PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN: Hong Kong Moon Shot, NGO #Ewaste Mistake of a Decade

As multiple reporters recited from the press releases from MIT Senseable City and Basel Action Network this year, we heard descriptions of Hong Kong's New Territories, Yuen Long, and Tin Shui Wai in particular, which were familiar to people who went to high school 2-3 decades ago.
"Rice Paddy".  "Primitive".  "Child Labor."
But they missed the largest, most modern E-Waste processing facility ever seen on earth.

WEEETRF stands for "Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Treatment and Recycling Facility"

MIT's central claim is that the GPS Tracking Devices revealed "Previously Unknown" things about the used electronics trade.   And they found "mistakes made" by R2 and E-Steward certified companies.

But the biggest "previously unknown" is still unreported.

Two years ago, the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department (EPA) launched a "moon shot."  And Basel Action Network didn't just miss it.  THEY HID IT.

But they had to say something about it... something in small print.  Actually this just describes the $45M investment at LTG, they didn't actually mention the $550M WEEETRF next door.

How is this NOT THE PBS HEADLINE?  NGO went to huge lengths to hide the largest e-waste recycling facility on the planet, led everyone to a puny junkyard as "representative of hundreds of similar dumps" (really?) in Hong Kong ... a statement they have to make because there's no significant truck traffic, nothing approximating the volumes BAN says are going there (the Agbogbloshie problem).  But they track stuff to the WEEETRF and to end users of repaired devices in Tin Shui Wai, and when I call them out... they attack ME?

Previously Unknown, or Continuously Unknown?

Geography Baiting 6: Granular Images of Recycling in Asia

My response to BAN's report "Scam Recycling" is not a criticism of tracking technology as a methodology.  And I'm not a critic of MIT or the Basel Convention.

Basel Action Network, using funding from The Body Shop Foundation, successfully added a lot of granularity to the discussion about exports of used electronics internationally.  The Data is interesting.   A peer review process, using scientific method, could have produced a great report, and could have protected the privacy of unwitting and unwilling test subjects in all the countries involved.  And to the degree that data is released rather than "obscured", it can be assessed by professionals like myself, and academics, and policy can evolve.

And that's happening. Josh Lepawsky of MUN's Geography department has repopulated many of the data points that were obscured on BAN/Monitour (though not all - Foshan is missing, as is EcoPark).

Is BAN playing games with the data?  If so, MIT Ethics office should recognize that its students (remember we have the names of the ones who placed a device in Somerville) are pawns.

I'm a critic of one thing.  Environmental Malpractice.  For a decade, this blog has attempted to offer an "anti-defamation" defense vs. Basel Action Network's game of tokenism, profiling, geography-baiting, race-baiting, and slander.  The people I'm most concerned about today are the Chinese printer technicians who make repair and reuse of laser printers as commonplace in China as automobile repair in the USA.  Or, put another way, as common as repair of laser printers was in the USA in 1995.  Because of the history economy printer cartridges - which cost as much as ball point pens to make, but sell for over $20 - printers are a specialty business which has been under attack since I first visited China's Nanhai/Foshan district in 2002, the year BAN visited Guiyu and Adam Minter arrived in Shanghai.

It's extremely difficult for Fair Trade Recycling to defend a printer economy which is kept in the "informal" sector by forces which defy Americans understanding of reuse economies.  Fifteen years ago, I assumed that anyone paying double the price of scrap for laser printers, but who refuses to buy inkjet printers, knew what they were doing, and had to be in the reuse parts business.  When I visited those markets, I was uneasy. They were very small, dirty shops.  Sometimes the work was outdoors. But you saw clearly that the sandaled brown and yellow people were sorting the printers by size and brand.  I found out that the reuse markets for certain LaserJet 4s had more to do with industrial machine repair (using the same memory cards) than it had to do with Laser printing.  And I found out about, and Arizona Cartridge Manufacturers, and Jazz Camera.

I also found out that these markets are virtually untraceable and impossibly unaccountable. If I met a printer scrap buyer in person, and managed to communicate in Chinese, I learned that from his perspective scrap was "liquid". If he found the same printer I sold him closer to him, he felt he'd fulfilled his obligations and what happened to my physical printer was irrelevant.  From his perspective, it was as if I was trying to track the serial numbers on a hundred dollar bill I'd used to transfer money by Paypal.

Geography Baiting 5: How Can You Say No?

You are approached by an R2 Certified Chicago Recycler, who has decades of experience in copy machine refurbishing.  You have seen and photographed copy machine refurbishing, overseas, yourself.

The Chicago company has news about a state-of-the-art recycling facility in Hong Kong.  Hong Kong is wealthier, per capita, than the USA.  You know it's near the center of printer parts repurposing, and demand for recycled plastic - the plastic that you know is being lost in big shredding operation.

You check the downstream.  Hong Kong Environmental Department considers printers non-hazardous waste.  The facility identified in Hong Kong is also R2 certified.  You request verification of where the focus materials (circuit boards) go, and track them to Dowa and Umicore...

"You should have refused to ship there".

Really?  Why exactly, given the information above, should we have said "no"?

Deflection Option:  You can say you sent it to Chicago, not overseas.  But the fact is that you knew it could have gone overseas.  You just don't believe what BAN tells us about "primitives" in Hong Kong.

If you were to say no based on the Hong Kong facility, advertised as being state of the art, able to make the highest and best end use of the printers, how would you justify boycotting them?  How can you say no?  On what basis?

I could think of only one reason.  Bigotry. Racial profiling of Hong Kong as a place with "hundreds of junkyards" and "rice paddies".   Fear of the other.

Geography Baiting 4: BAN Investigates Un-American Recycling Activities

Well, this guy must not be a credible source...

"Just a few days after arrival, the printer left Vermont and travelled to the Chicago area and then onwards to the port of Long Beach, California. It next pinged off of the coast of mainland China before arriving at the port of Hong Kong. Two days later it was in Mr. Lai’s Farm. " - Jim Puckett

He's talking about ME.

Sounds very "Un-American".  Sounds like Evidence that we are exporting 40% of our waste, according to BAN.  Or worse, sounds like companies that PAY the NGO tribute money are a "safe" solution to the Un-American problem, we must be shipping more than 40% just to buck up the average.

Caution:  Wet Taint

Sounds like.  This NGO makes a lot of noise, but the report they issued says in one place that 50%-80% of devices are exported, in another place over 80% are exported, and in the press release says 40% are exported.  In Geography Baiting #3 we showed what the actual MIT data say, and when corrected for the sampling error (not GPS tracking the 60-80% of e-waste that's almost never exported), what they actually have is data that is pretty close to the 7%-15% range of other vetted studies.

But this is about sound.  Jim doesn't want people to listen to me, he wants to discredit the blog.  So he's got a GPS on a device purchased by an R2 Company in Hong Kong, traces it to an R2 Company we sold it to in greater Chicago, and traced that back to us, who was downstream for our client in greater Boston - the one with no public drop off point - who someone told MIT undergrads to deposit the normally reuseable laser printer they were told to sabotage inside.

They did probably expose something we didn't know - that the buyer of our buyer in Hong Kong is using Hong Kong EPD's non-chemical non-hazardous waste classification of printers to outsource those devices on the cheap.  That's information, and we began acting on it last May.

But the "Geography Baiting" is making all Asian recyclers - all "Un-American" recyclers, seem primitive.  Telling readers that what happened to Robin could happen to you.  If a device might be reused, might be repaired, but someday eventually gets disposed, it will impugn you for doing business with someone who does business with someone who does business with someone overseas in the first place.  That is why they name the client in greater Boston, who is 4 transactions away.  

We do allow some printers to be exported.  Not very many.  Less than 6% of the printers that arrive at Good Point Recycling are intended or approved for reuse, and it was one of those BAN tracked to the R2 buyer whose R2 buyer sold it to someone at MLPF. 

Our problem at Good Point is that we believe in, and want to support rather than boycott, the best practices and state-of-art recycling in emerging markets.  We now know that the downstream 2nd tier audit didn't tell us everything, but we'd have no more info about that than if we had used an E-Stewards company, and BAN/MIT have not demonstrated that E-Stewards is superior to R2 in their study.  (But look at how my pal Craig Lorch is portrayed in an inset, compared to me).