I'm in Cambridge, MA, waiting for breakfast with an MIT program director who is researching refurbishing and recycling businesspeople in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
We need MIT.
Look at these quick stats:
Good Point qualified only 22.5% of used electronics last year (by weight) as qualified for export for reuse or repair. I would estimate our fallout (unable to repair) at 15% of those, approximately double the new wholesale product failure. Our method is to trade exclusively with overseas nerds, techies, geeks and repair-wonks, and to invite them to train our staff, and to compensate them for proper recycling of any bad product they receive, and to train them (a la Las Chicas Bravas) to recycle the "e-waste" that results either from improper packing, improper sorting, or parts removed.
The 85% which was reused is extremely profitable for the repairpeople, as they are abled with almost no raw material, or OEM rich country licensing fees, to produce an added value manufactured computer device. The "Good Enough" market needs computers at under $60 apiece.
These statistics are somewhat compatible with BAN estimates that 75% of used electronics are "junk". We can confirm that much of what we receive is junk or winds up as junk because of improper collection, storage and handling. We can also confirm that there is a price point at which it becomes economically inefficient to remove the junk, and that recyclers who cut corners can lower their costs considerably by being less careful or by "taking a dump" on some poor overseas person now and then whose English challenges create a window to misrepresent picked-over and scavenged material as to be in "as is" condition. I lose a lot of business to people charging half of what we charge, who have less junk bills.
What we express doubt about is whether even these worst actors can economically ship 75% "waste" or junk for less than the cost of proper domestic dumping or recycling. It is more likely that USA exporters are not properly trained or properly communicating... kind of like when I sent brand name monitors, tested working, to an Asian plant six years ago and found out that a portion of them were manufactured with a trinitron tube and were not acceptable, despite the fact they were "tested working". But no doubt there are exporters who haggle, who say "I'm not giving you this that you want unless you take it all."
What I doubt is that an importer could be leveraged to take 75% waste. (Check out this INVENEO group, for example). To the degree it occurs, it is most likely to happen with precious metal bearing scrap, precious parts (chips, RAM, etc.) scrap, and extremely expensive-to-recycle-domestically scrap (imploded CRTs). I do not believe that it occurs to any significant degree with repeated sales of screen repairable monitors sold for $10 each, which contain only $1.44 in copper and plastic, and which cost $3.27 each to ship in containers over the ocean.
What is needed is a protocol or model which maximizes the ability of the overseas importer to create good technical jobs serving the "good enough" or 3B3K market, which uses compensation for proper recycling of any incidental breakage or fallout, and which thus creates an overseas recycling process which can be harnessed to manage the bad material when the stuff generated within the country (including refurbished items which eventually are broken or fail).
I believe this is most likely to happen through fair trade. Of the other two alternatives, export-everything or boycott-exports, it is shocking but probably the second place would go to free market, export everything. The boycott approach dissuades reputable USA companies from exporting, and creates an artificial supply-demand imbalance which benefits disreputable exporters (creating more rather than less junk in loads).
The alternative, which is that the developing world will "leapfrog" (as I understand it, as a result of curtailed exports of the reuse and repair goods, the demand is met by even better and newer products), appears possible in the cell phone industry. MIT researchers at the Legatum Center have made a case that the computing power of hand-held cell phone devices is increasing at a rate which will make cell phones the PCs of the next decade, and that "desktop" devices and TVs will become oversized junk.
That intriguing case for the future does not necessarily mean that the infrastructure for cell-phone technology will be achieved more quickly by starving the entrepreneurial reuse and repair market overseas, in fact I believe the research shows that new technology is always more quickly and effectively adapted by nerds, geeks, techies and repair-wonks, and that the new technology fails when it is implemented by centralized government or non-profit.
The central flaw or fallacy in logic in the export-boycott approach is that they throw out the good in pursuit of the perfect and expect to achieve the perfect more quickly as a result. This is like taking dirty rice away from starving people in the belief that the people will get cleaner rice as a result. It is imperialistic, misguided, and at some point becomes immoral if pursued with rigor exacerbated by ego.
If the Polk award goes to a 60 Minutes film which shows computer monitors in Hong Kong, then goes to a village without a single computer monitor in sight, and calls the process waste of the circuit board burning (none of which came from computer monitors) an indictment of exporting computer monitors, it will be essential that the press recipient comes out and outs themselves, the same as an MIT professor who earns a Nobel and then discovers a flaw in their own research.
The research of "e-waste" exports in a dispassionate and scientific way reflects other debates about the pros and cons of the export market. UNCTAD says that shipping drained (acid-free) auto batteries to auto battery plants in Thailand and Philippines is better than not sending them (and having the auto battery plants mine lead to make the batteries). The World Health Organization shocked a lot of people in the EU and USA in 2006 by declaring that DDT was the most efficient way to save millions from dying of malaria in Africa.
Global warming "controversy" is welcome to me right now. I had this bad feeling a couple of years ago that I was hearing a little too much political correctness and back-slapping, good-old-greeboy certainty about global warming science. I do believe in global warning, but I had this bad prickly feeling up the back of my spine, this discomfort, which revolved around two things - the rush to diagnose carbon emissions as the best strategy (I remain a rainforest protectionist jealous of lost press in that fight), and I saw evidence of group-think when the Mars north and south poles were revealed as showing advanced melting. The people with their hands on the levers of the press were just a little too quick to poo-poo the Mars pole melting. I still agree primarily with the global warming scientific majority, but before all the "email controversy", I did have a feeling that there was a little too much agreement being translated into policy over things like emissions trading banks... which looked a bit like a ponzi scheme to me (since technology is so often reused, getting rid of a carbon emitting contraption into the reuse market would not eliminate the carbon production but would result in an incentive for switching... and if the device is destroyed to prevent reuse, the life cycle of production means most of the gases emitted were made mining and making the machine, which now is depreciated over a shorter period...)
I understand the "greenhouse gas" debate, warming began a century ago, and because of the same "tipping point" factors (loss of white reflective ice leads to more heat absorption) which are argued to emphasize human causality, may in fact have been destined to occur. I believe that deforestation is the primary culprit, and that purchasing automobiles with batteries made of rare earth metals better not be coming at the expense of mining in the rain forest, like coltan mines used for cell phones, operating in Congo. I don't tend to see enough of that type of speculation and discussion in the press. I tend to discount the press entirely as well meaning, and resource-driving, but like a big dumb ox that needs to be harnessed and steered to achieve transportation.
This is a call to disagreement. Science is better when smart people challenge and argue with each other. When your primary antagonist gives you the silent treatment, something is not right.