E-Waste Certification: R2 Standards and BAN E-Stewards

Here's the ANOTHER write up (for you college students out there) on the history leading up to two Certification Programs.   I have another chapter I am really anxious to roll out, but I want to have enough history posted on the blog that I can simply footnote.

First, here is a description of the R2 Export Certification by the EPA contractor, John Lingelbach, who moderated the discussions between dozens of parties to the Responsible Recycler Certification process.  What I've added below is a step by step walk through on the history of the debate.  The place it broke down is where it broke down before:  when, where, and under what conditions is "export for repair" or "export of non-functioning" used electronics legal?   BAN said the Basel Convention only allowed export after the offending circuit or capacitor is removed in an OECD country, WR3A stated that Annex IX allowed it to be repaired overseas if either both Parties considered it a non-waste commodity or if key functions (or something that prevents export of obsolete and unrepairable waste) were tested.   What R2 finally formed consensus around is to state that the export MUST BE LEGAL in the importing country.  That way, if BAN was right and it was all illegal, R2 Certification would require a legal import permit be provided as evidence of compliance.  If WR3A was right and some countries have legal export for repair markets, then the permits would be found in the audit, if BAN is right, R2 would stand by BAN under the "legal" rule.

Why was this simple compromise rejected by BAN?   If BAN is right, and Annex IX repairs are not legal except as BAN dictates, then the "legal" condition of R2 covers it.   But not everyone agrees with BAN's interpretation.    A little history shows how the Basel Convention Annex IX B1110 has been considered by EPA, BAN, and ethical ewaste recyclers, especially regarding the drafting of BAN's "Pledge of True Stewardship" will shed light on the breakdown at R2.

BAN gained national prominence by shocking people with photos that showed "cheap recycling" of e-waste, and representing those photos as representative of most e-waste exports..  Whether the nasty practice was described as "often", "usually", or "80%" (no data was ever provided), people were understandably distressed by pictures of poor children  living in horrible conditions.   Like campaigns over the working conditions of coffee farmers, shoe and textile workers, the press impacted the industry.   Companies began to distinguish themselves by their "export practices" (as well as by price).   BAN added USA prison labor to their ewaste campaign, which helped them bring aboard some big USA ewaste processors who were competing against UNICOR for federal computer processing accounts.

I was as concerned by the photos of children burning circuit boards as your average environmentalist, but wrote a "white paper" in 2002 ("Higher Standards") which complimented BAN for raising the bar, but also cautioned BAN that we don't want the outcome to be more mining and less recycling.  The paper was edited and released as an article in Recycling Today.  The mining reform activists, such as www.earthworksaction.org, didn't have photos of children in the copper mines, but professional ecologists knew the damage from a recycled ton of copper to be less, no matter how primitive the conditions, than extracting a ton of mined copper, no matter how good the operation.  But it was much more difficult to generate a following around the words "standard" and "reform" than it was over the word "export".

BAN then came out with their "Pledge of True Stewardship".  I seriously considered signing on, but was concerned by two things:  1) the emphasis on "promoting legislation" which no one had seen, and 2) some nuances in the "tested working" standards.  I spoke with BAN about the export for repair, and we nearly had a compromise worked out in some footnotes concerning the export for repair market.

A third concern then surfaced as companies "Pledged" to meet the standard... companies were joining the Pledge who were known exporters, to varying degrees.   My company was not accepted because we disclosed a monitor refurbishing operation which several other Pledge companies also sold monitors to.  It was a good operation, and there was absolutely no good served to "outing" the companies which shipped to it.  But it was also difficult for BAN to distinguish between companies which shipped to a good reuse operation and companies which exported to villages which sorted out the monitors and shipped them to the same destination.  You sometimes had in the same city two USA companies which were exporting to the same port - one was separating out the junk TVs and monitors and handling the glass in the USA, and exporting directly to a factory, and the other was selling mixed monitors through a broker and thus eliminating all the insurance and CRT glass handling expenses.

Then BAN made headlines again with a Dell Boycott.  They threatened to dump PCs on Michael Dell's doorstop because Dell used Unicor prison labor in its recycling program.  Dell's "reform" (or capitulation, depending on who you talk to) and the Dell Boycott became the E-Waste story of they year.  BAN was now in a funding cycle which depended on headlines.

I tried to work with BAN on opening the Pledge to the companies which were exporting the right way (which would have allowed us to disclose their Pledge companies already doing that under the "tested working" clause which I refused to sign).  Sarah and I published a paper together in 2004 using the "CRT Glass Test" as an indicator of good behavior.  The CRT Glass Test was simple and effective - take the total tonnage of ewaste collected and divide it by tons of bad CRT glass, the CRTs broken and removed for recycling.  The killer aspect of the CRT Glass Test was that the biggest exporters had NO CRT GLASS AT ALL.   If you already employ someone and pay the insurance to remove some of the monitors and recycle them, you might as well take all the bad ones and get the higher price for the good ones.  The windfall to be made was not in sending a few more bad monitors, it was eliminating the inspection and sorting entirely.

I failed to get BAN on board.  My take on it was that they appreciated the information and the insider view to the export industry, but that they wanted to set the standard and keep control.  But they didn't  have any resources to visit the monitor refurbishing operations and see what was going on.  And the more I tried to explain about the technical differences between "tested working trinitron R4 CRTs = Bad" and "non-working Corning SVGA CRTs = Good" the more I fell into a thicket of "poor communication".  I can communicate some days better than others, that's for sure, but it is much harder to explain that putting a Sony made CRT into a Proview chasis is like putting a Volkswagon motor into a chevy than it is to label something "untested".

Several of us who understood the technical standards tried to form WR3A - the World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association - as a coop of good actors.  The idea behind WR3A was like Fair Trade Coffee, if you get enough businesses that dictate a stronger standard, you help bring that standard to scale and make it economical to reform the bad practices.  WR3A is still a great concept, but the people who WANTED to join were the people attracted to a simple "Exports are OK" message.  The people WE wanted to join, who passed the CRT Glass Test, had already either marketed their Pledge status and either were breaking everythying under the "export bad" slogan, or shipping secretly to the same WR3A factories but did not want BAN to know lest they be removed from the Pledge list.  (The worst was the company which was exporting worse loads than WR3A allowed but still listed as a Pledge E-Steward, while putting "EPA Certified" on their website - a certification that never existed).

EPA was the next whipping boy for BAN.   I don't know whether WR3A can take credit for de-simplifying the Pledge, or if enough other companies were frustrated by a "promise not to lie", but pressure grew for a consensus approach to "certification".   EPA hired a professional mediator, John Lingelbach, someone outside the e-waste field, to hold meetings including professionals and non-profits to form a consensus around the standards.

Guess which standard BAN walked out over?  The same "export for repair" (under Annex IX, B1110) we broke down over in the footnotes to the Pledge.  BAN said that if a part was removed under B1110, that the part then became waste, and that the export for repair was only possible if each unit was "prepped" for repair in a process that would have required a repair professional.  WR3A advocated an "80/20" rule, showing that 80% of the bad weight can be removed for 20% of the effort, and that getting down to the single bad capacitor (like the one bipassed in our Egyptian repair slide show) was going to kill the economics and drive the demand back to the black market.

WR3A was getting more and more technical, learning more about the techniques of CRT repair.  Some CRTs have some demand, but cannot be absorbed in the thousands.  If you had a legal, ISO14001 factory, price would reflect demand.  This makes WR3A a more difficult sell (though it was extremely popular with Asian CRT refurbishing factory executives who know CRTs inside and out).

The bottom line:

BAN said that repairs, if not done domestically or done to a degree that failed parts had to be removed, was illegal under international law.  WR3A said that was not only untrue under Annex IX, but that there were factories permitted to import by the competent authorities.   R2 Stakeholders ultimitely voted a very simple compromise - that the export must be legal in country being exported to.

If BAN was correct, and the WR3A repairs were illegal, then WR3A exports would not be allowed under R2.   I had qualms that people would lobby foreign governments to take away import permits, but that was a qualm I had to live with, and I voted for the R2 standards.

BAN walked out.   Those of us supporting the R2 Process are confused how BAN says something is illegal if both the importing and exporting country say is allowed as a commodity under certain conditions and enforce those conditions.  The MPPI standard, right out of the gate, concedes that to Parties to the convention can make their own determination that a cell phone or a CRT is a commodity not a waste, but that if they do not have this consensus, there is a decision tree to determine whether the item is a commodity or a waste.  But R2 had bypassed that by making both parties agree in the first place, and WR3A put its emphasis into giving price incentives to foreign refurbishers to come out of the closet, get legal import permits, and be ready for R2 audits.

That is still a gamble in process.  Our permit in Mexico (an OECD country where the Basel Convention waste rules do not even apply) to process the bad CRTs was not renewed by the Mexico EPA in the 4th quarter 2009 (until we do additional CRT breaking and recycling permits).  We can still repair and disassemble but we cannot use our CRT Glass purchase order, we have to re-export the CRTs to the USA until the permit is renewed.  That is more than doable, but we have an $85k grant in limbo, and I don't know if I can personally survive financially for many more months without it.

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