You Must Read—Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade

Hard as I try to imagine the cars that this rubble once was, I can’t. It’s like standing in a supermarket meat section, staring at a package of hamburger and trying to imagine cows. [Page 229]

We, as consumers in Western countries, do not really recycle. We harvest. When we dutifully put our recyclables in one bin or seven, depending on the country’s recycling norms, we are just harvesting the raw material for the people who really recycle our old bottles, cans, Christmas lights, and so on. For most of us that bin of nearly-trash is out of sight and out of mind while we have assuaged our green guilt for another day.

9781608197910The words at the top are Adam Minter’s, who brings childhood memories of being the son of a scrapyard owner and a unique perspective to Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, so it is surprising that sometimes he cannot see the trees for the forest when it comes to scrap. It speaks to the transformation that our end products go through once they leave our possession and become “trash.” I, like the author, am hesitant to call anything trash after reading this book because somewhere, usually in a developing economy hungry for jobs and cheap raw materials, has found a way to extract something of value for either reuse or recycling from our refuse.

Adam Minter’s father and grandmother ran a scrapyard in the Twin Cities, which sparked a lifelong interest in the colorful world of scrap. The story, like so many nowadays, really comes to fruition in China where the author details the workshops and companies that hoover material in the United States and other countries to fuel China’s economic growth. Without the recycling of scrap from the developed Western countries it is quite possible that China would not be enjoying the amazing economic growth of recent history.

It’s stunning the value that can be gleaned from surprising places. There are workshops in China that specialize in removing the copper wire from string lights. You know, those little twinkly lights that hipsters love to decorate patios with, have some copper but it’s wrapped in a lot of nearly worthless insulation. I say nearly worthless because someone figured out that slipper makers could use the plastic for the soles of inexpensive shoes.

The story about the recycling of cars surprised me the most. I always assumed that cars were recycled, but there was a period when rising wages post-World War II combined with a boom in the sales of cars created a situation where more cars were being junked than could be economically broken down into recyclable parts. Millions of cars polluted the landscape until someone came up with an effective way to shred the cars into little flakes of metal. It was only recently that we finally caught up to the backlog of cars that were abandoned and that was perhaps a function of the economic crisis that slowed the retirement of older automobiles. Also interesting was the fact that the average junked car has $1.65 in loose change. How come I can never find that money when I am looking for meter fare?

The thing that nagged at me the entire book was the thought of how much stuff was buried in landfills across the United States. Before it was economical to shred cars or mechanically separate mixed metals or strip metals from electronics that trash was probably buried. It’s just sitting somewhere, interred until we could figure out a way to economically mine and process the material. Are we sitting on billions of dollars of buried waste?

Junkyard Planet is a trip into a world most of us will never see or consider because we have no access or concept of how the scrap economy functions. Heck, most of us could not tell you where the closest junkyard actually is located unless we repair cars or have a predilection for odd Instructables that require things like washing machine motors.

Friday Linkage 11/21/2014

Winter blew in with some force. Keystone XL went down in the Senate. Obama pissed off Republicans by leading, taking executive action, and doing something about the mess that is U.S. immigration policy. Remember, every time you hear a Republican moan about the imperial presidency these were the same people who were okay with W using signing statements to change the intent of laws. Every time a Republican screams an angel’s head explodes.

On to the links…

Chicken Abuse Revealed by Undercover Videos at Koch Foods Sites—Well, it looks like the Kochs just don’t hate liberals but they also hate chickens.  I wonder how fast ag gag laws are going to show up in every state with a Koch funded legislator and lobbyist?

Emissions Rules Yield Little Benefit along Colorado’s Front Range—Basically, even if emissions from any one particular well are decreasing the impact of so many new wells swamps the improvement of a single site. If you drive anywhere in eastern Colorado you get a real sense of the boom in oil and gas drilling.

‘Scandalous’ Solyndra Program Actually Earned Taxpayers A $5 Billion Profit—Where is Darrell Issa’s righteous indignation now? Oh right, he’s a vaudeville performer in politician’s clothing. The program, in total, worked even if particular projects failed.

Don Blankenship Charged with Conspiracy over Mine Explosion that Killed 29—Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy or a snappier dresser:

rally12_i0909072049581.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scaleIn case you were wondering, he plead not guilty.

New ‘Solar Cloth’ Allows Solar Cells To Be Stretched Across Parking Lots, Stadiums—The U.S. is covered in an estimated 61,000 square miles of roads and parking lots. Imagine if just a fraction of that were covered in relatively easy to deploy solar cloth?

Google, IKEA, And SunEdison Bought A Lot Of Wind Power This Week—Private companies and utilities are adding a lot of wind to their portfolios. I wonder what the driver of this behavior is right now?

Wave Goodbye to the Two-Car Family—Has there been a bigger driver of bad planning behavior than the American love affair with the personal automobile? Not that I can think of, but the switch away from auto ownership will have equally huge outcomes.

The 10 Biggest Factors Changing Millennial Driving Habits—I was going to blame hipsters, but it looks like there are a lot of correlations driving behavior here.

Why Going to the Library is one of the Best Things I Do—I think I said something similar a short while ago, even using the term “original sharing economy.” It’s good to see people agree with me.

Hellmann’s Are a Bunch of Giant, Eggless “Mayo”-Slinging Hypocrites—These clowns got all huffy with a company using the term mayonnaise in reference to their spread which did not contain eggs, but the plaintiffs also did the same thing. Huh? Oh right, it’s big food trying to smash an upstart. My bad.

Appliance Science: The illuminating physics behind LED lights—LEDs are transforming lighting, but how many of us actually understand how the little buggers work?

Thank God I’m not in Buffalo

It may really feel like winter is tightening its grip on Iowa, but with milder temperatures on the way I can only look in horror at the snow-pocalypse that is slamming western New York.

I feel for this guy:

WINTRY_WEATHER_NEW_YORK_31758957I’ve been there.  Scraping ice and brushing snow off your vehicle, but finally just saying, “Screw it, I’m cranking the defrost and getting on with my day.”  Granted, I’ve never been rolling down the street with multiple feet on top of my car.  Not yet anyway.

Stuff I Like: Benchmade 551

Knives are tools. However, a lot of people I know will spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on tools and equipment for their favorite outdoor pursuits while topping it off with a no name knife from your local purveyor of things made in China.

If you want to “step your game up” then you need to get a Benchmade. In my opinion, these are the best knives you can affordably purchase. Yes, the knives are expensive compared to the blister packed little lockbacks that are probably 5 for $10 on Black Friday. Yes, you can find handmade knives from folded steel recycled from Japanese swords with handles of thousand year old driftwood. However, when I head out into the wilderness or just try and drive across I-80 through Nebraska it is a Benchmade that I will be carrying.

The model that I am particular too is the 551 Griptilian:

Benchmade 551

I chose to forego the serrated blade in favor of a simple edge. Why? Sharpening serrated blades is difficult to impossible and the sharpening service from Benchmade does not include that portion of the blade. That is right; Benchmade will sharpen and “tune” your knife for the low, low price of $5. Does the low dollar knife in your pack look a little less shiny now?

The blade itself comes from the factory wicked sharp and I have never felt the need to sharpen a Benchmade myself. Made of 154CM stainless steel the blade should provide years upon years, if not a lifetime, of service with minimal care and maintenance.

The 551 features the excellent AXIS locking system which utilizes a small button near where your thumb would be placed to unlock the blade. It clicks with a noticeable thwack, but the action is smooth.

The other thing that sets a Benchmade knife apart from imitators is that the little details are taken care of. The liners in a locking blade knife are the metal which the plastic handles attach. In a lot of cheaper knives these will either be plastic—the horror—or cheap steel—the corrosion. In the 551 and other Benchmade folding knives the inserts are made from stainless steel.

In a world where we hear about nothing being manufactured in the United States, rest assured that every knife from Benchmade is made in America. It’s a little thing, but I like to think that there is still a place for making things in the United States.

Do yourself a favor and upgrade your knife to a Benchmade. Good things come in blue boxes.

The Joni Ernst Watch 11/17/2014

Joni “Make ‘em squeal” Ernst is rarely without something to say.

Somehow, I missed this little tidbit of pre-election fear mongering and rhetorical vomiting from Iowa’s soon-to-be junior senator:

That’s where he is a leader. So many of the actions that he proposes taking are actions that should be done by Congress. Not by the president. He is our executive. He is our leader. He is our president. Congress should be making the legislative actions.

Wow. It’s hard to contradict yourself in the same statement and make absolutely no sense at the same time, but Joni is game for trying. What she is trying to say, I think, is that the president should lead more and lead less. Who is to decide when to lead more and lead less? Probably Joni Ernst or Rand Paul or maybe even Ted Cruz. Speaking of Ted Cruz…

In the “too good to be true” department it looks like Ted Cruz now has a sequel to his awesome coloring book. This time Ted Cruz” saves America.”  It’s too perfect for good ol’ Ted:

Cruz-HydraI am a little surprised he is not also smacking liberals while also defending our freedoms.

Man oh man, I wish there was a Joni Ernst coloring book. You could title it “Joni Ernst Made ‘em Squeal.”

Friday Linkage 11/14/2014

You want to talk about winter? It arrived with a bang this week. Near sixty degrees and pleasant on Monday and it plunged into the teens with a nice brisk wind by Wednesday. Now it’s Friday and people are consigned to have the parkas out until spring. At least Ullr was nice and dropped fresh powder in Breckenridge.

On to the links…

SeaWorld Earnings PLUMMET As Outrage Over Orca Treatment Grows—SeaWorld is hurting. The documentary Blackfish is killing them in the public sphere and people are voting with their feet by not coming to the park in numbers. So much so that the company had to admit as much in its earnings release. Keep up the pressure folks. It’s working.

Voters In 19 States Just Committed More Than $13 Billion For Conservation—The mid-term election was a disaster from some perspectives, but ballot initiatives in 19 states set aside some serious money for land conservation.

Climate Tools Seek to Bend Nature’s Path—Be wary of geo-engineering and the promise of being able to continue in a business as usual mode with regard to our changing the climate. Sounds like snake oil to me.

Fossil Fuels Reap $550 Billion in Subsidies, Hindering Renewables Investment—Do you want to know why there are not solar panels on everyone’s house in the world? Because fossil fuels suck up billions of dollars in subsidies every year. Remember, these are the most profitable companies in the history of humankind.

How the World Uses Coal – Interactive—Coal is not dead, but it is down. Maybe with a few more knockdowns we can call it a TKO.

France Breaks Ground on Europe’s Largest Solar Plant—Some people get excited to see fields of sunflowers or bluebells. I get excited to see rows and rows of solar panels. 300MW of solar PV is a lot of rows.

Wind Power Generated 126% of Scotland’s Household Energy Needs Last Month—Granted, it was windy and demand was not particularly high but over 100% of power anywhere from renewables is a good thing.

UK Approves 750-Megawatt Offshore Wind Project—This is some serious offshore wind. Just imagine if the U.S. developed some of the offshore wind capacity in the eastern part of the country?

Here Comes the Sun: America’s Solar Boom, in Charts—Just check out how big the solar revolution is going to be in the near future.

40% Renewable Energy Integration No Trouble For Midwest—Iowa is probably going to be the test bed for this theory as the percentage of our power generated from wind is quickly approaching the 40% mark with proposed projects coming on-line.

New Bounty of Oysters in Maryland, but There Is a Snag—As we look to intensively use more and more spaces, particularly arable land and coastlines, there are bound to be conflicts that arise. Can’t we all just get along?

U.S.D.A. Approves Modified Potato. Next Up: French Fry Fans.—Do we really need a GMO potato so that people can eat more fast food French fries? Just asking.

The Biggest Lies About Science in the U.S. Government’s “Wastebook”—Conservatives love to publish little missives about waste and corruption by stretching the truth and acting like clowns. Here are some classics from a recent example. Remember, these are the people who preface every statement about science with “I’m not a scientist…”

Cash for Grass Changing the Landscape in California Drought—Why anyone would have a green lawn west of say Omaha is beyond me. Heck, I live in a place where do not need to water our lawn and I want to get rid of even more grass.

Saving the Last Wild Bison—Bison are amazing animals. A truly American animal that we should celebrate much more so than the stupid cow.

Gunnison Sage Grouse gets Federal Protection to Prevent Extinction—A lot of policy watchers anticipate this issue to be as contentious as the spotted owl decision in the 20th century. Instead of logging, a declining industry at the time of the spotted owl controversy, this impacts oil and gas. Get ready.

Sea World is Getting Hammered

On November 13th I captured this chart:

SeaWorldThis is the price and volume of the stock SEAS on the New York Stock Exchange. SEAS is the ticker symbol for SeaWorld. Needless to say, it is not a comfortable place to be if you are in investor relations right now. On that same day the current low is less than half of what the 52-week high had been. ($16.77 per share on November 13th versus a high of $35.30 on February 26th). Brutal.

The great thing about a company being publicly traded is that SEC requires a lot of information to be filed—granted it is in a sometimes archaic format—and institutional investors as for a lot of additional information if you want them to open their huge purses. All of this information floats around the tubes of the internet waiting to get sucked up and analyzed by eager parties. Like me.

I have little or no love for SeaWorld. The documentary Blackfish and books like David Kirby’s Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity just confirm long held suspicions that ocean animals belong in the ocean. These animals are not performers.

So, it is refreshing to see that there are direct impacts to people being upset about the practices at SeaWorld. How upset? If you look at the quarterly numbers released recently people are pissed and voting with their feet. Attendance at the parks—which include the infamous SeaWorld parks, Busch Gardens theme parks, and some other random parks—was down 5.2% compared to the same quarter in 2013, which is bad, but revenue was down an astounding 8% during the same period comparison.

These are horrific numbers. The executives of SeaWorld and the analysts gave them a pass on the real reason and stuck to the usual lines of weather, competition, blah…blah…blah…

The fact is that people do not want to patronize a business that is a deadly place to work and that holds animals captive in such deplorable conditions. We dislike zoos that are squalid, puppy mills that are exploitative, and marine parks that are pathetic.

If you are someone who is passionate about this issue please keep up the pressure because the impacts are being seen. People are staying away and, as a publicly traded company, we can see deep into the belly of the beast when it comes to results.