EARTH DAY EDITION: Pre-Publication

NOTE:  The first post below was "pre-published" to allow people to voice opinions or concerns before the final version was posted.  The final version is available here, as published at Greenwala.

Dear Friends, the draft post below may stir some controversy.  I am intending to publish it in a mainstream paper.   It may be foolish of me to pre-post this for attack.  But I really like Plato and Aristotle, and I like dialectic, I like debate and reasoning.  Part of what has made my company stronger is our willingness to question propaganda, even when it is directed at our competitors.   At my age, people who know me know I've been an environmentalist my whole life, and I wouldn't print it if I didn't think it.   We all need truth, we need facts to come out.  If I'm wrong, please tell me.   
Top Ten Myths About "E-Waste"
by Robin Ingenthron- To be Published on Earth Day 2010 (pre posted for comment)
Before tackling the "Top Ten Myths About E-Waste", let’s ask what the term "e-waste" means.   In the dictionary and in the courts, "waste" means the material that is discarded or disposed of… stuff that didn’t get recycled, but was dumped.  If you sent two computers to China, and they fixed one,  the second one was “ewaste”. 
Two Chinese officials told me that any property once owned by one person and now offered to another person is considered "discarded" by the first, and all secondary sales can be regulated as "waste".   If I used a laptop for a month and then sold it to my friend?  "Definitely ewaste."
So I use the term "e-waste" in quotes, as many myths come from the confusion between commodities (steel, plastic, working cell phones) and “waste”.  How did these “e-waste” myths gain such momentum?  Most of the Myths below have some root in the truth.  But too many are based on the photo of a child, and a misstated number, and other "green" propaganda.   As economist Roger Brinner said, “The sum of anecdotes is not data.”   I am a fervent environmentalist, and wrote this hoping to encourage students and scientists to keep digging at the truth.  After 10 years of debate in the press, the truth about E-Waste is obscured by well-intentioned propaganda.  Those Myths feed cynicism, which generates contrary Myths AGAINST e-waste recycling (also listed, see #1).   We need more scientists, engineers, economists and lawyers, FAR more representatives from importing businesses, and FAR fewer “Ayatollahs” proclaiming facts from a megaphone.
 10.  MYTH:  "There is a growing tsunami of ewaste."
The Pitch:  “Electronics are becoming more disposable, with shorter useful lives.  And there is evidence [Franklin Associates] that obsolete electronics are the fastest growing segment of the MSW stream.   And the changes in analog TV broadcasts did make old "rabbit ears" TVs obsolete for receiving live broadcasts, unless they are connected to cable or satellite.  The pile is just getting bigger and bigger.”
These facts are true, but they do not describe production of electronics.  Most of this increasing tonnage is “legacy” equipment, and it simply reflects increasing opportunities to collect “e-waste”.  Our recycling is certainly growing.  But much of the product being collected (think CRT televisions) is coming out after decades of storage.   Notice that the more recently a state started a program, the higher the pounds per capita.  There is indeed a wave, but the wave has already passed in places like Massachusetts and California, as the old “old growth” TVs have been cleared out. The tonnage is only “growing” where the collections just recently started.  This is the “lawnmower effect” – the longer you wait to mow the lawn, the heavier the bag of clippings.  In more mature programs, most of the mass is still older units, but most of the count is from younger units.  As the old stuff is depleted, newer stuff comes in, but the newer stuff is smaller.  The old wood console TVs we watched Super Bowl X on are finite. What we are seeing with record-breaking collections of e-waste is not more and more e-waste generation, but more and more collections.  
9. MYTH:  We won't recycle “ewaste” unless it is free.
The Pitch:  Widely advertised "free" recycling events, like the one Sony held at the Patriots stadium in MA, draw lines of cars and piles of TVs and computers, even though the town of Foxboro MA has a regular drop-off program.   Free Earth Day events in draw a crowd.  It is easy to conclude that these people kept the old TV in their garage because they couldn't pay $10 to recycle it on a normal Saturday.
We call this the "Ben and Jerry's" effect, after the long lines for Vermont's "Free Ice Cream" day, held every spring at Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlors.   How many people in the long line, waiting for a free cone, don't otherwise eat ice cream?  Imagine a FREE STARBUCKS coffee event.  You can bet on a long line.  But you will not find a single tea drinker.    Recyclers recycle, non-recyclers don't.   The free recycling events show that people will suffer irrational inconvenience to save a buck, especially if it makes the news and they can talk about at the water cooler.   But suppose I offered to PAY $1 per junk TV across the street from the free event?  If my line is longer, that wouldn’t prove that people “won’t” recycle a TV for free.  The important thing is to establish a sustainable system, one which doesn’t “sticker shock” but which also puts the once-every-10-years problem in perspective.   People recycle TVs because they have a TV to recycle.  Start with $10 fee collections before passing legislation or creating a command and control system. Compare the burden of the fee to a bridge toll.  People waiting in a long “free” line are just recyclers.  As George Washington said, “Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”
8.  MYTH:  “E-Waste” Recycling wastes energy.
The Pitch:  Looking at the recycling trucks, the shredding machines, and the cars full of ewaste, it's an easy hypothesis that recycling wastes energy.    Penn and Teller fanned the criticism in their "Recycling is B*****t" video (which also attacked "recycling creates jobs" and other truths about recycling).  How can recycling not cost energy?
The fact is that metal mining and refining always demands more energy and pukes more pollution than recycling.  The same is true of forestry… If you eliminate the newspaper recycling truck from the city street, you need two logging trucks to drive up a mountain, because we can’t give up toilet paper.  The proof?  When oil prices go up, demand for recycled paper, recycled metals, recycled plastics all skyrocket.  In a gasoline crisis, you see even MORE recycling trucks onto the street.  It is not a choice between recycling and dumping, it is a choice between recycling and mining.  That's why, when the nation's heart and total focus was on the men in battle in World War II, when conservation and pollution were the farthest from our minds, the Greatest Generation had scrap drives in record numbers.  Electronics recycling collection costs are high, and the energy from labor and demanufacturing is considerable, because the plastics and metals and stuff arrive welded together or attached with 20 different screwheads.  But E-Scrap recycling survives in the free market, and thrives in the poorest countries, because electronics have copper and many other hard-rock metals which take enormous energy to refine out of hard rocks and mountain quarries.
7.  MYTH: Electronics Repair is a Lost Art.
The Pitch:  Repair shops are disappearing, especially from tawny neighborhoods.  There were estimated to be 100,000 TV repairmen in the USA in 1990, but the department of labor projected a five-fold decline in 2000.   You may have had your RCA TV repaired for $50 in 1988, but try to find someone to replace the flyback today.
There is a difference between an art which is “lost” and an art that moved to another neighborhood.  Seventy years ago, there were car repair shops on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan… car repair didn’t disappear, it moved to Hoboken and Queens.  This same trend occurs across oceans. Techies are generally smart people, and they pursue the best opportunity available to them.  The repair guys in Boston didn't forget how to repair your 1980 RCA TV.  But why fix a TV worth $10 if you can repair a laptop worth $200?  The repair economy gravitates to the highest value item from the wealthiest client.  A good used car salesmen buys cars in the tawny neighborhoods and sells them in the strapped neighborhoods, and electronics repairs flow the same way. Overseas techs would much rather repair rich country electronics than the ones discarded in their ghettos.  In those poor countries, electronics repair is considered the same as an engineering job. If you have a cell phone you want repaired in New York or Paris, it will probably be a foreigner’s shop, and if you choose not to pay for the repair, he probably will repair it anyway and sell it in another neighborhood – perhaps at his parents home in Taipei, Mumbai, or Mexico City.  Your ability to get a Pentium III repaired is affected by the other available repair jobs. 
Say there’s a laptop repairman at Good Point Recycling..  He is busily assembling RAM sticks for a Pentium 3 laptop, which he has been testing for the past hour.  Suddenly, I place a Pentium 4 laptop to the table.  The Pentium 3 suddenly becomes “an organ donor” for the P4.  The repairman didn't change, the value of the Pentium III didn't change, what changed was the opportunity that the Pentium IV presented.  The P3 may still be a good job for another repairman in another tech room.
6.  MYTH:   Electronics are dangerously toxic.
The Pitch:  Five pounds of lead in an average CRT.   Cadmium phosphors found in piles of CRT glass.  As described in King/McCarthy's 2009 publication Environmental Sociology, "E-waste today contains a witches' brew of toxic substances such as lead and cadmium in circuit boards; lead oxide and cadmium in monitor cathode ray tubes..."  HowStuffWorks, Wikipedia, and many other reputable sources have beaten the drum about toxics in TVs and computers.
It’s safe to say that the TV is in its most dangerous state when it’s turned on in your living room.  The presence of toxics in computers and monitors, as compared toxics in automobiles and light bulbs, has been exaggerated. Virtually no computer monitors have cadmium, and there is no liquid mercury in a TV or computer.  The lead in CRTs is “vitrified” (chemically bound up, solidified in the glass), the same as the lead (more, actually) in leaded glass crystal.  CRTs of 40 and 50 years ago used cadmium for yellows or greens, but Japan outlawed cadmium, and anyone who wanted to sell a TV to the second largest economy got rid of cadmium by 1970.   
What about the poisoned waters in Guiyu China? First, the poisons emitted from primitive circuit board recycling don’t actually come from the circuit boards, they come from the highly poisonous “aqua regia” acids the boards are soaked in.  Burning plastics and lead is also a polluting process, but one that should be distinguished from disassembly and repair and recycling that lead and plastic… and from general use. Second, BAN found arsenic in the river by Guiyu. Chemists and engineers will tell you there's no arsenic or cyanide in “e-waste”... but there is probably a copper mine upstream.
Are there risks in e-waste recycling?  Absolutely.  But the risk of toxins has been dramatically overstated as compared to, say, the toxic dangers of pumping gasoline at the self-serve.  If you take 50 years of experience from TV repair industry, you find hurt backs, busted toes, a rare electric shock, and occasional cuts from incidents of broken CRT glass.   You don't see lead poisoning, silicosis, or other banes of mining raw materials.   At recycling yards, or trash tipping floors, where thousands of tons of the TVs might be crushed and pushed and whacked, you are likely to find lead dust, but the point to that is careful handling.   Inside the landfill, an unbroken CRT does not leach poison, but if you haul it in trash and crush it on the tipping floor, it won’t arrive intact.  The point is not to confuse the risks of processes (like burning and handling) with spooky “brews” of poison.  (Computer viruses are also not contagious to humans).
5.  MYTH:  Manufacturer Take-back leads to design solutions
The Pitch:  If Original Equipment Manufacturers are handed back the problem of obsolete electronics, they will have have an incentive  to design, produce, and sell items that avoid those problems.  
CDs made the cassette players obsolete, and MP3s made the CD players obsolete.   Windows 95 made the Pentium I, obsolete, Windows 2000 made the Pentium II obsolete.   The end of analog broadcast made the rabbit ear TVs obsolete.  There is no way that the engineer of the CRT could have anticipated the LCD or plasma screen.  Making the manufacturer of VCR pay for its recycling will not change the tide of blue ray players.  Obsolescence is dictated by media, not by hardware.  But it is true that the hardware people benefit from the turnover in new technology, and Product Stewardship laws brought the hardware people to the table.  I would argue that a Product Stewardship bill which taxes media – the FCC auctions of the airwaves, the sales of new operating systems, etc., would be more logical and an easier fee to pass along (since you are adding the tax to a “right” not physical production).
The other problem with this theory is that it is based on a somewhat quaint image of manufacturing.   If you take my Dell desktop apart, the hard drive is made by Seagate, the motherboard by Intel, the video cards by NVidia, the screen assembled by BenQ, the CRT tube by Trinitron, the RAM stick by Corsair… I don’t know what “Dell” made besides the logo.  Forcing all these assembled parts back upstream is certainly going to make a lot of noise, but it’s not likely to affect the engineering.

4.  MYTH:  Most of the junk electronics found in developing countries are discards from wealthy nations.
Pitch:  (If) 80% of the E-Waste collected in the USA is exported, and (if) 80% of the exports are useless ewaste, it follows that the electronic scrap scattered in the streets of poor areas like Guiyu, China, came from imported loads from rich countries.   The people tearing down the ewaste are too poor to have generated it themselves.
Actually, China is the number 2 generator of scrap electronics after the USA.  Reports from Malaysia, from the United Nations, and from researchers at Arizona State University all confirm that most of the scrap electronics found in places like Guiyu actually originated in the home country.   This makes sense when you consider that the biggest area of growth in internet access is in developing countries.  Countries with average per capita GDP of $3000 increased internet access at ten times the rate of USA growth (USA’s GDP per capita is $47,000).   It's also true that some of the discarded electronics observed at the landfills in Africa were purchased used, worked for several years, but finally became obsolete. How will these countries develop the capacity to best recycle their own scrap electronics?  In the USA, it was techies, geeks and repair people who started the ewaste recycling industry.

3.  MYTH:  Most electronics will be repaired or recycled if you send it to a country poor enough. 
Pitch:  The free market works perfectly.  Anything can be repaired, anything can be recycled.  Even the screws are made of metal.  If we export e-waste to a poor enough country.
This was presented to me by a notorious e-waste exporter, who I had just introduced face to face with Sarah Westervelt of BAN (whom he didn’t recognize).  There are a lot of e-waste generators who choose recycling companies based on the lowest price.  Many think that the free market works and that importers wouldn’t buy the stuff if it wasn’t good.   The problem is that the shipping lines and sea containers are a “bottleneck” – a sea container holds 40,000 lbs, and that’s what goes in.    If there is a single high-value item – such as classified submarine tracking equipment, some laptops, or a nice Harley-Davidson motorcycle, importers will look the other way when obsolete equipment falls out.   Poor countries cannot recycle CRT glass unless there is a smelter (like in Mexico) or CRT furnace (like in Malaysia, India and China), or there is enough “fair trade” money for them to pay for the bad units.  Left with a repairable TV, an African will repair it, but left with a damaged CRT screen, they can only strip the copper and leave the leaded glass on the ground… at a penny a pound, they cannot pay to ship it to another continent.  And a country has to at least afford electricity before they can repair used computers; the poorest billion people cannot really benefit from junk of the wealthy.
2.  MYTH:  80% of used electronics exports are illegal end-of-life product.
The Pitch:  BAN and Greenpeace claim that 80% of the ewaste collected in the USA is exported, and that 80% of that is junk for disposal.  They say that American companies export the junk to avoid the cost of proper recycling.  And when BAN or Greenpeace or Toxics Action Coalition finds a pile of junk on the ground or in a warehouse, no doubt that "80%" of what they see there is junk.
At most, about 30% of the exports of uniform loads (barring a new motorcycle, guns, or other "sweetener" in the load) are junk.  In a study by ASU of used computers sold to Peru, more than 85% was repaired and resold. While it is certainly true that it costs money to remove a junk, imploded, ancient, Apple, unrepairable monitor or TV from a stack of good ones, you need more than just “avoided disposal fees” to pay thousands of dollars for a shipping a container across an ocean (dumping it in the Atlantic would achieve the same cost savings).   Overseas buyers typically pay $5000 for a container of used electronics scrap on top of that shipping, and they don’t pay that for unrepairable CRT monitors with a dollar’s worth of copper.  Obviously, there are financial gains to be made by letting some of the junk flow into the overseas container, but if it’s more than 30%, the economics just don’t work, and the business won’t be repeated.  
As for the pile in Guiyu, or the landfill in Ghana, of course it’s 80% junk.  The good TVs and computers are sold, they are off in use.  The ones that didn't sell are the junk ones.  The junk accumulates, like orange peels in a monkey cage or bones in a lion cage.   Finding empty soda cans doesn’t prove that people buy empty soda cans.
As for Legality, the Basel Convention is available on-line.  It is not necessary to get a self-proclaimed expert.  Used electronics exported for recycling and repair are addressed in Annex IX, B1110.  Annex IX is the list of what is legal if it does not result in a toxic.  That means that the export is illegal only if it is a polluting process.  It does not prohibit factories which made monitors from buying back their old monitors for refurbishment.  That doesn’t mean there is nothing illegal mixed in as “toxics along for the ride”, and you should audit your “ewaste” recycler carefully if they do export.  But 80% is economically impossible unless you count legal reuse and refurbishment in the “e-waste” calculation.  Maybe 80% are exported (though with market shares of Creative and SIMS and ERI and other large e-waste processors, I doubt it).   Probably many exports are illegal… but “80% illegally exported” is the second biggest Myth reported in the industry.
 For what it's worth, one importer in Asia said that 70-80% of his loads were reuseable or recyclable. The rest, he said, he gave to fishermen who used them for ballasts. For every ton of fish they brought back, they threw a half ton of “ballast” into the ocean. We will find a lot of computer monitors on deep sea diving missions some day (But they were not 80% of the load). This is a call for openness, transparency, and Fair Trade. No “toxics along for the ride”.
1.  MYTH:  E-Waste Recycling isn't worth it.
The Pitch:  Freakonomics postulates that if recycling which costs money, it cannot be done by the free market.  Are e-waste programs just an expensive boondoggle?  Clients cannot see the difference in service between a recycling company that charges them for the same pile of computers that another company pays for.  It's all a cynical ploy to get you to pay to recycle something that does no harm in the dump.
This is the most dangerous myth because it stabs recycling programs in the heart - by reducing participation.   EPA, USGS, the Department of Commerce, and state and county governments have studied recycling.  We have weighed the costs and benefits, and set up programs.  Convincing people NOT to participate creates a double waste - the material that gets thrown away as well as the cost of driving past a non-participant.  By not participating, the cynics make recycling slightly less affordable and practical than it would otherwise be.
Cynicism hurts the companies which are investing in doing a better and better job of managing used electronics.  It undercuts the refurbishing and repair industry, which has been the best path of development (far better than drilling and mining and plantations) for the developing world.  As one group of clients gets cynical and goes for the lowball bid, the recyclers competing for the smaller pie might be tempted to malign each other's reputations, insinuate foul play, and charge higher margins on the declining volumes.
Last year, my company managed about 5 million pounds of used TVs, computers, printers, VCRs, laptops, keyboards, oscilloscopes, monitors, copy machines, cell phones, stereos, surge supressors, and other surplus, working, repairable, junk and anything else you might label "e-waste".   If you took all that material and put it in the dump, you'd avoid our fees (about 12 cents per pound after collection), about $600k.   That 600k employs 25 people.
The evil lurking inside waste electronics is not the toxics constituents.  Think of throwing away ivory, or a baby seal pelt.  Most of the environmental harm from a disposable society is wasting the precious materials, which were extracted at great costs in environmentally sensitive areas.    Gorilla extinction is tied to the mining of coltan for cell phones.  Conflict metals are going into electronics as well as jewelry.   Even non-toxic elements in a computer, such as tin, are mined at the expense of coral reefs in Indonesia.  The copper production at the OK Tedi Mine in Papua New Guineau produces a green plume of cycanide tailings which have assassinated all life in the river, and fishless sea harbor is now visible from outer space.    To produce the same amount of copper, aluminum, gold, silver, and other “hard rock” mined metals is a shocking cost.    Hard rock metal mining produces 45% of all toxics produced by all USA industries, and even more toxics in developing countries.  14 of the 15 largest Superfund sites come from virgin metal mining.  Even the worst forms of recycling produce less pollution than the cleanest form of mining.
Your gut instinct is that it makes no sense to throw away such a complicated piece of equipment.  That’s why you stored it in your attic, or put it in your car to bring to the school or charity.   Your gut is right.
Electronics reuse and recycling also creates jobs.  If you look at a large, well run landfill, like the one managed by Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, the amount of material our company processes in a year equals one day's worth of MSW solid waste disposal by weight.   The reuse, repair and recycling we do on that one day’s worth of material brings $1.2M into Addison County and creates 20 jobs.   If that material was brought to a landfill, it would take less than a day to push dirt on top of it.   This proves that recycling is worth it, and that any “subsidy” is either making up for another subsidy (landfills and mining), or a start up cost that can go away if enough people, like you, choose to recycle.
There are probably many more myths about e-waste.  Is hard drive destruction demanded because Chinese paupers are booting up hard drives?  Or is it the value of computer programs (MS Office, Photoshop, etc.) behind the legislation which drives shredding?   Does a printer run through a shredder in the USA wind up in a different country than a printer exported for disassembly?  Or does the fluff plastic and the steel just go into separate containers to the same place?   Are cameras and ink cartridges refilled or burned?   Do “green” products matter?  Does just the promise to act green matter as much (through brand exposure and commitment) as the ecological footprint?   There are many other sacred cows roaming El Rancho del E-Waste.   I don’t know, and am not ready to declare something a Myth if I’m not pretty confident in my facts.   But that just means there is plenty more to research, study, and write about in the coming years.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting insight beyond the simplistic "conventional wisdom" that predominates. Your take on myths #3 and #4 is educational. I understand what you're saying in myth #1... smaller, more powerful devices are where production focuses. But I'm not sure that this necessarily means production of older device types is declining. Ie: we're moving from desktops to laptops, and from laptops to handhelds, but that doesn't necessarily mean that production of older device categories declines; they just may not grow as fast. eTForecasts has interesting stats that tend to support your view --