The Need for, and the Problems of, Recycling

The modern economies rely on the supply of raw materials, and of these, elements are the most critical because there are no alternatives to them. Businesses will collapse if certain elements became unavailable, and the British Geological Society puts out a “risk list” of elements that have a risk of supply disruption. The list is debatable, because it includes political risk, thus the most risky from their perspective are the rare earth elements, the problem here being that China is essentially the main producer and reserve holder. These elements’ risk factors also depend on their demand, thus if there is no known use for something, it has zero risk because even if there is none of it, who cares? However, the overall conclusion is, we could have a problem. As in many such issues, not everyone agrees. Staff at the University of Geneva have published a report arguing that there is no shortage, at least for the foreseeable future. They argue you can mine over three kilometers below the Earth’s surface, or in the oceans. Whether you want to do this, or can even find the deposits, is less clear.

There is no shortage of elements but the bulk of them are distributed in very low concentrations in rock, or seawater. It may surprise some to know that there is plenty of gold in seawater. The problem is, it is rather dilute, and of course there are massive amounts of other materials. Thus there is about eleven tonnes of gold in a trillion tonnes of seawater. Good luck trying to get it out. Same with the rare earth elements. They are not especially rare; however they are particularly rare in workable deposits. Part of the problem is their chemistry has a certain similarity to aluminium, and as a result, they tend to be spread out amongst feldsic/granitic material and as microscopic inclusions (mixed with a lot of other stuff) in basalt. Rather interestingly, there are massive deposits on the Moon, where, as the Moon cooled down, the various rocks crystallised into solids, and one of the last of the liquids to solidify was KREEP, a mix of potassium (K), rare earth elements, and phosphate (P). This also indicates the reason why we have ore deposits on Earth: geological processing. Taking gold as an example, it, and silica dissolve in supercritical water, and as the water comes to the surface and cools down, the gold and the silica come out of solution, which is why you find gold in quartz veins. There are, of course, a variety of geological routes to make ores, but geology is a slow process, so once we run out of easy to find deposits, we have a deep problem. And on a planet such as Mars, there has not been so much geological processing, and no plate tectonics.

One way out of this is recycling, if you can work out how to do it and make a dollar. One big user of rare elements is mobile phones. Thus the “swipe-screen” uses indium/tin oxide, the electronics use copper, silver and gold for carrying current, tantalum for microcapacitors, and neodymium in the magnets. These are the critical elements, and in general there are no substitutes for their specific uses. However, the total number of elements used can be up to sixty. The problem for recycling is first, to get hold of the old ones, as opposed to have them lying about or thrown in the trash, and then to separate out what you want. If you simply melt them, you get a horrible mix. The process could be simplified if the phones could be split into parts, thus only the screens contain indium, but how do you do that?

Early on in my scientific career, I was asked by a company to devise a means of recycling coloured plastics. I did this, a pilot plant was built, a few bugs were ironed out and we could recycle coloured polyethylene to get a very light beige product that could be made into new coloured products by the addition of pigments, and the casual user would not know the difference between that and new plastics for most uses. So this should have been a success? Well, no. There were two problems. This was during the oil crisis of the seventies, and what had happened was that there was an oversupply of new polyethylene in the world. Such surplus was dumped on the New Zealand market, where “it would not do any harm”. That dumping made the venture economically unsustainable. Some time later, the dumping stopped, but by this time the original company had lost interest. Also, the manufacturers introduced more cross-linking, and in a quick demonstration, the process did not work without altering the conditions beyond what had been assumed. There were ways around that, but the warning was clear: the manufacturers were not being friendly to recycling as they kept their information close to their chests. Such changes really hinder recycling. However, that was not the worst: new laminates started appearing, and these were a horror for recycling because the two or more different plastics put together as layers do not separate easily, and any product made from a resultant mix will be of very low quality.

So, we can either have a problem with elements, or we can recycle. Recyclers tend not to have the high technology of the multinational corporations, so my recommendation is, manufacturers should be made to design their goods in a way that aids recycling. For example, a laptop or a mobile phone has lithium ion batteries. It is also essentially impossible to get the battery out when it dies and leave the item in a workable condition. It might suit the manufacturer to force the consumer to buy another laptop as opposed to a new battery, but as the technology matures, is that good enough? Similarly, if the motherboards could be removed/replaced, that would aid recycling and also reduce demand for new gadgets. When I was young, people fixed things. I think it is time to return to those times, and also make objects as recyclable as possible. The problem then is, how do you manage that in a market where competition rules, and the consumer does not think about recycling when he or she buys a new product?

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How would uncontrolled growth affect society?

In the previous blog, I mentioned Paul Ehrlich’s dystopian view of the future, based on the argument, which is indisputably true, that you cannot have exponential growth on a fixed area. That is straightforward mathematics, and there is no way around it. Once upon a time, apparent limits were dealt with by emigration, thus many from Europe that could not make out went to America, but that was only available because we could expand the area. There is, of course, the rest of the Universe, essentially an unlimited volume, but there are problems, the most obvious one of which is that we have no way of getting there right now.

So, what do we do? Many will argue that we can put off the decisions. Thus the resource shortage is not imminent. Oil is obviously going to run out eventually, but eventually should be a long way away. We can make out and deal with that when it turns up, right? In my view, wrong. As illustrated in the futuristic ebook novels that I am writing to illustrate my argument, I think there is a worse problem: economics. What has happened is that governments have tended to leverage themselves. The idea is simple enough: if you borrow now, then grow nicely, it is far easier to pay back in the future. Much of the infrastructure built in the early twentieth century was constructed this way. That is fine while the economy is growing, but less so when it begins to contract. Think of owning a home. As your salary increases, mortgage repayments are progressively easier, but if your salary decreases or ends, or if interest rates rise, an overcommitted home-owner faces insolvency. And with fixed resources, certain types of growth go on indefinitely. We cannot know when opportunities will cease to arise, but we know they will.

In my ebook Puppeteer, I suggested a future where the cost of filling a car, admittedly with a big tank, cost $1,000. Because of the cost of oil, only too many people could not get to work so employment dropped, tax takes dropped, consumption dropped dramatically hence businesses collapsed and governments became insolvent. The problem then is, everybody still has to live, they have to eat, they have to keep out of the rain. At first, people try to get by and the wealthier ones succeed, but what happens to those who cannot? How many of those who are not wealthy but who are in a position of power or authority will not try to use that position for personal benefit? My guess was that lawlessness and corruption would obviously increase. Not everybody will become lawless, but enough will to make a country ungovernable at which point society starts to fall to pieces. If the choice is between robbery and starving, what would you do? Of course this will not happen overnight, and Puppeteer is set as the decay is commencing, and the plot involves one person’s scheme to avoid collapse by organizing the greatest piece of terrorism with the goal of bringing everyone to their senses.

Why write such a novel? Apart from the fact it gave an environment to write a thriller, I am hoping that some of the thoughts expressed might make people think. If we go back to Ehrlich’s equation, the outcome is not inevitable. There is no reason why we cannot use our brains and work out a way to avoid these desperate outcomes. But if we are going to do that, there is no time better to start than now. And that will start with working out what we have to do and how we are going to pay for it. Of course you would not approve of the terror methodology in Puppeteer (and neither do I), but what do you think could bring governments to act for the long-term benefit of society?

Voting: a right or an obligation?

Nobody can predict the future, but I think you can make reasonable guesses about some aspects of it based on applying logic to current evidence. An example might be, eventually, if we keep expanding our use of fossil oil, there will come a time when production cannot match needs. After all, we are using oil that was formed tens of millions of years ago, and even if nature is still making it, it is doing so too slowly to be of any further use to us. We do not know how much is there, so we do not know when the shortage will bite, but we know it will sooner or alter. In logic, our choices would appear to include (a) find an alternative source of energy, (b) find an alternative means of making products similar to what is made from oil, e.g. biofuels, (c) find an alternative means of propelling vehicles, e.g. electric vehicles, (d) transport fewer things and more slowly, e.g. walk to work, use wind-powered ships. There are probably others, but that is not the issue. What is obvious, at least to me, is that at some time in the future, those in power will have to make some very difficult decisions that will affect everyone’s future. The question is, how will they decide? And how will the decision makers be chosen? In a democracy, the voters select the decision-makers, but what happens if the election is based on little more than attractiveness on TV?

 What bothers me is that only too many people are not interested in thinking, but in our democracy, they have equal influence. As an example, check out some of the debates on evolution. Some people seem to believe asserting evolution is a challenge to their belief in God. Their thinking then goes, God is, therefore evolution is not. This is just silly logic. There is absolutely no connection between whether God or evolution, or both, are true. Einstein was amongst one of the greatest scientists of all times and he happily accepted evolution, and he believed strongly in God. The issue lies in the failure of many to accept and analyze the facts through logic. Strictly speaking, it hardly matters whether everybody properly consider evolution, but it matters if people stop logically analyzing the facts when forming policy upon which millions of lives depend. Should not everybody who wants to vote accept the responsibility of thinking about the issues?

 The question then is, what can be done about this? When I was writing the trilogy of futuristic novels, starting with A Face on Cydonia, I needed a new form of government to get around this problem. What I proposed was that many countries formed a Federation, they retained their national governments, but the Federation Government had members appointed partly by election from sections of the community, but all candidates had to be approved as capable of doing the job for which they were standing. Their role was to determine whether a given policy was workable, and to show what the consequences of implementation would be, and to prevent anything that would give consequences outside those considered “acceptable”. People standing for power had to announce in advance essentially what they were going to do, although of course there was always flexibility for reasonably unforeseen circumstances. The novels, of course, are not intended as a political treatise, but merely to provide some rules that the characters must follow.

 What I was trying to do, though, is to suggest that decisions have to be made based on analysis of the situation, and based on the facts. The stories are based on the obvious problem: people do not necessarily follow the rules. Nevertheless, I feel that it is important that governments behave logically. I am sure that with climate change, debt, decreasing availability of easy resources and an increasing population, some difficult decisions will need to be taken. If we get it right, future generations will be secure, but if we do not, then we are in trouble. My argument is that the time to start thinking about these problems is now. Do you agree?

How to reward people fairly? 2

In my previous post I raised the question of people being overpaid for what they do. This raises the questions: What is a reasonable reward? Who decides? On what basis do they decide? How much does someone really need to accept the job? Who pays?

The last question is the most straightforward for a company; it is the owners, or the shareholders, who pay. They pay for the salaries, they reap the rewards of success, and they pay the price of failure. Now, you may say, they can afford it, and sometimes they can, but also stop and think about how much of this investment came from pension funds. The managers of the investment funds do not lose, but rather it is ultimately the pensioners, who can least afford it.

Looking at who decides, we now see what I believe is a real problem: the people who set the boss’s salary are often either directly or indirectly setting their own rewards. If the investors vote, it is the managers of the investment funds who actually do the voting, and their salaries and rewards are usually set according “to what is general in the market”, but they in turn are creating the market price by setting CEO salaries/rewards in the companies on which they sit on the Boards. Anyone see a hint of a conflict of interest here?

However, it is the question of what is reasonable wherein the problem lies. A comment on my first post seemed to think that $25 million per annum was reasonable, obviously for a CEO of a really major company. The question now is, why? As I noted in the previous post, someone like Steve Jobs is almost unique, and deserves whatever he can get. There are also some that run small companies, and I have heard of one or two in the finance industry that have made extraordinary returns for their investors, and while they end up billionaires, I see that what they get as quite fair. They made the money in circumstances where just about everyone else was losing it, so they deserve to keep a good fraction of it. A really stellar performance at least justifies stellar returns. The trouble is, only too many get into such positions and turn in quite disastrous performances when the going gets tough. Worse than that, in some cases they can turn in near fraudulent performances, and fraud is probably the least punished crime.

Does fairness matter? I think it will if there is a real resource shortage, as is almost inevitable in the future? If supply cannot meet possible demand, those with large amounts of money have an extremely unfair advantage. To get around this, in my future history ebooks, I have introduced in A Face on Cydonia, a somewhat different system of payment. In this, you can negotiate whatever payment you can get, but there is rationing of all resource-constrained goods, and everyone gets personalized coupons that must be used to acquire them. That means that while higher salaries lead to the ability to purchase more fashionable things, and some other objects such as art that are not couponed, money itself becomes less of a goal. There are no coupons for private jets and so on. Of course, this creates some additional problems that will be part of the plots of future ebooks, however if anyone wants to suggest some, and if they are useful enough to incorporate in some of the follow-up novels, I promise your suggestions will be acknowledged.