Illegal Export and the "Masked Man Fallacy"

I want to stress that we agree with BAN on a lot of things. I have seen lots of American companies who have no financial incentive to deal with the crappy stuff which accumulates in their warehouses. They buy and trade, wheel and deal, but their operation is running on cash flow (number one cause of failure of small business, mistaking incoming cash for profit). Like tire piles of the 1990s... take three tires in, sell two out, take three more tires, sell two more out. After a year, you have a giant pile of unrefurbishable, unsellable tires. A mysterious tire fire might erupt, or the business owner closes and walks off on the pile, leaving it with the landlord.

Hint: Skip all the reading and go to "". If WR3A defends (A) practice B, and practice C takes place at the same overseas site as practice A, then WR3A has not defended practice C. I think that one is called "The Masked Man Fallacy"

With electronics scrap, some of the demand for some of the products is so high (laptops for example) that the electronics "tire pile" operators avoid failure by mixing in a certain amount of junk stuff with the good stuff in their loads. The piles effectively get moved to Africa or Asia, where they get burned for copper. I call it "taking a dump".

Our argument with BAN has to do with the best strategy for dealing with that practice. WR3A flies overseas to meet the very best operations. Those are the ones who are improving the quality of life of their employees, improving the recycling practices, investing in doing a good job. They get the good stuff they need without accepting tons of bad stuff by buying from USA companies which can account for the bad stuff here in the USA.

When a really good company, like Total Reclaim in BAN's hometown of Seattle, starts shredding up equipment that is visually fine because they cannot repair it in house, they pass the "Opportunity Cost" on to generators, who pass the cost through legislation back to the OEMs.

WR3A is NOT making apologies for the tire pile people.

WR3A is trying to get the Total Reclaims to ship inspected stuff to the factories that need good stuff and will take the time to do it well. They will get ISO14001, they will get their nation's legal import permits, they will do it all correctly if they are rewarded for it. What we need is for BAN's hometown of Seattle to supply BETTER equipment than NY.

Lest there be confusion: WR3A is not saying that bad practices don't exist. We are saying that good practices also exist, and we need to reward them in order to compete against the bad practices in the marketplace. Fair Trade Coffee is not saying that all coffee farmers are well treated... Fair Trade Coffee is saying that you can have the best effect on the situation by trading with the coffee farms where the farmers ARE well treated. Organic produce is not saying that all produce is organic, it is saying that you should buy organic produce to encourage proper farming.

WR3A is not saying all the e-waste exports to Africa are kosher. What we are saying is that given the choice between buying used electronics from the good people for less $, or buying loads laced with junk from bad people for more $, that African buyers will be empowered to stop buying from tire pile people. We aren't saying that BAN refuses to allow Total Reclaim to test and remove "unrepairable parts" etc., we are saying that the standards of "tested working" are so primitive an understanding of electronics that they have the unintended consequence of big investments in big shredders.

Should Africa ban the importation of CRTs? After all, LCDs cost only 5 times more, and last 30% as many years as a used CRT... But that's a LOT of money to a medical school student in Accra. If given the choice between getting online and staying barefoot and pregnant until free LCDs are handed out, the nurses and engineers I have met will buy the computer monitor they can afford from the tire pile monster, which is BAN and WR3A's mutual enemy.

Does the marketplace change constantly? Absolutely. Buyers who were willing to take 21" monitors for repair 5 years ago won't pay for them tested working today. Loads which had 5% recycling/fallout a year ago are being harshly down-graded by WR3A buyers today because the supply of monitors domestically (from their own countries) is growing. They can afford to be picky. It's a good thing. We have to change our shipments constantly, and resist the temptation to insist the buyer take "working" 21" monitors that they don't want or cannot resell.

Who is better able to respond and change to the marketplace? Tire Pile Tony? Or E-Steward Eddie? If E-Steward Eddie takes himself out of the running, more 21" monitors will appear in warehouses in Africa, because it creates an impossible choice for Souleymane - buy from Tire Pile Tony, or wait for free LCDs to be handed out.

I'd like some college students to take up the research... Does the "war on drugs" approach work better for e-waste than it does for cocaine? We should not be apologizing for bad behavior. But I have lived in Africa for two and a half years, I have visited buyers in China, Malaysia, Egypt, Mexico and Lithuania. I have read the Basel Convention cover to cover. I have gotten legal import permits for the best factories, and invited Stewards to tour them and to sell to them. We sponsored an attorney from Burkina Faso to study for six months, sponsored a business school student from Mexico, and now sponsored an intern from Holland to study and compare the Fair Trade model.

"Is not being done legally" >vs< "Cannot be done legally"

Should industry "qualify itself'?" Long term, probably not. But if Stewards are shredding up repairable equipment, we need a compromise. The drug mafia makes billions because drugs are illegal. The tire pile guys are raking in profits BECAUSE of and product stewardship eWaste legislation, not in spite of it.

The measure of which is a better standard, BAN Certification or R2, is ironically how much the qualfied companies export in the end. The more the better. Because if the exports are properly documented, legal, and ethical, and done in a fair trade manner, nothing will help the techies and recyclers of the developing world more than more, more, more exports. Give them a choice, to buy from good people at a better price, and watch the flowers grow. Let us sell R2 or Steward computers for 50% less than the Tire Pile guy, and we will cut his legs out from under him... and we can literally write into the contract / purchase order that the overseas buyer has to put an organic garden in the front lawn, buy trees, donate to the poor. Or we can make the deal with a women's coop in Mexico, for the recycling factory to run a cash-for-clunkers TV takeback in the Sonora desert. Much more is possible through cooperation and trade than will ever be achieved by promising impossible standards which take product off the market.

I just discovered a cool site, The particular link is to the "Masked Man" fallacy, which applies to this post and our gentle prodding of Basel Action Network. I wish I had the internet available when I was in the Arkansas high school debate circuit (I earned a "double ruby" from National Forensics League, and the Arkansas state debate team championship in 1980, yee-hah!)

- photos: CRTs in warehouse, Kirby tire pile in Ohio, Malaysia shopping mall where Steward computers were sold (good), Asian monitor factory converted to refurbishing

No comments: