Big Secret Monitor Factories - Legitimate Reuse vs. "E-waste"

This morning, the New York Times discovered a big secret. Acer is bigger than Dell. To those of us who know that Acer was a contract manufacturer in Taiwan that MADE the computers for the companies they are now "overtaking", it's a funny story. "Say it ain't so!"

By popular demand, here is a slide show explaining the role of "Contract Manufacturing" and the expansion of the "White Box Market". If you want to weigh in on electronics scrap, recycling exports, digital divide, or "e-waste" dumping policy, you need to understand a few technical issues. One is the precedent set by Japanese export-for-refurbishment restrictions, which has been repackaged by to subsitute for actual UN and Basel Convention agreements and recycling standards.

Japan saw the Acer thing happening, and targeted exports to Taiwan and Korea (an OECD country) in a Sony v. Samsung, Mothra v. Godzilla battle against reverse-engineering (which Japan itself pioneered in the 1960s). Japan set up "recycling" of used electronics in a formal arrangement throughout the country which mandated used products be destroyed, and which prosecuted anyone other than a "registered manufacturer" who exported electronics "for reuse and repair" with prison sentences and major fines. Now the battle is between Taipai Taiwan and Round Rock Texas.


Dell vs. Tiger Direct,
Fuji vs. Jazz Camera,
Lexmark vs. SCC.

Gee, all we wanted was to get back at the scrap guys who bullied 60 Minutes cameramen in the movie "Chinese Thug verus Scott Pelley", produced by Solly Granatstein. How did we wind up through this rabbit hole? Why is Jim Puckett dressed up as the Queen of Hearts, yelling "Off with their heads?" Microsoft is the Cheshire Cat, convincing people to destroy billions of dollars worth of software to protect "privacy" (it is more than possible to erase personal data without erasing MS Office). Product Stewardship is the mad hatter, weighing in on policy without ever asking who made the Apple computers in the first place (there is no warehouse in Cupertino, people, Steve Jobs' garage is now in Penang Malaysia).

"Ewaste" dumped in Guiyu is bad, if it is in fact "waste". Recycling commodities is good. Repair and reuse is even better. But labelling stuff as waste should not be the job of The Waste Makers... i.e. people who invented "Planned Obsolescence".

In our chase of better recycling standards, environmental activists have passed through a Rabbit Hole, looking glass, what have you. It should not surprise us that the world outside is more complicated than the average PIRG intern learns before door-knocking in Milton MA. One pill makes us larger, and one pill makes us small.

As the vetters for the UN GAID told me in Middlebury, Vermont, this is an old story. The smartest kid in the poorest country school learns technology, he learns to refurbish and repair, he makes money and hires other people, and eventually he is creating wealth for the whole country and manufacturing his own... it is the story of Korea (which was poorer than Guiyu when these men were young), and it is the story in Guangdong (two of China's top billionaires are a former bicycle repairman and a former farm tractor repairman). It was called "Yankee Ingenuity" in Vermont one time. Small Dog Electronics made their first purchase of used Apple Equipment and are today selling new equipment.

Let me be clear, Good Point Recycling will do what clients want us to do. If an OEM is paying for every TV to be demanufactured, we charge them more, but that is not questioned... they actually see eye-to-eye with us and we understand they are following the path set before them by "graders" of e-waste policy. If a one-day event organizer tells us not to export anything as an intact unit, we make sure that's in the contract, and we charge accordingly. We have contracts we merely transport to a Pledge Signer, because that's what the client wants and will pay for. This blog is about reality as I see it. I recommend to clients that they allow us to export a bit (22.5% of 2008 tonnage), but won't export junk or Toxics Along for the Ride. We can track every item by client, by brand, by functionality, until the point it is demanufactured or recycled as raw material.

Frequently prospective clients insist that CRT glass go for glass-to-glass recycling and stay in the USA. Well, that's impossible. There are no CRT furnaces in the USA, or in North America or any OECD country. I am always most amazed by the number of USA Electronics Recyclers willing to do ANYTHING for a buck, whether it's export junk or accept those clients and tell them yes, they'll recycle the CRT glass at a USA furnace. Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dum. I cannot wait to see the results of BAN finally auditing their E-Stewards beginning this year. Through the looking glass, onward and upward.

Wow! What a great EWaste recycling event in Tucson

Tucson Clean and Beautiful hired us and our partners, Retroworks de Mexico, after auditing the factory run by a great group of women from Sonora. NPR’s Living On Earth covered them in March. These Mexican women cross trained with our company in Middlebury, Vermont, as part of our “Fair Trade” program aimed at improving e-waste export standards. Tito and Pete are there helping from Middlebury, working side by side with Vicki, Oscar, Mariano, Roberto, and Joan and her crew from Tucson Clean and Beautiful.

Last week, we took officials from Tucson on a tour of both our factory in Mexico and the end market for the highly regulated CRT Glass, a smelter 20 minutes away which currently uses virgin mined silica and mined lead. According to AME, it's one of the 3 most modern metal smelters in the world.

We were also proud of the coverage in this week's Green Edition of Vermont's 7 Days weekly.

Good Point Recycling is not just recycling the old TVs and ewaste, but improving lives. From the unemployed women in Mexico to the unemployed at our job training programs in Vermont to our audits and technical assistance to the United Nations. This is a CAN DO environment. We are sustainability in action, doing heavy work, flying around the world to make things better.

Mr. Joseph Lambert Retires from Mass DEP

Dear Joseph,

Well, another week and DEP will be a very different place. You are leaving. For a lot of us, you have been a connection to Earth Day 1970, someone who could bridge the generations DEP had to bridge at municipal DPWs across the Commonwealth.

I still have the artwork/poster "Your Turn" which you gave me on my own retirement party (or one of them, I seem to remember sticking to DEP's shoe like a piece of tissue). I would have loved to be there, and to present the poster back to you again, it being Your Turn now. But here I am instead, at a cyber cafe in Tucson Arizona, surrounded by tatooed artists and listening to Reggae, waiting for a ride to Las Chicas Bravas in Mexico.

So I'll post this remotely, but save my place for when I get down there. Meanwhile, I think I'll explain how I was reminded of you, thinking of you, most recently. You remember my talks in the conference room. So you won't be surprised by a sudden left turn.

While my family spent the year in Paris, as you may know, I had a wild year giving rooms of my house out to international recyclers, from Mexico, Egypt, Peru, Malaysia, Senegal, and Burkina Faso. From Burkina Faso we had a visitor, Frederic Fahiri Somda, aka "Fred", who stayed in my house for six months. His hair was short. And he was black. He was a lawyer, and a former Catholic Seminary student. But he's connected to you in my mind forever. When you hear how he changed my life, you'll hopefully hear the warmest compliment I have to deliver.

Fred arrived at the airport as "a man without a country", a bit more extreme than your situation as a "man without a job" from California. He had been the head of the Burkina Faso opposition party, the head of the military acadamy, a prosecutor general, and was revered by his clan. They are a minority in Burkina Faso, but Fred had always been chosen for high posts by members of the "official party" ... sometimes a real force, sometimes a token, but always revered by people of his area on the border with Ghana. Here he arrived, without anyone who knew his time in the trenches, a stranger, a man who could only offer to do the best he knew how.

Fred left Burkina Faso in a bit of a hurry. He had been warned a former military student that he would get an invitation to a meeting with the president, and he should not go. He was puzzled, but said that the young officer was trembling so visibly that the alarm ran into his own body like an electric shock. The shock grew when he got an invitation to a meeting with the president, the next day. He ignored the invitation, and then got a call from a military man he knew too well... the guy who did the dirty work. The guy who was not even connected in any way to the topic of the meeting, the goon, who demanded to know why Fred had not shown up.

Fred took off. He left his wife, son and daughter, and hid in the swamps, with only an 8 year old girl allowed to follow him and know where to send messages... they did not want his family to know, so that they would hopefully not become leverage for his capture. He escaped across the border to Ghana, with the help of more of former students. He went to the USA embassy, where he was known (he had been cultivated as a relationship by the US State Department), and they got him to the USA. And I was his sponsor. When I interviewed you at MA DEP, and you'd just arrived from California, I had a feeling you were "out of the box". But Fred was so far out of Middlebury Vermont's box neither of us knew what to expect from the other.

Fred was a tall thin man in his 50s. He had a quiet smile, a warm gurgling chuckle, and quick bright eyes. Although I made sure he had "legal work" to show for his resume, studying the Basel Convention, etc., every day he insisted on coming to work at my company and taking apart computers by hand, sweeping the floor, whatever work he could see to be done. And every night, Tito or I cooked him "good food", as he said, in his first English. He helped us greet more visitors and trainees, the ladies from Mexico, Souleymane from Senegal, etc. He could only show thankfulness, gratefulness, and patience. But it was going to take awhile to demonstrate his place in our company.

Over the course of many evenings, and many months, I had a chance to ask Fred many personal questions, get to know him, and the world he came from. He had never cooked for himself, he had never seen a microwave oven. He wrote with a legal pad, though I got him onto the internet from time to time. But through the evenings, I got to know his perspective on life. And that's the real connection to Joseph Lambert.

Slowly it emerged, stories he'd never brag about or act as if he thought them worth mentioning (unlike yours truly, hawking every opportunity to drop a name). How his mother died in childbirth when he was four. At five, his father, who had been a monkey hunter, was bitten in the neck by one in a trap. His father crawled back to his family's grass hut, and bled to death on the floor before his three children. Fred was the youngest, at 5. His brother and sister, 7 and 11, had a meeting with him that night, and came to the conclusion that the two of them should drop out of school and find food in the fields, and that Fred the youngest would continue in school, and be the hope for the family. He walked to school every morning with his best friend, til his friend was bitten by a snake on the path and died in an hour. Fred persevered, studied hard and did well and rose to the top. Another night, another story... His refusal to prosecute innocent people. His faith in doing the right thing, period. The right thing just came naturally to him.

Frederic Somda and Joseph Lambert? Am I communicating to some ghost of tangents yet to come?

Here's the intersection. You may know, I have a temper. In my 2os and early 30s at DEP, I got mad primarily at other people. Human beings, some of them, really pissed me the hell off. Later after DEP I transmogrified my anger towards inanimate objects. Forklift tires, buckets, keyboards. The less animate the object, the more it should fear my verbal wrath. I had to borrow 4 letter words from German, as I ran out of English blasphemy.

Somehow, however, Fred was rubbing off on my. As I learned from living with Fred, I felt I was learning a second time.

How could I feel anger at stuff?

What right did I have to indignation? With all I had, with all the luck and family and wealth and opportunity, here I was, swearing at broken pallets, and coming home to this saintly presence, this calm force, this man who shrugged at pain and misfortune with a wink and a smile.

And as I thought about my anger, and I thought about Fred's situation, that's when the deja vu hit me. I had had a presence like Fred in my life once before.

I remember driving across Massachusetts with Joseph, in a state car, on route to some municipal shindig. I liked to talk, and you were always listening. And you and I "talked" a long time (you listened) for long periods of time. And my main impression of Joseph Lambert, to that point, had been... Like, what a mellow dude. He smiles, he listens, he calls me boss. I was surounded by surly 30-somethings like myself, carrying around our outrages over budgets and perceived slights. And here was Joseph in the car with me, smiling, nodding, and calling me "boss" so much it started to feel natural. I thought, this is the zen we need with municipal officials.

I began confiding in you, more and more of my anger and disappointment, more and more of my frustration about the limits of working for the state.

You, on the other hand, felt fortunate with your job, happy with your coworkers, and happy with some new teeth. I remember, you had new teeth. But the teeth.. it kind of looked to me like they were bothering you. Like you shouldn't be liking them at all. Like, hell, they would be pissing me off. But you were getting used to them, talking with them, and completely unashamed and demonstrating you felt pretty fortunate to get them. And fortunate to have your wife, and your daughter, and your job, and all the fun you'd had in California.

And I remember you never would have told me what was wrong with your teeth, but the drive was long, and I'm a little bit of a forward prick, and I stopped talking about myself, and asked you the story. And when asked, you told me in a quiet and calm voice about driving over a land mine in your jeep in Viet Nam, your face driving into the dashboard, losing your jeep, and teeth.

And losing your comrades.

And you were like, telling me, just because I'd asked. And at that moment I felt that I really shouldn't let the dotted lines to EOEA bother me as much as they did. The more I learned about you, the deeper the water became. I knew you'd never trumpet your experiences. And I thought about how many people must walk past you. Like people walked past Frederique at the plant, bending over his tools, working quietly, so unlike an Attorney General or opposition candidate for president of another country.

I thought about you, as I got to know Fred. And as I think about you, it reminds me of Fred.

And when Fred left on his journey for asylum in Canada, I realized I had just spent a rare number of months with a man wise beyond my years, a gentleman whose soul had so much distinction in its calm and humor, that I could only hope to one day create the same impression. I realized that with all my creativity, moral force, rhetoric, and anger, I would still never stand quite as effortlessly tall as Fred. And while I'd never met anyone quite exactly like this gentleman Fred, I realized that the feelings reminded me of another time. Of working with Joseph Lambert.

Both of you were older than me, both had seen and felt things I hope never to see or feel. And neither you nor Fred ever said to me that I should grow up and stop bitching about pallet jacks or EOEA budgets. Only from your demeanor and examples did you sink in on me.

I only hope that during your time at DEP, visiting among the municipalities which cried for our scalps, that they saw the gentle waves of compassion and good spirit that I began to see in you. And no matter how smart or pretty or young or rich or dynamic the competition, that mellow smile in your heart had them beat in a way they couldn't understand.

Life after DEP has for me been a bit of a roller coaster, but I think the verdict is in. You can kick ass from the outside. Leaving DEP was frightening for me but has opened more doors than it closed. Your turn. The game is on, the ball is in the air, and if you have the spirit and luck you may find yourself like an indoor cat released into the woods, frightened by dogs and fascinated by trees to climb.

You are one of the two most humbling and Lincoln-ish of souls I've lived with. And I am confident you are surrounded by people who see that, far sooner, and far clearer, than I did.

Thanks Joseph, and good luck. Call any time. Oh, next time you read this, here is the background music I selected...

The Economist Gets It

Waste disposal in Colombia

Entrepreneurs, not scavengers

Muck and brass plates

Jun 11th 2009 | CALI
From The Economist print edition (no byline, per Economist standards)

Thank goodness! There is sanity in the press!!! It's a bloody first, an article that says something different than "coffee boycott" for the scrap industry. After the tragic slap at the Coptic Christian scavengers in Egypt during the "swine flu" (government execution of all their pigs), the Columbian court system stands up for the concept of "e-scrap" not "e-waste", and distinguishes between commodity and pollution.


Until a decade ago, policymakers across the developing world saw informal waste collectors as a problem and worried about “how to get rid of them”, says Martin Medina, who has written a book on the subject. Today, he says, they are realising that when wastepickers receive support, their co-operatives are “a perfect example of sustainable development”. Brazil’s labour ministry has recognised informal waste collection as a legitimate trade.

Ricaurte Larrahondo, who has worked for 42 years sorting rubbish at Cali’s Navarro dump, cheered as lawyers explained the Constitutional Court’s ruling to hundreds of wastepickers gathered on a hoopless basketball court in the city on June 7th. “We’ve always been entrepreneurs, but no one ever recognised that,” he said.

Now comes the hard part. Ms Lasso, like most wastepickers, cannot read or write. To function as entrepreneurs, she and her colleagues will have to organise themselves. That in turn means overcoming longstanding feuds between street pickers and former dump pickers. In Cali they have only three months to sort themselves out before the new tender begins. It may not be enough time.

Iran and affordable PCs

As Iran cracks down on the foreign journalists and tries to stop coverage of the riots in Tehran over the election, it is finding it really hard to stop twitter and blogging without cutting down on the nation's commerce. They will try to rely on very sophisticated internet filtering and monitoring, like China. But that will raise issues that Ann Rand identified in Germany, where the more educated people you need in a technocracy don't really buy what you are selling. They will have to compromise with the moderates if the penetration of PCs per capita is above a certain point, because the people they rely on to filter the networks will have more in common with the people they are trying to stop, and the people they are trying to stop will work really hard at finding chinks in the firewall.

I was really moved by the pictures in the Boston Globe, but ironically the link came from an Iranian student's twitter page. I was playing CSNY, in particular Neil Young's song Ohio. The parallel's to Nixon and Ahm-mad-in-a-jad are strong and weird. I am reading that the Washington Post polls predicted the election outcome and that the official election outcome parallels the unchallenged outcomes, and Ahmadinajad probably won the popular vote the same way Nixon did, by promising peace and waving fear and offering competency in contrast to young and female and hippie-ish supporters for the opposition.

Iran has been an illegal place to ship used PCs and I haven't shipped there, nor do I ship to Dubai, but I know Dubai buys a ton of used and refurbished PCs and no doubt distributes them all over the gulf. I think it's a major relief that our countries restrictions on used personal computer exports don't work much better than Iran's firewall is working. Under Clinton the USA reformed a lot of the draconian bans on export of personal computers below certain mhz, I think history will give credit either to the reform or to the smugglers who ignored it.

Ok this is a recyclers blog so I have to cover the role of under $100 PCs in a country with dial up bandwidth (new computers wouldn't be any faster). But the role of the internet is just like the role of the printing press, and we want more Sam Adams's in the mideast.

How much do you agree with this statement?

"Ewaste can always be managed better in the USA than it can be managed overseas".

"Neil Young covers cannot be performed as well in Japan as in the USA"