Now the crunch is on at the Basel Secretariat to form rules around exports of used electronics, which are either 75% good or 75% e-waste, depending on your source. The decision tree is designed to remove the residue, the bad stuff, the "toxics along for the ride", and whatever the true statistic, we must now put pen to paper to improve on it.
This "decision tree" on the export of used electronics has become the newest point of dispute with some of my fellow environmentalists. Here is the analysis comparing the results of some NGO's proposed decision tree rules with WR3As.
Some NGOs have placed certain questions in the pre-export test box, "Is the unit functional" and "If not functional, have all hazardous parts or components been removed?" which appear reasonable. Unfortunately, the tests were not designed with any input from the overseas repair and reuse markets, and this is why they fail to meet demand or to utilize skills or knowledge at the point the question can be best answered.
Below, I have laid out in blue our responses to the NGO's proposed decision tree questions (and a derivative question inserted by OEMs to create their own loophole to the NGO tests). Our alternative decision tree questions are in green.
"Is the unit tested working and fully functional?" Four problems:
- False claims. While NGOs have repeatedly stated that "repairable" can be claimed falsely, this "tested working" is the same. Unless the unit is re-tested and confirmed (see conclusion) any claim can be made anywhere upstream (the generator office could say it was working, the truck driver could say it was working, the lazy employee could say it was working, etc.). WR3A actually addresses false claims, this does not.
- Off Specification. I have purchased tested working items which were waste because the export buyer did not have a legitimate use for the unit. Trinitron tubes sent to a factory which cannot use them, 21" monitors which are already warehoused in oversupply by the market, obsolete interfaces common in Apple and Sun monitors, all of these can be working but still be waste. I have a tested working Apple Macintosh SE at my office, I would not export it unless it was to a Japanese collector or for properly vetted recycling.
- No legal basis. Unless the civil law contract between the commodity parties have specified ("specked") the units to be tested working, this has no legal basis. The Basel Convention allows exports of CRTs for reuse, repair and refurbishment, and explicitly states that parties may consider these as commodities and not wastes.
- Does not addresss next problem, hazardous part removal. The export buyer commonly makes an elective decision to upgrade parts, to replace working RAM with more modern RAM, to replace an NTSC tuner with a digital tuner, etc. For a significant portion of tested working units sold the same upgrades will occur which BAN has objected to.
"Have all hazardous parts or components been removed?"
- This creates a costly routine which no USA recycler, E-Steward or not, will ever practice. While it sounds reasonable, in practice it requires a "pre-repair" activity which would require the USA recycler to "pre-repair" the unit... diagnose which capacitor is failing (something the overseas repair people identify in a routine based on most likely to fail, second most likely to fail, third most likely to have failed, something they know from the make and model and design flaws of the individual unit). You have to hire a reprairman to identify and remove the bad capacitor before you can export it to replace that capacitor. A more simple task actually demonstrates the problem more clearly - A 110 volt power adapter will be replaced whether it is working or not in a 220 volt country. No USA company is purchasing 220 volt power adapters before export. Our POs have us test for problems which are not repairable, we do that, but to find out what the repair IS going to be will take ten times longer. It's so ridiculous a requirement that only liars and shredders can ever succeed. Single components are routinely identified and repaired in large scale remanufacturing operationsby the very same technicians who peform warranty repairs (sometimes as an outsource for USA OEMs!). They are good at the one type of unit - monitors, TVs, printers, PCs - the type they buy, and it is different factories buying different things. My small company would have to hire a repairman which can identify every type of repair on every export and remove the right piece (and not the wrong one, which might make things even worse). This is a clear case of the perfect being the enemy of the good with unintended consequences.
- No successful model: The companies which claim to do this are not doing it. See above.
- Bad results: The CRTs which have had boards removed (both useful and non-useful parts on the board shredded in the USA in order to avoid exporting the bad part of the board) have less casing protection and at the end of the line, a higher percentage of hazardous residue. Just one CRT monitor whose neck is broken as a result of being exposed to vibration creates 30 pounds of leaded glass which is no longer repairable. 99 capacitors removed weigh less than one CRT tube, so even a 99% success rate results in a net increase in hazardous substances transported.
"Is it a part under warranty by an OEM?" This test fails to recognize that all CRT monitors are outsourced, not a single CRT monitor has been assembled and manufactured by the brand on the label in 20 years.
We export to the exact same technician performing the exact same repair in the exact same factory. It is a useless restraint of commerce to say a brand representative can export to Factory A and the generator or recycler cannot export the same monitor to the same place with the same result. In fact, I maintain that Recyclers can do an even better job than OEMs of removing the "warranty" items which cannot be repaired, and it is therefore likely that the OEM will sub out this work to a USA recycler in the first place. And if the OEM subs out the work to the USA recycler to manage their warranty process, you have created a useless test where instead of examining the monitor to see if it is repairable, you are examining dates on paperwork to see if a warranty has expired. Useless. Environmentalists don't have time for useless regulations.
Those are the bad Decision Tree points. What should we put in its place to reduce toxics along for the ride?
- Does the Unit meet the specifications of a Purchase Order Contract (requirements by the export market)?
- Does the Export Market Purchase Order specify a process which will likely result in proper repair and recycling?
- Does the Exporter have results of past shipments which verify that parts from Units exported under this purchase order are likely to result in proper repair and recycling?
- Does the Exporter have staff and facility in place to properly remove units which will not result in proper repair and recycling?
- Do the Exporter and Importer maintain records demonstrating a mass balance of units removed and recycled, prior to or after export?
These tests, if ensconced in civil law contracts, meet the spirit of the Basel Convention and the law under Annex IX B1110. Because they are simple, NGOs may distrust them, but until the NGOs roll up their sleeves and look under the hood, they should be taking my word for it, the same as they did nine years ago.
With the same lack of transparency described by Jeffrey Hollender (Chief Inspired Protagonist of Seventh Generation) (who I met this week in Shelburne Vermont) these NGOs have declared themselves knowledgeable of technical processes which they have not visited or audited. When asked for data on exports for repair and refurbishment, they have provided anecdotes and estimates. Why do they continue to insist that 75% of CRTs exported become waste, when the economics themselves make that impossible, and when published scholarly work shows a) residue they are photographing was generated domestically in the non-OECD country, and b) 85% of imports are reused?
Which is better, a USA company which claims that every monitor they export works (based on their own $9 per hour employee report), and therefore they don't need to verify them? Or a company which allows export for repair, but actually receives back reports on what was repaired, pays for recycling of any removed part, and makes changes and adjustments based on the reports? What about the third company, which shreds every monitor and allows none to be repaired?
My theory is that the NGOs conflate trade with selfishness. NGOs distrust the profit motive, and attribute the profit motive to my business, and therefore distrust the statistics I provide. Yet the profit motive does little to explain what I am doing, the affection for the people I trade with does far more to explain how much risk and criticism I endure for so little profit. The IRS corporate descriptions of NGOs and 501-c3s etc has become a byzantine nonsense, fair trade coffee and micro lending are today's tools for creation of goodness, and donations and white guilt are passe, but that's a tangent.
The NGOs are fighting a battle of word processors instead of looking at spreadsheets. The facts show that the 100,000 CRT monitors we exported were the result of domestically recycling 300,000 non-acceptable CRTS, and that the fallout of the CRTs exported was identified and properly recycled (creating a recycling infrastructure overseas in the process). Most of the recycling which occurred after my sea containers arrived in the country were from changes in market demand (massive swing in supply when China enforced against a Hong Kong importer and the CRT monitors were diverted to my buyers port).
The NGOs also confuse cost externalization with talent and demand imbalances. If an Egyptian med school prefers refurbished heavy CRT monitors to flat screens, because the monitors are cheaper and less likely to be stolen and last longer, selling them those monitors is no more exploitative than selling food to a hungry person.
Exporting and shipping costs money, and if the unit is sold for more than the value of the scrap, it's a pretty good indicator that the final use for a majority of the container's contents was not scrap or disposal. If an export market's purchase order specifies a test which eliminates one monitor and accepts another of the exact same make and model, the test cannot be based on scrap value or externalized costs.
When we have a process, and show the results of ou process (monitors removed in USA, CRT glass test in USA, monitors reused overseas, CRT glass test overseas), and SW says I have not done a "pulse test" or some other mcguffin which has never had the same data collected, it appears to me the main purpose of the proposed test is to say something different than I am saying and to disqualify my company. If I'm wrong about that, it's simple, show me the results of the pulse test you say is necessary. There was only one company doing it, they are in WR3A, and they showed me their results. My results are superior (because I remove a higher percentage of CRTs in USA, I'm targeting the ones statistically likely to fail the pulse test).