sources.

Reuters also interviewed me for a piece titled “E-cigarette policy should consider environmental effects, expert says.”

For my other writing on e-waste, please see my interview with Eric Lundgren in Nautilus.

 

The Elon Musk of E-waste

My new article, “Is This Man the Elon Musk of E-Waste?” in my favorite popular science online magazine Nautilus, describes the Right to Repair movement, and the necessity to move from a linear manufacturing process built on planned and perceived obsolescence to a circular economy.

If we are to combat the 99 billion pounds of e-waste produced per year, ending up incinerated, in lakes and rivers, and trashing our communities and the lives of future generations, we’re going to need to mandate manufactures of electronics such as Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, IBM, Dell, and all the other major players, to engineer products that can DIY be taken apart, repaired, and built to last.

My interview with Eric Lundgren, his last before he was sent to prison for creating 28,000 Microsoft Windows restore CDs meant for refurbishing computers that otherwise would end up as e-waste, describes the necessity for financial mechanisms to incentivize companies and consumers to place e-waste back into an (dis)assembly line of reuse, reduce, recycle.

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Lundgren has championed the right for electronics to be repaired rather than tossed by staging high-profile recycling demonstrations including his Guinness Book of World Records farthest driving on a single charge electric car (999 miles with 90% recycled materials including recycled hybrid batteries) and his flagship solar-powered e-waste recycling factory.

I appreciate the comment on the article made by Ryan Shaw, who wrote:

Mr. Lundgren has done more with far less than what Musk started with so I don’t think the comparison does Lundgren justice (although I am a huge Musk fan). Maybe someday if Tesla starts a car rebuild program to re-use scrapped cars the title would be, “Elon Musk is the Eric Lundgren of car manufacturing.”

The need for hermeneutics in science communication

There’s this popular pro-science YouTube video. I like it–it’s bold, brash, and has good knock-down arguments. It also espouses a defensive attitude against stances which I too find abhorrent.

There’s only one problem with it. It’s wrong.

Even though I like the pro-science sentiment, there are many ways to do science, or to solve a math problem. We could easily have a science that doesn’t require tearing things apart to know or understand them. In fact, that science is being born as we speak (see the work of Isabel Stengers, Barbara McClintock, Participatory Action Research, etc.). So, properly speaking, there is no such thing as monolithic science; there are always only sciences, plural. Still, these are different from fiction, ideology, or theology. But, to say that facts aren’t inflected by values is quite imperialistic.

 

 

A Systems Approach to Dysfunction

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One of the things that resonates the most about systems theory, is that it focuses on how different pieces of large puzzles interrelate and interlock. For, it is the inter aspect that gives phenomena movement, gusto, dynamism, spark. Speaking of things, essences, stuff, or problems, tends to slump description into the corner of inexorability, and worse, resignation.

When we look at climate change, war mongering, oil interests, urban design, transport diversity, and factory farming in concert, then suddenly, the intractable problems of each become much more tractable. The haze lifts, and the easy solutions abound. Instead of the Sisyphusian task of unravelling Gordian Knots (to mix my Greek metaphors), like Alexander the Great, we simply cut through it. With systems thinking, we cut through the lies, the bad habits, the greed, excuses, and story. We take care of what calls for attending, without the oppositionality, the rage, hate, or anger. We don’t even resent the system of destruction that has killed millions, and will likely kill billions more (not to mention the thousands of species extinct, priceless waterways despoiled, mountains detonated, etc.).

No, instead, a systems view asks: what is the most opportune point of intervention? Where can I (and we, because it is always a we, this I) most skillfully intervene now? What is the first step? And then: what is the next step after that?

Having a goal is important. We don’t want to make great time in the wrong direction, to paraphrase Yogi Berra. But, planning without action does little good to soothe our own anxieties, nor to shine as an examples. Nor does it form good habits, to think without acting, for we shall too soon grow content with such a pattern, forgetting the thrill of satisfaction when we follow through with a dedicated plan.

Paul Hawkins’ new book and ground-restoring Project Drawdown has made this plan, indicating the best points for intervention in our anthropo-patriarchal-colonialist-scene. This blueprint shows the problem, in its glorious complexity, and details what interventions will produce what results. México, the first developing country to take the lead in reducing emissions through a carbon trading plan, is working on an important component of drawing down CO2 from industrial producers. Of course, a carbon tax is much smarter policy than a cap-and-trade system, as most climate policy scientists agree. Nonetheless, such leadership as México’s will no doubt have a cascading effect on other developing and BRIC countries, as the rest of the world gains more power as climate leaders in the vacuum left by the Trump presidency. Brazil and China are already stepping up, in various ways, and the US may soon be an island, exceptional only because no other country wants to trade with it until it institutes strong sustainability policies.

Understanding the changing dynamics of international politics through US abdication of responsibility despite its role as the world’s largest economy, and 2nd largest polluter (likely first largest, when we include Chinese imports), helps contextualize the contemporary situation. While from a media-saturated point-of-view, Trump and co. are dead-set on bringing about the apocalypse, from an international perspective, the long-overdue transfer of power to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America is simply being accomplished as these areas reduce trade with the US and stop looking to the US for guidance. What emerges from this transition will be exciting to watch. Perhaps an improved UN? Perhaps planetary citizenship, doing away with the need for climate refugees, instead implementing climate justice? Perhaps a new healthy form of regionalism? Perhaps reduced consumption? These exciting times promise nothing, but offer many exciting paths.

 

The Limits to Magical Thinking

Philip K. Dick once wrote: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” (“How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”, 1978).

It is so tempting, as academics, activists, or advertisers, to want to believe in a purely constructivist world.

Trump and Breitbart and Neonazis are not original in their glorification of alternative facts. New Agers have been at it for decades, with their fluff around abundance consciousness, making people responsible for being poor. It is only because you haven’t cleared away the cobwebs of scarcity consciousness, they croon, that you’re poor. Say nothing of institutionalized racism, inequality of opportunity, nepotism, trust-funds, or lookism. No, the New Age ideology long ago took Social Darwinism and internalized it, so that its interiorization meant that your socioeconomic level remained pegged to your inner spiritual development, nothing more.

Working in the world of public health policy and epidemiology, the writing is on the wall: placebo, as powerful as the effect is, only goes so far. There is a “there” there in the world of matter and things. For example with cigarettes, putting a filter on the cigarette–something initially lauded as a harm reduction measure–did not, despite millions in advertising dollars and the hopes of smokers wishing to resolve their cognitive dissonance, actually reduce negative health outcomes. If anything, filters allowed smokers to take deeper puffs, drawing smoke deeper into their lungs, while believing that they were somehow having their cake and eating (smoking?) it too. All the optimism in the world still gave them cancer. All of the social construction of smoking as safe did little to stave off the morbidity and mortality suffered. And this has also been the case with so-called “light” and “mild” cigarettes–fancy descriptors, with absolutely no scientific mooring.

So how do we square the circle of ideation, which admittedly is an attractive frame to believe in, with the hard reality that there is a world out there recalcitrant to the imposition of conceptualization? This question is wrapped up with the productive debates at the intersection of analytic and continental philosophy since the 1960’s, revolving around the “remainder” or différance (Derrida, “Cogito et histoire de la folie,” 1963). In the hermeneutic tradition, one can see this difference between the interpretation and how the text or event plays out against the asymptote of time. As time passes, the careful observer will detect glitches in the assumed way of seeing, and allow herself to shift perspective in accordance with how things really show up (or are revealed) in realtime versus accumulating more resistance to phenomena, building up increasingly elaborate hoaxes and twists to resolve an incompatible Weltbild with an increasing rebellious reality.

Ultimately, reality will win. But the more we try to save face, and sweep reality under the rug of ideology, the larger the dustbunny of death and destruction that comes from the disconnect between our acting as if reality were as we wished it, and how reality actually is, becomes. Currently, in late capitalism, we have been behaving as if we lived on an infinite earth, where every type of capital is interchangable with every other kind. But complex systems theory and punctuated equilibrium show us quite plainly that irreversability exists. No amount of technological hooha can change the arrow of time, and put things back as they once were, or create life and complexity ex nihilo. We can create houses from forests, but not forests from houses. Yet, in a commodity culture of transubstantiation, such as digital currency, where everything is reduced to a common “price” on the same scale of value, this great ontological flattening is precisely what occurs. We rage against reality with the relativism of fake sameness, praying to the false idol of fungibility. Perhaps, this is one of the problems with the object-oriented-ontology (OOO) or new materialism people–in the end, they are engaged in little more than the narcissistic solipsism of magical thinking.