Basel Action Network just announced with some fanfare that their organization is suing ISRI, the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries, for ISRI's trademark of the term "certified electronics recycler".
I have never been a fan of lawsuits. When my wife and I moved to Vermont 13 years ago, I had the unlucky job of leading our moving van company from the house we were selling in Milton, Massachusetts, to our new home in Middlebury, Vermont. The moving company sent 3 young guys from Chile who did not speak English, seemed in their early 20s, to pack up our plates and furniture and belongings into a moving truck. The plan was that I'd lead them up to Middlebury, we'd unload the truck, and I'd get back to Milton in time for the closing on the house, at the property on Cliff Road. I'd loaded my blue Toyota pickup truck with potted plants and led the 3 guys, all in the cab of the truck, up to Vermont. I came to Quechee Gorge on Route 4, a big tourist draw, and pedestrians were crossing back and forth to different sides of the bridge, so there were 2 cars stopped ahead of me. I stopped too.
In my rear view mirror, which said "objects may be closer than they appear", I saw my moving van bearing down on us, no sign of slowing. I hit the floor of my pickup cab and heard the last second screeching of breaks as my moving van company smashed into the rear, driving my car into the cars ahead. My potted plants came crashing through the glass behind me, leaving potting soil all over my head and across the dash, and smashing into the windshield of the truck. My truck plowed into the two cars ahead of me on the bridge. In my Hollywood screenplay, the truck will burst into flames and send both cars and 8 pedestrians sailing over the sides of the bridge into the canyon below, but I still will not sue the moving van company. The latter part is true, though no one went over the bridge.
I digress. But, having thus established my credentials as a person not quick to sue anyone, and my credentials for a distaste for lawsuits, I have to say, I kind of agreed with BAN on this one. When I saw ISRI's announcement of the trademarking of the phrase "certified electronics recycler", I wondered 1) why they announced it (though I guess you have to do that to establish a trademark defense), and 2) how many other phrases (like "buttered bread"?) they had claimed exclusive rights to.
Ethical "E-waste" & Matrix Images
But I have the utmost respect for ISRI's lawyers. Scott Horne, Eric Harris, and probably a whole crew of Matrix-dressed men in black have done the recycling industry enormous, enormous good. I am really glad they are there. ISRI gave me legal advice when I was recycling director at Massachusetts DEP in the 1990s that helped me protect TV repairmen and computer refurbishers from being treated like "universal waste" light bulb recyclers, and the leads from that led to companies like Electronicycle and American Retroworks which repaired and reused goods without causing all their loads to fail "mass balance" when the "waste portion" showed up low.
The good advice ISRI gave to Mass DEP went on to influence EPA's CRT Rule, the Masschusetts CRT Recycling contracts, and led me to spot Annex IX when I read the Basel Convention. The reuse value keeps electronics recycling in Region I about 50% lower in cost than it is in California. If I had to pick hats, I'd be cheering for ISRI in the stands. I would not describe them as the "American Civil Liberties Union", but they are on the forefront of protecting people with common sense in my industry from the people who mistake their good intentions for holiness.
(The other excellent advice from ISRI lawyers is to never, ever use the term "ewaste" or "e-waste", to always use the term "e-scrap". I agree and try to always put quotes around the term, I do want these arguments to show up on google because right now almost all the links to those searches lead to photos of disfunctional pollution operations which are actually the residuals of proper repair and reuse).
Without ISRI, the recycling world would be a damn tool of the planned obsolescence "waste makers" described by Vance Packard. Thanks to Scott Horne bird-dogging the "American Mining Congress" case on waste vs. commodities, I was able to slolam through the trees of risk-averse lawyers at Massachusetts DEP, the ones who didn't want to be accused of allowing something bad and were leaning in favor of "universal waste" laws which would have put a "hazardous waste" label on every repairable cathode ray tube.
I'm still in the industry thanks to ISRI. I still work with people I like, I care about, who I write about, because of the guidance against treating commodities as waste. It goes for people too - I see people for what they can do, not for what they cannot do, and that has led to job creation for differently abled people here in Vermont and in other states, and has led to partnerships with organizations such as Goodwill Industries and Salvation Army... who are also capable of seeing a Pentium 3 computer for what it can do, not for what it cannot do.
So, in the same way I am thrilled with a basketball team with a 99 win and 1 loss record, I can quietly give thumbs up to the referee if the whistle blow in court goes against my team on this "certified electronics recycler" trademark issue. I think the people at ISRI actually inherited the trademark claim from IAER. They are grown ups and can accept criticism, and won't accuse me of "poisoning people". The BAN team can win this call. I just hope they lose in another court fight, where they circulated a story that techies in Indonesia are primitive wire-burning monkeys. I hate their "Al Jolson" portrayal of technicians in Ghana, China, and Malaysia, I hate the racist bent of their trip with 60 Minutes, I hate that they succeed in convincing Scott Pelley and Solly Granatstein and Michael Rey that the CRT monitors in Hong Kong go to Guiyu when they had film of the contract manufacturing facilities in Guangdong.
Imagine there's no lawyers, imagine there's no regulations, imagine there's no courts, imagine that the people who are rebuilding computers in developing countries can also get help to recycle those computers when they eventually do burn out. Imagine a woman technician from Malaysia, whose mother was a loading dock laborer, and who taught herself technical skills, came to Arizona to meet a group of unemployed women and a razorback dude from Vermont, to open a refurbishing factory on the border, creating jobs for Mexicans in Mexico. Imagine all the cool stuff we can do without lawyers and regulators and trademarks and certifications to prove we are doing the right thing.
Imagine John Lennon signing to a crowd of Japanese speakers, who hear his music and sway to it.