Waste management consultant Reginald Cox, P.Eng., 47, of Brampton, Ontario was found slumped over his desk over the weekend, dead from an apparent brain aneurysm triggered by his attempt to figure out a funding formula for end-of-life management of product and packaging waste for Ontario’s nascent stewardship program for household hazardous and special waste (HHSW).
“It was tragically ironic that Mr. Cox really needed an end-of-life management system for himself,” stated Inspector Constable Keith Johannes of the Brampton police force, noting that special forensics personnel were called to the scene, because at first the death appeared suspicious.
“Normally with death from a stroke or aneurysm the deceased is found unconscious with little apparent physical trauma, other than perhaps some bruising or swelling in the face, neck or shoulders, said Constable Johannes.
“However, in this case Mr. Cox appeared to be missing part of his cranium that we later found on the opposite side of his study, as though his brain had sort of ‘exploded’ due to some kind of stress.”
Constable Johannes noted that Cox’s face remained frozen in a pained and frustrated grimace, with his fists clenched on either side of his temples, and his teeth bared as though gnashing.
After several hours of investigation and interviews with family and friends, police were eventually able to rule out foul play when papers were discovered underneath Cox’s slumped body containing various complicated mathematical formulae, repeatedly crossed out and attempted over and over again, apparently without success. This was initially puzzling until one detective noticed the calculations were in response to Cox’s attempt to solve one of the great mysteries of contemporary mathematics and theoretical physics, something that was apparently just too much for his brain to handle.
The riddle, known to mathematicians as the “HHSW Enigma,” concerns calculating a single formula via which manufacturers, retailers and other “stewards” could arrive at the appropriate fee to charge consumers for the recycling and safe disposal of common household hazardous wastes such as old barbeque lighters and used up cans of mosquito spray.
A million-dollar prize has been offered by the Keppler Institute at the University of Switzerland in Berne for the first individual or team to solve the riddle – a prize that has thus far remained unclaimed.
It appeared that one team of municipal recycling coordinators was close to solving the mystery, but their submission was dismissed by the Keppler Institute as being too simplistic. (The team had apparently come up with the idea that producers should simply absorb the cost of end-of-life management of their waste and packaging materials without attempting to pass it along to consumers in the form of an eco fee.) There was considerable controversy over the Keppler Institute’s dismissal of the proposal, which was described as “elegant” and “as beautiful as DNA” by some commentators in the scientific community.
“Cox’s total brain infarction is a warning to all of us of the risks of going it alone with the HHSW Enigma,” said Jo-Anne St’ Godard, Executive Director of the Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO), clearly shaken by the untimely death of Cox who was a friend and professional colleague.
“I remember when he sat on the RCO board back in the 1980s,” said St. Godard, wiping away tears. “He was working for Alcan at that time, trying to figure out how to separate the thin serrated-edge metal strip from cardboard aluminum-foil boxes [that allow one to tear off individual sheets], which present a hazard to “pickers” in recycling plants, who sometimes lose fingers or hands to the things.”
“It was one of his life’s great disappointments that he never solved that problem,” said St. Godard, noting that the razor strips are still ubiquitous on aluminum foil boxes.
“And now this,” she said.
Noted recycling consultant and former Pollution Probe Executive Director Colin Isaacs, reached by telephone in his castle in Stoney Creek, Ontario, said that a combination of three things appears to have caused Cox’s brain to explode into a pink mist.
“We’ve all been struggling with the HHSW Enigma, said Isaacs, “so there was nothing unique for Cox about that. Back in the OMMRI days, I solved math problems almost as difficult each day before breakfast.
“It looks like it was the combination of that with his sorrow over never solving the aluminum foil strip, plus one other thing that proved to much for the man.”
That thing, said Isaacs, is the related question of how to reform the rules that govern Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO) – the arm’s length agency that oversees policy development and fee setting for the province’s various stewardship programs.
“It was absolutely fatal to attempt to sort out the WDO’s arcane rules while trying to solve the HHSW Enigma,” said Isaacs, who left the conversation abruptly to feed the wolf pack that patrols his castle’s perimeter.
Staff from Solid Waste & Recycling magazine showed a police photocopy of some of Cox’s calculations to waste diversion expert and unicyclist Usman Valiante, who lives not far from Cox’s Brampton residence in a fortified compound in the hills outside Orangeville, Ontario.
“This is some bat-crazy you-know-what,” said Valiante, pointing to hieroglyphs, Sanskrit symbols and even some cuneiform markings used in the calculations. “Though it contributed to his demise, I think Cox may have been onto something using the Egyptian Book of the Dead in understanding how to assign just the right point-of-sale fee for each butane lighter, bottle of oven cleaner or can of Goo Gone sold at Canadian Tire or the Home Depot.”
Valiante attempted to apply some of Cox’s calculations to determining a fair fee for end-of-life management for the plastic bottles and the thingy with the pin sticking out of it that comes with each tiny tube of Super Glue – the curse of every recycling equipment manufacturer — but had to give up within about 30 minutes due to the onset of a migraine headache.
“Even insiders in the environment ministry are starting to realize the HHSW Enigma may never be solved,” said Valiante, noting that the million dollar prize may remain unclaimed and taxpayers may have to foot the bill for the disposal of many household hazardous wastes for years to come.
It appears our society has come a long way from the era when burly men would visit the doctor for a sprained ankle or torn ligament from tossing the contents of a metal garbage can into a truck. Gone also are the days when recycling consultants would be hospitalized from time to time from exhaustion or temporary insanity from trying to figure out the cross-subsidy costs of the blue box and its “basket of goods” approach.
“The death of my husband is a warning for everyone about the risks of our modern waste diversion practices,” said Mrs. Cox, who asked that in place of flowers a donation in her husband’s name be made to the Society to Separate and Recycle Aluminum Foil Packaging Metal Razor Strips (SSRAFPMRS) in Bauxite, Minnesota.