CBS 60 Minutes Wasteland - Unseen footage

Tonight, CBS 60 Minutes is re-broadcasting "The Electronic Wasteland", the Polk-award winning documentary on "e-waste" which first aired November 18, 2008.

It's a very impressive piece of journalism. 60 Minutes followed a one-day event in Colorado (lots of CRT monitors), hosted by a liar posing as an environmentalist. A hypocrite, really, who invoked the horrors of ewaste dumping in China, while simultaneously shipping his own junk there. They traced his container, which clearly had lots of TVs and unrepairable scrap CRTs, headed to Hong Kong. A good gotcha moment is set up.

Then they fly around Hong Kong shipping yards in a helicopter, and focus on the CRT computer monitors accumulating there. Here's where they made a wrong turn on "the trail". Jim Puckett told them the CRT monitors were going to Guiyu. This supports BAN's party line - it's simple, it's toxic, it's illegal, and ... it's 80% of the material shipped to China.

The CBS Crew didn't go to Guangzhou, to Foshan, to Shenzhen, or Guangdong City. The images they would have seen there would have added color to BAN's muddy canvas. BAN raises funds based on the right hand side of the Hieronymus Bosch Garden of Eden, painting China with no colors. That kind of fits nicely with the image of thugs trying to take away Scott Pelley's camera. Pelley gets a Polk, a killer byline, and looks like an adventurer.

What about the reality? Where do the monitors shown in the Hong Kong fly-by really wind up? What Southern China has is massive demand for internet and massive repair and refurbishing capacity. The demand is so high, that they will tolerate a lot of junk computers mixed in as "Toxics Along for the Ride". The Colorado recycler was mixing in huge amounts of "e-waste" and deserved everything he got, in my opinion. But most of the demand in China is for good refurbishable product, and most monitors brought in for recycling today are still working or repairable. They don't need the stripped, junky ones in the Colorado recycler's sea container. But you can see that in the Hong Kong helicopter segment, there are not actually very many trashy monitors there. Many, if not most, look pretty decent.

(if you are restless, jump to slide show some paragraphs below)

By taking the CBS crew straight to Guiyu, BAN is offering a tour of the hospital via the morgue. Guiyu is infamous for scrap circuit board, copper wire burning, and plastic sorting yards, where Puckett describes ash and burning as the process at the end of the trail. Scott Pelley is trying to exploit the hypocrasy (or good old fashioned ass-covering) by the mayor, and sets up the bookend "gotcha" moment, when he takes the cameras to film where the dregs and residue wind up.

Make no mistake - It's very ugly. USA recyclers who abuse the reuse and recycling market by "salting the load" with expensive, regulated CRT scrap should be drawn and quartered. (The site is not actually as ugly as the virgin material smelter sites in China, and doubtfully lives up to its billing as the most toxic place on earth, but that's another subject).

Unfortunately, by short-cutting to the "end of the trail", CBS News got into the high weeds, skipping the center panel of the Bosch fresco, an "end of life" passage straight into hell. They pretend they visit the good side of the market, but the "tidy factory" (as described by Scott Pelley) is a joke, it looks like a garage. It's the best the Mayor of Guiyu probably had to offer, because the refurbishing factories are NOT IN GUIYU! That is why they saw none of the Hong Kong CRT monitors, only plastic.

Pelley says, "We followed the trail..." But he took a shortcut. Had he literally followed the monitors from Hong Kong, he would have had a harder story to relate. There are really great operations in Asia which 60 Minutes was told about but which Scott Pelley never visited. It makes it easier to "connect the dots" using fewer dots. They trap the bad guy, and deliver the story that some USA E-waste "recyclers" are deviants. And we are glad that story was told.

But... The CRT monitors do not show up anywhere in the footage of Guiyu. Curiously, Scott Pelley appears to be aware of this, as he says "Here is a CRT stand, so they've been dismantling CRTs here as well". ??? He goes by acres and acres of CRT monitors in Hong Kong, documents the GAO report showing thousands of CRT shipments, and he picks up a single monitor stand from a pile of plastic? Plastic recycling is part of the business in Guiyu, CRTs are not.

So: Where are the CRTs?

In Guiyu, there's ash, plastic, steel, circuit boards. There is no excuse for Aqua Regia, the nasty nasty medieval acid method of gold recovery from scrap, and 60 Minutes does well to expose it (we NEVER ship circuit boards to China and dismantle the computers here in the USA). But those kinds of gold-bearing circuit boards are not found in computer monitors, they are found in PCs, as the steel PC carcasses would suggest.

If they are not in Guiyu, where are the CRT monitors shown at the beginning of the "trail?"

If 60 Minutes had followed the real trail, they would have come to the "big secret factories" shown in this slide show:

These refurbishing factories are the colorful center and left panels of the Bosch's Garden of Eden fresco. The demand for CRTs in China is found in the factories which made the computer monitors, usually under contract to a big USA manufacturer. Having paid $100+ for the new CRT assemblies, which are good for 20 years, they find it unbelievable that Americans toss out ten year old CRTs. Instead of buying a new CRT made from a virgin products, they reuse the cathode ray tubes from American SVGA computer monitors. They realize that these are high quality, fine dot per inch, better than a normal television CRT. With digital capacity, they can make them into a TV that works in any country. In a bizarre twist, it is Manufacturer Take-back in action, the very "solution" proposes.

These are green operations creating sustainable jobs. They are eliminating the pollution from mining, smelting, and refining (which actually create the real "most polluted places on earth"). They are creating affordable internet access for the developing world. They are basically the same as the jobs making computer monitors from brand new CRTs. The USA has a factory like this, Video Display Corp in Tucker Georgia... the last CRT plant in the USA.

I guess connecting that many "dots" didn't fit in the 8 minute segment timeframe for 60 Minutes. But before passing anti-export legislation (promoted by manufacturers who hate the reuse market), we need to explore alternatives, like Fair Trade exports. WR3A makes sure that loads are screened of non-functional CRTs before they are sent here. WR3A gives incentives for proper recycling, documentation, employee health and safety policies, ISO9000 and ISO14001.

Scott Pelley and Jim Puckett actually do talk about the need for jobs in China, and the balance between recycling employment and pollution. The show is about "desperate people, doing desperate things." Jim Puckett says, "It's a hell of a choice, between poverty and poison". I just wish they had made a little more effort to protect the good jobs which employ talented repairpeople, like the jobs in the slide show above. Instead the show is being used by people who want "planned obsolescence in hindsight" to support legislation which destroys the good units, which are by far the lions share of the export business. You should not need an MBA to figure out that people cannot pay for monitors, ship them halfway around the world, just to burn them in a village (glass does not even burn). CBS should have asked not only where the monitors were, but they should have "followed the money", one of the smartest rules in journalism. The money would have led them on the real trail, to the "Big Secret Factories", which is where the trail led me.

I started out in this business testing everything and destroying a lot of product. But I also wanted to see how the economics of my "evil exporter" competitors really worked. The trail of the purchase orders led to good, sustainable operations overseas, far superior in fact to any e-scrap operation I've ever seen in the USA. There is a wide range of operations overseas. Guiyu does exist, but there are also real "manufacturer takeback" programs, and there is a lot more money and trade via refurbishment and proper recycling than there is in loathsome ewaste pits. I hope someday the CBS crew looks into the missing footage and tells 'the rest of the story'.

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