"Tested Working" vs. Refurbishment

A comment left by Jim Puckett of BAN (see comments below for full text) states;

"the "tested, working" way, is not BAN's way, but the correct interpretation of the Basel Convention and "tested, and working" requirements are now being put forth in the new WEEE directive in Europe, in Australian law and will be quickly spreading around the world."

We need to dissect this into two separate discussions, the legal interpretation, and the environmental and social outcome. I'm prepared to argue either way that repair and refurbishment has to be nurtured and supported.

Legally, I have posted the explicit language of the Basel Convention Annex IX several times before, it does not say "tested working" anywhere, and if that is what was meant, why on earth does the convention language specifically say that repair and refurbishment are legal, and that some countries consider the repairable items "commodities and not wastes"? And why then is BAN having to lobby states in the EU and Australia to adapt their "interpretation" if it is so obvious? Jim's own quote above specifically acknowledges that BAN is working on the EU and Australia to adapt a "tested working" standard and acknowledges that this is an "interpretation" of the Convention. The language in section B1110, if it meant tested working prior to export, seems a long way to go about saying "tested working" if that's what is meant.

But we will accept Jim Puckett's affirmation that this is subject to interpretation. Which then is the better interpretation from a social and environmental point of view?

Environmentally, here's the thing: 22.5% of the equipment is repairable and reuseable - that's from domestic municipal sources. If E-Stewards actually wind up testing and shipping 22.5% as working product, I'll embrace it. If the Stewards adapt tested working as a standard, but to not actually hire Americans to repair and test the equipment, and they only wind up shipping off-lease working equipment and shred up all the municipal equipment, then they failed.

There is a slice of humanity, about 3 billion people, earning about $3000 per year, who are gaining internet access at a rate 10 times the rate in the USA.

Probably not by buying new computers. This is about getting them the computers they can afford. I am looking for ways make sure that computers exported for repair have a lower residue rate than tested working shipmnets (no one I know shipping tested working is actually doing the inventory at the receiving end the way we are doing with the factory refurbishing operations). Through proper reuse, repair and refurbishment, we will lower the cost of recycling, reward the "yankee ingenuity" of the developing world, and meet the insatiable demand for internet. If BAN's eSteward standard meets that same demand with working product, we'll learn how they are doing it and join. But if the USA companies meet the standard by grinding everything up in to metals and plastics, refusing to either repair themselves or to allow qualified overseas factories to repair it, then I'm out.

Rare footage of Craig Lorch (Total Reclaim) performing a favorite tune of mine?

Health Care? In an ewaste blog?

Ok, I am working on a much longer post on R2, RIOS, and ESteward certification, which was finished afterwards but posted below due to editing constraints. Meanwhile, here is the 360 second explanation of the health care insurance debate, from the perspective of a recycler.

First, my wife is European and lived there with my kids for a year, and we have experience in both systems. Second, my company, with 20 USA employees, is right on the line of mandatory coverage, so we can lay one person off to avoid mandates for the other 19 (if that was our interest). Third, most of our employees are "ten foot tall and bullet-proof", twenty somethings who don't tend to want the optional health insurance we offer, and probably only need catastrophic.

I think the debated points, positive and negative, are being exaggerated. It is easiest to argue against a "straw man", for liberals to describe the positions of Rush Limbaugh, for the conservatives to debate against Michael Moore. They are playing hard football with the facts, and both sides are doing end runs and hail Marys to advance the ball. Here are some basic facts:

1) We all die someday. The closer we get to that day, the more expensive our care.
2) Since the average age of death in the USA is over 75, and Medicare starts at 65, the "public option" is already in place for the most expensive care. The public system already bit off the most expensive and difficult part of the job.
3) The cost of health care always includes a lot of "overhead". If I am a hospital administrator, and just bought a brand new emergency room for $10M, I have to pay for that whether or not people are using it. This exaggerates the claim on "non-covered" people who use the emergency room as a walk-in clinic. The question is efficient use of the emergency room, that is what "triage" is about. If the ER is empty, treating a cut finger and charging $2000 to "uninsured" sounds terrible, if you want it to, but having an empty room also costs pretty close to $2000.

To simplify the analysis, let's pretend the debate is over computer repair rather than human being repair. Assume we are trying to make every computer last as long as possible, or realistically, 15 years, through upgrades and parts replacements. The 10 year + computers we'll call "grandmas", the dual core Pentium 4s we can call "children".

Right now the system is that the government pays for repair of 10 year old and older computers, through Medicare. That is basically saying we have already swallowed the largest part of the elephant. Insuring children, the Pentium 4 dual-cores, was relatively easy and most states have adapted programs for that on their own. Pentium 3s, if they are covered, are mostly covered by the employer who outsources the repair bills to private insurance companies.

The debate is now on who repairs the uninsured Pentium 3s. Some of the P3s work fine, and therefore don't want to buy insurance, and when something DOES go wrong they are shocked at the price of a replacement stick of RAM. Other Pentium 3s have recently had a replacement or are paying insurance for repair and upgrade, and seeing their costs go up as they age.

The acceptable speed of a computer keeps changing, and the technology exists to put hard drives into a P3 which can, for example, store movies. The bandwidth makes that not a great investment, but if you put a name on the computer, like "Cindy", you can see the analogy. "Cindy used to run marathons, now she needs knee surgery." Or, "Her hard drive size is a pre-existing condition, and she cannot afford the hard drive to watch the movie."

The left focuses on the doe-eyed personalization, or poster child, and we all want to see Cindy do well. "Move that bus!", we cry, and we applaud to see Cindy with a new hip replacement / hard drive, storing WMV files. We hope that new medicines or software will provide future cures that allow Cindy to win marathons again.

The right focuses on the costs of repairing 13 year old computers, and says that if computers cost this much, imagine the cost of insuring all computers. Most repair-people are shying away from repairing the older computers already, and they hate bickering with the public insurance system over who pays the cost of the software for the Pentium 1. Most of the future will be defined by software yet to be written, like cancer cures or new genetic medicines.

The actual cost of the system will be defined by overhead divided by computer repairs. The left is right, that bringing more computers into the repairshop will lower the cost per repair by dividing the overhead over more PCs. The right is left with the equally correct observation, that you will wait in a longer line, because ten-foot-tall-bulletproof Ken is now covered for his broken foot and has to fill out paperwork to be covered, rather than going to the ER and running off on his bill, which allowed the hospital to overstate the costs they were not to blame for. Pentium 3s covered for new hard drives now will benefit from larger scale purchases of hard drives, but will wait longer through more administration to get them.

Uninsured people in ERs can be a pretty efficient "triage" if it is not a malingering or long-term health problem. And we already have the most expensive people (Medicare) covered. The question for me is how do we arrive at a spiritual place where people can die with dignity and celebrate the past life, like they did in Cameroon when I was there in Peace Corps. We held a "big cry" for the Pentium 2 when it passed, and a "big die" celebration and dancing six months later in remembrance of our dearly departed P2, but no one thought for an instant that death was something we were going to avoid.

The biggest problem in government is managing bills through obfuscation and "shark attack" panics (big press to extremely ill-representative problems). Referendums in places like California and Arizona bring the process "back to the people", who vote:

1) Balance the budget
2) Spend more on schools and health care
3) Cut taxes

The result is deficits and a broken currency system, followed by stimulus packages to be divvied out to lucky "connected" people. The more astute folks, like Tom Friedman, point to all the other benefits (environmental) of the EU gasoline taxes which pay for their systems, but EU doesn't have senators from western states with high miles-to-population which makes getting a gas tax harder to swallow for people not riding the subway to work. The left says the answer is rail, basically putting subways in more western states, which is probably the most asinine suggestion floating around. European populations grew up around rails, USA grew up around cattle trails, the math is different.

The left makes us want to love the P3 with cancer which was a loyal and hard worker. The right wants to blame the high cost of a hospital built in an area with declining population to define the cost of repairing that P3. It's an ugly, muddy game of football where most people only know enough to root for their home team, without knowing the names of the players or the rules.

Enough for now. It is not that expensive or difficult to repair P3s, but it is not very profitable. But it is more profitable than the Medicare system for P2s. And the bills and deficits are being passed down to the

Rare earth metals, electronics recycling, and China

Here is an article in this morning's New York Times about an investment rush to mining for specialty and exotic metals. These are found in profound percentages in old electronics.

There is already a flurry of investment buzz about electronics recycling due to the discussion of raising mineral royalties costs from mining under the General Mining Act of 1872, which passed the House of Representatives last year and again this year. Tanzania is the latest country to reform its GMA from 1998, from a period when the World Bank required countries to adapt USA's 1872 standard in order to get mining loans.

The mining industry news is a good source of information for recyclers.

R2 and RIOS versus E-Stewards: Ewaste Predictions

After several meetings with several players in the climb to "ewaste authority", between BAN, ISRI, EPA, GAO, and others, I think I can make a few predictions.

1) E-Stewards will take too long.

2) TV Recycling will be left behind

3) Reuse economics will struggle

4) Mexico will emerge on top

5) Investments will pour in where there is volume, regardless of the margins (a mistake)

BAN is trying to sit on its hands and let independent auditors work with the various stewards, and that's a good move. But some of the e-Stewards are already doing something BAN disagrees with - defining "functional" in the R2 way (the components the buyer wants are guaranteed, the buyer can replace and upgrade as they wish) rather than the BAN way ("tested working", with no parts to be replaced or upgraded after purchase). And there may be other definitions BAN objected to in the R2 discussions, such as "de minimus" quantities of circuit boards from shredding operations. But BAN has trouble saying "yes" to processes they don't understand, and this will slow them down, forcing them to criticize R2.

The highest margins in our business are for relatively low-volume, high-margin, "risk averse" clients with off-lease laptops and Pentium 4s. Companies like Intechra and Redemtech will be the first to ante up and get certification, perhaps both certifications. Companies like mine will not lose a single mixed-load, TV carrying client to those companies. There may be a couple of TV processors who will get the certification, but they will prove unable to pass those costs along as a benefit if fewer than 15 TV-processing companies become certified.

The 22.5% of our material in Vermont which was sold for reuse and repair generated more than 50% of our income, which is rewarding. However, it will be harder to follow downstream and certify. Companies which ignore the reuse market, or reuse only commercial off-lease equipment (insignificant residential reuse) will find it easier to get certified, but will be forced to pass the costs - not just of certification itself, but of lost reuse revenue - on to municipal clients who will not feel forced to buy in if other companies (moi) can convince them it's dumb to dump a 1999 TV into a shredder. So they will promote legislation.

Where legislation passes, the certified will win, and will get certified by reusing less and passing the higher costs through to the legislated OEMs. The computer and printer manufacturers will be able to accept those costs because the "white box" or "clone" markets are growing at a wicked fast pace, and recycling costs are seen as an offset against "market cannabalization". The TV companies, however, which have far more tonnage, have no skin in that game, and will see the entire system as stacking up against them.

Our strategy is to convince the TV companies that reuse and repair can be a good news story, by focusing on companies like Retroworks de Mexico, and the jobs and lives improved by Las Chicas Bravas. TVs are too big and heavy, and too light in specialty metals, to be shipped to China. Repair and reuse, and increasingly the CRT glass, will move to Mexico.

Why write up my strategies? Because of point #5. It will take longer to certify the reuse component, and the legislation-pushed volume will entice investment (which we expect a lot of) into the black-box, shred-and-send-the-bill-to-OEM, system. We have to provide a business plan not just for our own investors, but to signal investors we haven't met not to participate in a pyramid scheme with shredders. The Mexico strategy has a precedent - all TV manufacturing and assembly jobs moved to Mexico in the 90s. It's not exactly a crazy idea. If it is done right, Americans will prefer paying 5 cents per pound in Mexico to 20 cents per pound north of the border. But metals and recycling and USGS predictions mean that we don't have long before investors start pouring in... which is why I post about mining pretty often.

Good points are not just to win investors, they are to stall investments in our opponents.

R2 Standards and eWaste Practices document

The EPA "R2" Responsible Recycling standards and practices agreement was typed up by Jonathan Lingelbach of www.decideagree.com, who served as moderator. My next post will be comments and predictions...

R2 Practices decideagree2008

EScrap 2009 Orlando, Florida

Thanks to Jerry, Cara, Jef, Henry, Dylan and others (thanks Karen the Q-card carrier) for a really excellent electronics scrap conference from Resource Recycling. WR3A has had a terrific annual meeting at the annual EScrap Show in Orlando, at a meeting room donated by Resource Recycling. I composed this from the audience seats at the EScrap Conferences plenary session on Global markets. Respresentatives from India, South Africa, and China are presenting...

They are fantastic, really more sophisticated presentations. They still think they are heading for a ban on e-waste imports as a solution to pollution and poverty, a conclusion I disagree with, but they are much more sophisticated in their study and that should lead to a less political and more just resolution. A lot of people think the solution to "e-waste" is to stop "e-scrap" and repair, reuse, and used goods. The Chinese presenter is showing how many scrap computers and TVs China itself generates internally... that, along with the stunning shows of "white marble floor" electronics recycling factories opening in China, mean it is just a matter of time that USA-only electronics recycling goes the way of Levi's jeans.

Here are interesting links shared at this presentation.


This is the process that Fair Trade Coffee went through (from the "boycott coffee", offered as a solution to coffee farmer poverty in the 1980s). I will suggest that the professors study the history of development in South Korea and Japan and Malaysia, and the importance of "retained value" to the "value added" chain. I think if they study the way places like South Korea actually emerged as OECD countries, they will be more inclined to see progress (from "informal" to "formal" sector) as a better solution than killing the new shoots of immature technical sectors.

Later (couldn't publish this because of poor wireless at Hilton Orlando), I met with the presenters, and also with Jim Puckett, and Sarah and Donald from BAN. More on this later, I have a plane to catch.

Dear OEM Recycling Representative, - Google Docs

Dear OEM Recycling Representative, - Google Docs

NYTimes Article on Egypt's Zabaleen - aftermath of crackdown on recycling pigs

We carried the news when the crackdown on the Coptic Christian pig farming cum recycling programs started. It was initially advertised as a reaction to swine flu, but when it continued after the medical community said that was a silly reaction, it began to resemble a collusion between large international waste management companies (which moved in to take over the business) and anti-Christian Egyptians gleeful slaughter of the zabaleen means to a living.

Foreign Policy magazine published a good slide show online in October 2008, and described the social stigmas attached to the life of these essential recyclers. The community was set up, like a bowling pin, for the term "swine flu" later that year. The result, six months later, is covered in today's New York Times. What a waste of waste management.

Does anyone see a pattern here? Hard-working recyclers, like those described in the Economist article from Columbia, become caught in a mis-applied, oversimplified, war-on-reality approach. Companies with big shredders jump in to take over the market of the do-it-yourselfers, self-educated, brilliant repair and refurbishing community.

Coffee boycotts to improve the lives of poor coffee farmers. Bans on export of computers to help the lives of poor computer refurbishers. Bans on pigs who eat garbage. The good news is that for a younger generation of environmentalists, there is plenty of work still to do and plenty of good term papers to write. Assignment: connect the dots between NYTimes, Foreign Policy, and this Washington Post article on CRT television supply and demand. Hint: Mexico.

Electronics Recycling Catching Fire

We have a lot of neat data to report from our Sony Coupon program, which was rolled out during the past 6 months. As you may recall from the press on Earth Day 2009, our permanent E-Waste recycling program was embraced by Sony as a healthy alternative to "events". Since 83% of Vermont residents can recycle a TV 6 days per week at the same spot they accept tires, white goods, mattresses, and recyclables, the "Events" (like those sponsored by Samsung) kind of cannibalized the existing programs, especially those which had run for 6 or 7 years based on drop-off fees.

Sony has been in the game for awhile, and actually held one of the largest ewaste events on record, at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro MA (over 480,000 lbs). They thought it made sense to pay as they go, and accepted our offer to basically act as a "redemption center" for their TVs.

The data shows that Sony TVs account for about 6% of the material we are getting in, less from commercial areas like Burlington, more from very rural areas. We are not seeing Sony TVs rush in which would not otherwise have been recycled, but we see people smiling and pleased not to have to pay the fee. The biggest complaint from residents has been, bar none, "But my TV isn't a Sony! Why doesn't mine have a sponsor?"

Sony is happy, and is asking Good Point Recycling to provide service to other states. Next week we hope to bring 4 more OEM manufacturers onto Vermont's coupon program. We don't even have to process the material here, we can add value just by pre-sorting and weighing it and tracking it through the system. If the do let us process it our way (with 22% reuse), they'll save money, but that's not necessary, they can support Vermont recyclers any way they want.

American Repair Advice for used computer - NYT

Today's NYTimes article, about the decision between a $150 computer repair and buying a new computer for $700, isn't anything special. Except for two things: In the USA, a hard drive repair costs $150, and that in the USA, people decide to spend the $700.

In most countries in the world, the repair would cost $15. The annual income most countries means that a new computer would be 25% of their annual salary. And, as the article says, most people value web browsing and email, which (especially on dial up) are just as functional on a 5 year old computer as on a new one.

What you don't see in many other countries, besides the USA, is a breaking news story about whether to spend the money on repair vs. new.

Arkansas adds E-Waste Waste Ban

Arkansas joins Massachusetts, California, Florida, Indiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina in banning the disposal of used electronics from disposal. This simple approach has been criticized as "end of pipe" regulation by some, but (as you have read here) avoids some of the "command and control" market engineer mistakes of product stewardship tinkerers. In this article, Arkansas appears to be going after all electronics, not just CRTs.

Actually (as California suggests above), there are several other states which implemented waste disposal bans but which also added "product stewardship" laws so quickly that the disposal ban's importance was either eclipsed or ignored. Those states have a "suspender and a belt", and it's a little difficult to use the waste ban states as a "control group" when other factors - such as commercial economy - are not tracked. Vermont for example has neither a waste ban nor a stewardship law, but has a remarkably high diversion rate given the lack of a metropolitan commercial stream like Boston, Albany, New York or Montreal would generate.

What I find interesting - and could use some help on - is that no one appears to be tracking this list of waste ban electronics laws. ComputerTakeBack.com had a list that I've now been unable to find on the internet. This 2008 list is in cache.

The main scientific measures I think are at play in the policy debate:

1 States which began program later have higher per capita rates now (the "longer uncut grass" dynamic).
2 States which have simple waste bans have higher incidents of export (I haven't seen quantification but accept that "criticism" of MA, we just need to define which exports are bad).
3 States which involve OEM "stewards" in selecting the recycler processes have lower (dramatically lower) levels of reuse.
4 States that have done nothing are either really doing great, like Vermont, or doing very little, like Louisiana.

Export policy seems to be the lynchpin to the debate. BAN says 80% of exports are bad. My company exported 22.5% in 2008. So we are probably not very far apart at all. It is "the perfect is the enemy of the good (point)"

Aggregating Recycling of E-Waste

There are some fallacies floating around in the promotion of one form of legislation over another.

Massachusetts was first to regulate CRT disposal, with a waste ban (began on April 2000). MA DEP used the same authority (RCRA) that it had used for auto battery, tire, and white goods. Later, MA DEP even used RCRA to ban disposal of paper, glass and plastic containers, and yard waste. Cities generally incorporated the costs into their hauling contracts, though some sold stickers for bulky items to their residents (risking dumping, but their own staff had stickers to tag stuff). The result is high recycling diversion, even from inner cities like Boston and Worcester.

In the cities, the CRTs were incorporated into the same bulky waste collection system as the tires and white goods (fridges, air conditioners, washing machines), and the trash haulers had to bid on the bulky items in order to get the lucrative city hauling contracts.

I've heard three arguments about why that system needed fixing.

First, the socialist argument. The consumer shouldn't have to pay. We should make the manufacturers pay. Well, this is a quaint idea. The consumer always pays. The costs get incorporated. Further, when you reduce competition (new display manufacturers cannot sell into certain states without a manufacturing program), the consumer loses big time. Many of these new display manufacturers barely speak English, and face the same problems USA's RCA did selling into Japan in the 1970s and 80s. (America called Japan's local recycling collection laws a "non-tariff barrier" and dispute them at the WTO).

Second argument, people would refuse to pay. I think a lot of this was conjecture, of the type we heard over bottled water and $3 coffee. 85% of people will pay the toll bridge rather than drive around through traffic. I have been told that high participation in free events proves people won't pay, yet a) more material is collected in paid events in VT, even when free is available b) counties with fees collect more per capita than counties with lower fees, and c) if, during a free event, I run an event paying $5 per item and the line is longer, that doesn't prove people won't recycle for free. If Starbucks offers free coffee, expect long lines of regular coffee drinkers, and don't expect non-coffee drinkers in the line.

Third argument against the waste ban model was that more material would get exported. There is a mix of truth to this, but I differ on the cause. The states which have implemented OEM producer responsibility laws, having the OEMs negotiate with the recyclers (rather than the municipalities), have seen less export for reuse and repair. The state officials can defer to a national policy and not deal with recyclers in their states. I've written about the weaknesses of that before, I'll leave this as a benefit and discuss another time whether it's the best way of achieving the benefit.

So, in the end, was the 9+ year old MA law flawed? The new argument is that Minnesota had higher diversion rates per capita, so that proved Minnesota is more effective. But recyclers have been hauling Curtis Mathis TVs and wooden consoles and 1992 Apple Mac SEs out of Massachusetts for nearly a decade, while Minnesota didn't address them for 8 years, tweaking the 'perfect' collection system.

The diversion rate needs to be calculated over the decade. If my neighbor waits 8 more weeks to mow his lawn, and then shows this weekend's grass clippings weigh more than mine, does that prove he has a better lawnmower?

MN should have at least implemented the waste ban while waiting to pass its legislation, and all states should do the same. EPA could do that tomorrow with a gutsy RCRA move. That might even spur passage of the product stewardship legislation. Or individual counties, like Addison County in Vermont, can implement CRT bans on their own. Addison County did so, and now has the highest CRT diversion rates per capita in the state.

That means any county representative reading this in any state should try collecting the CRTs at $10 apiece right now, and recycle them. If you see people are willing and eager to do that, as we have seen in Arizona and MA and Vermont and NH, that people are willing to wait in a long line even to pay $10, then you have your budget. Now you have enough money to choose the right recyclers. Now you can put your own waste ban sign in your own yard.

If e-waste legislation does pass, no harm, you will already be in the game. If it takes a few more years, you can enjoy being part of the solution before your time.

Don't wait around for a national model to mow your lawn.

For Profit, Not For Profit, Non-profit, Loss

I get asked fairly often whether my company is for profit or non-profit. The short answer is that the company that does the recycling (Good Point Recycling, American Retroworks Inc.) is a C-corporation. That means we pay taxes on profits. The WR3A is a "not for profit" business consortium, but not a charity.

What I personally feel about it is that the IRS code should get blown up. I volunteered for a not-profitable Fayetteville (AR) Recycling Center in the 1970s. I ran the Careleton College dorm Recycling Program in the early 80s, which was claimed every year by Minnesota PIRG but which ran completely on volunteer labor and revenues from scrap.

I went from a Peace Corps Volunteer to a federal employee (cross-culture trainer) hired by Peace Corps to train other volunteers - at which time I had a lot more money and could do a lot more favors for a lot more Cameroonians than I could on Peace Corps wages. It was a constant chore as a volunteer to convince Cameroonians I really wasn't paid any more than a Cameroonian teacher (which peasants still thought of as rich).

I joined a coop recycling company, Earthworm Inc., in the late 80s, which was a 501-c(3) certified by IRS non-profit organization... which made nearly 100% of its revenues from collection and sale of scrap paper (or waste paper) recycling. We filled out IRS form 990s which said that the office paper collections were non-profit "demonstration projects", which the org had been "demonstrating" for 20 years or so. We started consulting for MA DEP and EPA Region 1 and UMass (non-profits all?) about recycling, surveying for-profit recyclers to get their expertise. Jonathan Gold of North Shore Recycled Fiber and Ben Harvey of E.L. Harvey and Sons, among other recyclers, asked aloud how come it was better not to pay taxes and call competitors for private information and then sell it to the government for more money... I think I shrugged and said something about we were hired more because we were small and non-threatening because of our tax status.

But later I worked for the MA DEP as recycling director, and worked jointly on US EPA grants, and I saw that in fact, yes, a lot of the studies were subbed out to non-profits, and people were always asked for 501-c(3) documentation. And there was definitely a culture of distrust towards "for profits". There was an underlying assumption that contracting to a non-profit somehow was "insured from criticism". Of course, a lot of non-profits liked that.

Generally speaking, I earned more money and risked less during my non-profit and government career than now as an entrepreneur. That may not be true of everyone.

But at this point, ten years later, I don't have time for all that 501c(3) debate. Wherever I can raise more money without begging, and invest it to reduce mining, which I picked out as the best way I could think of to preserve habitat and slow extinction of species when I decided to get into environmental work in the 1970s. This whole life is my shot at picking the best way to make the longest range impact I could, to leverage my life work in any way I could to reduce mankind's footprint on the planet. The main problem with working from the inside, in retrospect, is that it is easier to consume meat or generate waste if you think of yourself as an environmentalist with "offsets" due you. What any of that has to do with tax policy is beyond me.

I will say this: my entire life's work would be quickly accomplished through the free market if Congress had changed this law 30 years ago, when I wrote to my Senator from Arkansas, Dale Bumpers, about it. Sportsmen United for Sensible Mining Reform may in the end do more for recycling, as game hunters, than I will have accomplished by recycling, if they make reform of the General Mining Act of 1872 move closer.

Simple due diligence Model for "ewaste" exports

No export for disposal. Example: 89 sea containers of hospital waste sent to Brazil (BBC) misidentified as "for recycling". There really are cases of hazmat dumping on foreign beaches. But this rule should also cover "negligent sorting" of electronics (not hiring enough people to remove the bad stuff to meet the specs of legal exports, defined below).

Establish Rules for Export for recycling. Conditional exemption of sorted commodity grade CRT glass, as well as plastics, metals, etc. means it cannot include more than de minimus quantities of TAR (Toxics Along for the Ride). Export for recycling requires commodity agreements which are legal in the country you are exporting to. Recycling should not be held to a higher standard than raw material extraction, but if we "close one eye" to the byproducts, society will turn back to mining.

Establish Rules for Export for repair and refurbishment. EPA already requires 3 years of recordkeeping that demonstrates the CRTs sent for reuse as a condition of "commodity" status. WR3A requires that de minimus (replaced parts, incidental breakage) be recycled properly downstream, and proof that a significant percentage of CRTs were recycled in the USA. The overseas facilities should be audited and BOLs inspected to make sure that material is properly screened (no one is refurbishing imploded, screen burned, monochrome monitors or 20 year old TVs or cracked LCDs). This is legal under Basel Convention Annex IX B1110, but has been an "excuse" to export CRTs to China. Our industry needs to regulate this trade or we will lose a great, affordable environmental option.

Export of "fully functional" for direct reuse should be completely exempt. There can be definitions and rules, e.g. that the be under certain age, require 3 years of record keeping that the material was in fact reused, material is under waranty (full refund, no de minimus for broken). Any laws bearing on legality of shipping (e.g. USA restrictions on export of high tech to unfriendly countries, protectionist laws in China) to any country are presumed not to be environmental laws, and EPA and ISRI should probably stay silent on those.

EPA R2 (Responsible Recycling) Practices

Over the past couple of years, on behalf of WR3A, I have been participating in the development of EPA's "R2 Standards" for electronics recycling stewardship. This is an initiative by EPA to create consensus on standards for the management of:

  • surplus electronics
  • store returns
  • used electronics sales
  • electronics scrap
  • "e-waste" or "ewaste" (the dregs)

The group, moderated by a professional mediator, John Lingelbach, had lots of ebbs and flows. I would probably emphasize the "ebbs". Like most of these groups (NEPSI - National Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative), there was a certain "last man standing" dynamic. Good people with things to contribute drop out after the 3rd or 4th meeting, and the less progress is achieved, the more extremely narrow focused participants hang onto their pet issues. Some participants manage surplus stuff which is in very good shape, like off-lease equipment from hospitals. Other participants managed municipal material, gathered directly from residents. Others are in the business of processing the "dregs" for the other two. There were original equipment manufacturers, product stewardship devotees, regulators, non-profits, etc., all gathered together to "voice" opinions and create consensus on ewaste management. There was a lot of ping-pong.

For example, the OEMs who don't like to see toner cartridges RE-filled tried to get cartridges onto the list of "focus materials" even though there is nothing hazardous about them. It was a constant struggle to keep the OEM interests in the gray market for toner refurbishing out of the R2 discussion. BAN objected to toner not being included as a banned item, even though no MSDS (material safety data sheets) show any concern with toner as a toxic.

There were also differences between companies which collect everything - municipal, schools, small businesses, processing for other collectors (like my company), especially in more rural markets, and companies which served an established niche, like hard drive shredding, typically in a very urban market. The latter tended to push standards like hard drive chain of custody which is a great marketing concept for them, but which is difficult to get payment for from a public school. Joe Clayton of Synergy coined the term that "they don't want meat with hair on it" to distinguish between companies like mine that have to satisfy all types of deliveries from companies which don't accept, and don't plan to accept, TVs or municipal tonnage... as opposed to companies which are in the business of "shredding hard drives" (period), or managing surplus and off-lease equipment from Fortune 100 companies.

Those groups got along ok, despite long interludes of pontification. In the end however, the biggest issue turned out to be with the self-declared Environmental Stewards, groups like BAN and Computer Takeback Campaign. They really brought a lot to the table, and I think had a positive effect compared to what an all-industry group might have defined. But in the end, I think they were finding things to object to simply because they benefit from the perception that EPA is not doing its job. If EPA fixes the problems they complain about, what do we need their "certification" for? BAN's objections to R2 are laid out on their website. Here is BAN's objection to the export for repair:
  • In addition, untested and non-working “equipment” and “parts” supposedly destined for “reuse” will be allowed to go to an endless number of downstream vendors before someone, somewhere is held accountable (by the R2 certified recycler) for ensuring that only fully functional units are exported.
"Fully Functional" is a long way from the language of the Basel Convention. Further, the "endless number of downstream vendors" is completely accounted for in the WR3A civil law, purchase order, model. We also object to vague "intended for reuse" language. EPA, and federal law, require that ACTUAL documentation of ACTUAL reuse be kept on file for 3 years, which BAN doesn't acknowledge in their attack on EPA. Under Basel Convention, as we have said before, it's perfectly legal to export for repair and refurbishment. It meets the hierarchy, it provides sustainable jobs. You want the factories to be certified and to make sure they really are repairing, but if that's done, it's legal. Basel Convention simply doesn't say "tested working" or "fully functional". But that became one of the reasons the eco-groups dropped out of R2.

The other was that the statement "legal in the country of import" had discussion about whether that allows other countries to ban import for protectionist reasons, end-running WTO agreements. China bans import of used tested working Pentium 4 laptops, for example... another country might ban electronics "made by Jews". There was a fair discussion about drawing the line on what I called "Orange Laws"... China may ban the color orange, but should we really incorporate references to that into USA laws, de facto making export of "orange" a violation of USA law? Or should we acknowledge China's sovereignty over Chinese soil, accept that we could get arrested for selling orange commodities, but stop short of making it a violation of USA law to sell something colored orange to a Chinese consumer?

The last discussion was admittedly legal and nuanced, I was promoting a clarification such as "foreign restrictions within the scope of the Basel Convention" or other limits to letting foreign governments put USA citizens into USA jails under USA laws that reference their laws. But in any case, it became a reason to part ways with R2 Standards.

One thing we agreed on with BAN:
  • R2 continues to allow mercury devices and batteries to be shredded. Current US regulations allow recyclers to shred batteries in e-waste, along with mercury lamps and switches, which is highly likely to expose workers and release toxins into the environment. The draft R2 standard ultimately allows these irresponsible practices to continue, this time with EPA’s endorsement.
One of my pet peeves is that people who buy a big shredder are assumed to have been doing something more for the environment than people who employ 60 people to take the same stuff apart by hand. But calling people who invested in early stage shredding technology "irresponsible" has to sting, because most of the people I know who invested in that flawed technology did so to appease BAN and avoid the export market.

Personally, I still like the tried and true WR3A standards. These are still good chestnuts for a municipality without the means to do a full audit, and who doesn't want to wait for independent accreditation of R2 or RIOS standards.
  • 1) CRT Glass Test: The most expensive and difficult and insurance-heavy activity is what you do with the bad CRTs that are NOT repairable. Of the total tons of material a recycler ships, how much is CRT glass?
  • 2) PCB Test: Of the total tons of CPUs brought in, how much CRT printed circuit boards went back out? It's tough to police whether a Pentium 4 had enough RAM in it, or to ship it with a hard drive. But if someone has NO PCB recycling, then the Pentium 1 computers MUST be going along for the ride. Like the CRT test, you don't really need to suspect a company of recycling the good ones and shipping the bad ones, you just need to verify that some reasonable percentage is getting removed and recycled before export.
  • 3) Employees per ton. Companies which don't take anything apart tend not to hire people to stand around.
  • 4) Sea containers per year per ton. Nuff said.
All of those tests are independently verifiable through IRS, DNB, Dept of Commerce channels, some of which are available to EPA but not to a private company. Eventually, a group like ISRI will probably take over and establish R2 standards under RIOS, the Recycling Industry Operating Standards they developed in the past to govern concerns over auto batteries, freon, etc.

The WR3A Tests also compliment a good old fashioned walk-through. When people tour Good Point Recycling, we like to point out those 4 tests. We don't mind getting an R2 Accreditation as well, but the poor man's audit will eliminate the 20% of companies exporting 80% of the pollution.

"Recycling is Garbage", "Recycling is Waste", etc.

Sometimes, when I am not sure what I should be doing in the morning, I google search terms that are the opposite of what I'm supposed to be doing. I wind up meeting people online, like H. Sterling Burnett, and Betsy Hart of Chicago, who publish editorials dissuading people from participating in their local recycling programs. John Tierney and Lynn Scarlet created a ruckus in the mid 1990s by arguing recycling was wasteful. The Freakonomics guy Dubner made quite a stir on Good Morning America by suggesting that recycling is only worthwhile, if (and only if) the item to be recycled will disappear from your lawn.

I threw his Freakonomics book on my lawn the next morning, and it was still there at nightfall.

Then I wondered, which is MORE likely, that my bundle of newspaper and cardboard will get picked up from my lawn in a stack, or that they will get picked up for free inside my garbage bag? Then I read in USGS.gov that the USA will probably have to mine landfills by the middle of this century to retrieve metals (especially in electronics) which we stupidly buried (how do you say "duh" in Greek or Latin?).

The point is, you have to think logically and not dogmatically. It is good to be challenged, and we have to be sharp and on our toes when these skeptics challenge our recycling system.

Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living for man.”
(Plato, Apology)

Dubner's and others comments about recycling being wasteful are, most often, contradicted by the free market, which is his main source of data. Tierney and Scarlett made a valid case that secondary materials (recyclables) should be managed in a free market. They just never made the case that virgin materials are collected in a free or fair market. If they compared RCRA 1976 (which, under EPA regulates recycling) with the General Mining Act of 1872 (which, under Department of the Interior, regulates mining and forestry), the "recycling subsidies" would have looked more like start up costs, or at worst a "market correction". In a truly free market, where recycling and mining are equally unregulated, recycling rates soar (Southern Communist China probably providing the best case study in that free market).

Recycling rates increase in time of war, time of want, and are highest in places like Guangzhou and Cairo and Mumbai. Waste increases (and recycling rates decline) with affluence. Complaints about the waste of a second (recycling) truck on the street? Remind them that toilet paper is made of recycled paper, and if we assume we are going to keep using it, then there must be another truck replacing the recycling truck, collecting timber and cellulose. The industry association, American Forest and Paper Institute, is a big advocate of people participating in existing recycling programs.

However, I think that some of us recyclers have a dogmatic streak which probably leaves us ill-equipped to nip Dubners arguments in the bud. Simply expressing shock or indignation probably encourages the critics in their belief that recycling needs to be challenged. I personally think that "Zero Waste" is a theory that gained advocates relative to states meeting their recycling roles ("Zero Waste" offers more job security than "46% diversion"). Not that I oppose "Zero waste" as a concept, but if there is a limited amount of "eco-dollars" in the economy, and the last bit of waste is the most expensive to eliminate (the last soda can on the bottom of the sea), that it seems likely that something - rain forests, carbon, toxics, ivory trade, etc. - would be a higher priority to spend the last eco-dollar on than the last piece of waste pried from the most unwilling hand. "Zero Waste" as a goal is like "zero death" at a hospital, hard to disagree with but kind of a millstone around the nurse's necks in the real world. I don't know, it just sounds like what the Dubners portray recyclers as... out of touch eco-Quixotes.

Perhaps we can convince the critics first that the best time to challenge recycling is before a program starts (it is arguable whether collecting the last bottle from the most remote island is a good use of limited environmental resources). Subterfuge of participation in existing recycling programs is just ornery. When they make an argument not to participate in an existing program, recycling trucks perform less efficiently, and more lumber trucks have to go into the forests to cut timber for cellulose.

What I really hope is that the up and coming generation of environmentalists will approach the health of the environment the way we approach the study of human health. Western medicine is great, but it only got where it is by getting it out of the hands of organized religion and into the university system. It began in alchemy, and by feeding King Edward of England spoonfuls of liquid mercury because those really improved his bowel movements. What saved Western Medicine was dialectic and scientific method, which thrives on argument and defense of arguments with statistics and analysis.

Environmentalists like me get off to a better start in the morning with a strong cup of coffee and a challenge on the table. We recycle better when we don't succumb to group-think, platitudes, and back slapping. I am a better man when I fly back and forth between red states (sweet home Ozark Mountains of Arkansas) and blue states (sweet home Green Mountains of Vermont). I hope that by challenging well meaning colleagues like Greenpeace and BAN.org, they will see benefits, and correct me when I'm wrong.

Socrates: "Well I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.”
(Plato, Apology)