Cliff Notes on "E-Waste" Policy In USA

Here's a cheat sheet version of the history of EWaste in USA, condensing information from several blogs to help those who are researching the history of the "ewaste" market.

The theme of my blog is that environmentalists should first reform mining, so that the recycling-shredding companies can compete fairly as suppliers of (scrap) raw materials in the free and fair market.   If the price of raw materials outcompetes the reuse and refurbishing markets overseas, that may indicate that new product is better.   But when government bans the refurbishing to the benefit of shredding, it is no better than when government interferes in support of mining over recycling.
  • In the USA, Mining is subsidized (General Mining Act, Superfund) relative to recycling.
  • Seven (100%) of America's secondary copper smelters left the USA because they had been located near population centers, and while less polluting than primary smelters, pollution close to people draws enforcement.   
  • EPA classified disposed CRTs as hazardous waste, but exempted reuse (commodity) CRTs.  Basel Convention did the exact same thing.
  • Developing nations are the growth sector for the internet.  Countries with 1/10th of USA GDP per capita have increased internet access by 10X the USA growth.  They are not getting online with brand new computers.
  • Contract manufacturing companies which assembled computer monitors for OEMs in the 1990s (Mexico, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, China) saw LCD investments go to Northern China, and faced obsolescence.  They survived by switching to "white box" (new and unknown brands) and by buying back USA monitors for refurbishment, in the tens of thousands per day. They sell these to the developing nations above, aka the "good enough market" (good enough to get online).
  • When the savvy engineers import tens of thousands of monitors per day from junk and scrap guys in the USA, they wind up with "Toxics Along for the Ride".   The importers would tolerate up to 30% bad monitors before cutting off a supplier, because they needed to run their factories three shifts per day, seven days per week.
  • The 30% residue built up, and began to look pretty ugly.  While most of the monitors exported for reuse did get reused, the pile of leftovers doesn't move and looks worse and worse day by day.
  • Basel Action Network protested the exclusion of repair and refurbishment as a "loophole" both at the Basel meetings and in USA EPA policy.
  • BAN takes pictures of poor kids on piles of junk, and then fabricated a statistic, that "80% of electronics exported" are not repaired or recycled but disposed of.
  • BAN began a propaganda campaign (based on anecdotes without data) that 80% of used electronics exported are disposed.  BAN has discussed the contact manufacturing operations with me in detail (they claim that if a capacitor was replaced during refurbishment, that the capacitor was then a transboundary movement of waste, and the monitor refurbishing therefore is counted as "e-waste" dumping).
  • BAN got a lot of press ("if it bleeds, it leads"), and used the publicity to create an "E-Steward" or Pledge standard which attracted recyclers who either have heavy capital (shredding) investment or who work with off-lease corporate material.
  • The BAN E-Stewards basically all have "no intact unit" policies.  California instituted a "no intact unit" policy for the entire SB20 system, Maine and Washington and Oregon also succumbed to anti-reuse legislation.  It is contagious.  Vermont is the first state to explicitly remove the policy in its new legislation.
  • The "no intact unit" export policy attracted the attention of manufacturers who saw it as an opportunity, which I call "planned obsolescence in hindsight".  Dell was in a lawsuit with Tiger Direct, Fuji in a lawsuit with Jazz, HP was in a war with cartridge refurbishers.  But the biggest "protectionist" force is the Chinese government - the communist party owns the largest new CRT manufacturing factories, and considers refurbishing of cheap used monitors to be "dumping" in a trade sense.  China, in fact, began a "no intact unit" policy in 2002, allowing crushed and broken monitors to be imported, but banning working units.
  • While the "anti gray market" OEMs know the contract manufacturing and white box market is not "Guiyu", they promoted Gene Green (D-TX) legislation to ban export of intact units for repair and refurbishment across the USA.
  • Wendy Neu of WeRecycle was a major donor to the Obama Campaign and is on the NRDC Board.  She attacked ISRI and other proponents of the idea that export should be reformed rather than banned.  More and more shredding investors see the anti-reuse, anti-export bandwagon as an opportunity. 
  • Obama's EPA is moving export policy away from EPA officials who studied the reuse market.
So professional recyclers (ISRI, the Responsible Recyclers-R2 Stakeholders), the EPA, and Basel Secretariat all accept that export for repair and refurbishment is legal and should be reformed (inspected, certified, documented) in order to protect the refurbishing jobs in developing countries, protect the growing internet demand supported by the "white box" and repair market, and to prevent unnecessary mining by cleaning up the recycling programs in developing countries.

BAN has enlisted support of anti-gray market manufacturers and shredding tycoons to bring Obama to support the Green bill.  Ironically, BAN constantly invokes the name of the Basel Convention, whose reuse policy they protested as an NGO, and are at war with.

CBS 60 Minutes goofed and bought the propaganda and did NOT visit the contract manufacturers which purchased the monitors they circled by helicopter in Hong Kong.  CBS did not see a single monitor in Guiyu, but supported BAN's false contention that 80% of CRTs exported are burned for copper or scrapped in unsanitary, polluting conditions.

When major media makes a wrong turn, it has a snowball effect, and other media (e.g. Boston Globe) feel safe writing stories from BAN press releases.  NO ONE IN THE PRESS HAS BEEN TO THE CONTRACT MANUFACTURERS, who buy 80% of the exported monitors and TVs.

The end effect, like "war on drugs", abortion bans, and booze prohibition, is to create an underground economy.  The contract manufacturers buy the CRTs they need from back allies and smugglers.  People who earn $4k per year demand internet access and will get it by hook or by crook.

BAN should come clean and address the tens of thousands of monitors per day purchased by contract manufacturing companies. They should see that evading the truth of this market will haunt them for decades to come.  The Gene Green bill will severely impact the lives of the technicians and engineers in developing countries - the best and the brightest will be condemned to poverty.

In this internet age, it's not like the policy wars of, say, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (Eisenhower tried to reform BIA).  My great grandfather left boxes and boxes of letters between him and Eisenhower's staff on how the BIA should be reformed, but Nixon ended the reform due to press in the "Wounded Knee" press events.  The history, in the past, was written by the winners.  But I am documenting the lies day by day.

80% of computers exported are not burned in primitive backyard conditions.   

There are refurbishing factories behind the purchases in Hong Kong. 

The way out is to reform mining, so that the shredding companies can compete fairly to supply scrap in the free and fair market.   If the price of raw materials outcompetes the refurbishers overseas, that may be an indication that new product is better.   But when government bans the refurbishing to the benefit of shredding, it is no better than when government interferes in support of mining over recycling.

BAN meanwhile was active in making sure that Samsung's CRT glass factory, a facility their own web page described as clean enough to eat off the floor, does not use its CRT washing capacity to recycle USA CRT glass.  From their own website:

Action Taken: Because we became aware of the fact that Malaysia was importing cullet as a waste for further cleaning and processing, BAN (whose mission involves pressing for compliance with the Basel Convention and the Basel Ban) sent a letter on October 7, 2008 to the Malaysian competent authority asking for their position on cleaned cullet relative to the Basel Convention. In the letter, BAN iterated its support for glass-to-glass recycling and for the interpretation as non-waste, as described above. We offered to support Malaysia or another Basel country in approaching all the Basel Parties to formally request that cleaned, furnace-ready cullet be explicitly exempted from Basel regulation (for all Basel nations). BAN did not call for a prohibition of the importation but rather offered a long term solution. Instead of accepting the idea we offered (to declare the cleaned cullet a non-waste and work with us to amend the Basel Annexes accordingly), the Malaysian government instead made the decision to stop the import of all CRT glass from the US, a non-Party to the Basel Convention. BAN, of course, has no authority to make decisions for countries on import prohibitions. We continue to seek Basel Convention compliance but at the same time encourage the designation of cleaned cullet going to glass-to-glass primary processing facilities as a non-waste under the Basel Convention.


Anonymous said...

You have absolutely no idea! How about going to Guiyu in China and visiting the biggest e-waste dumping site in the world before spewing out this verbal trash on your blog. BAN is a section of the UNITED NATIONS - so you think they are making all this up? I just think Americans are more than happy to dump their e-waste in some other country and make up lies to justify their despicable actions!

Robin said...

BAN is definitely NOT a "section of the United Nations", it is a non-profit NGO in Seattle, Washington!!!

I have been to southern China more than once. BAN is not "making all this up", but they are taking people on a tour of the hospital via the morgue... "Don't go to the hospital, people die here!" Most of the material in Guiyu is generated in China, but that does not excuse "toxics along for the ride" being shipped from the USA. USA junk cannot afford to pay its way to Guiyu on its own, it mostly arrives mixed with more valuable metals and reuse equipment. Do you have any more constructive comments?

Peter Blyth said...

Robin- Do you know of any location that is currently taking broken, mixed panel and funnel CRT glass for reuse purposes, ie smelting? I need to find a legal and economical outlet for truckloads of this type of material.
I'm also interested in finding an outlet for mixed plastics derived from computers, monitors, TVs, printers and copiers.
Thank you.
Peter Blyth
Polymer Consultants, Inc.