E-Waste Export Traffic: John Barleycorn Must EOL

"Yes.  I admit it.  Reuse can indeed be used as an excuse for pollution.   But refusing to trade with people of languages and color is a cowardly reaction to that risk." 
Used electronics importers and exporters, in India and Sri Lanka, in Venezuela and Brazil, in Yaounde and Accra and Rabat, in Sonora and Penang and Jiangxi, they are all caught in the cross-fire, between mining and poverty, between government shakedowns and organized crime, dodging kidnappings and fatwah and employee theft.   They are blown about by the winds of planned obsolescence, anti-gray-market alliances, shredding machine makers, and poster-child politics.   It's amazing that despite all this, internet access is growing in the developing world at 10 times the rate of growth in the USA 

Singapore Internet Cafe
The African and Asian internet cafes are not starting up with brand new computers.  Iranian students in the green protest last year could not have made themselves heard without the reuse and repair market that some well-intentioned environmental organizations  have labelled "e-waste".

But exports are not easy to do correctly.  Most of us don't have time and resources to fly and visit every reuse end market (WR3A.org is a business consortium that cooperatively shares site visit data).  And here's another nugget of "industry insider" information.   We have narcotics traffickers, money launderers, and car thieves among us.  And any such excuse to crack down on digital access, whether it is a threat of pollution or a customs violation, becomes an opportunity to silence internet sites which are often critical of dictatorships.

One of my favorite used computer markets in Egypt was cut off by authorities two years ago.  Authorities had found generic viagra hidden in used monitors shipped from another source (Toronto), and banned all used monitor imports.   Five years of trading with Egypt came to a stop.   The university students are still there, the second hand electronics malls are still there... there's market demand that LCDs cannot meet.  Even a $20 screen is considered expensive - their GDP per capita is around $3,000 (USA is over $45,000).   So you have a starving market, and the good guys are not allowed to sell into it.

One of hundreds of used monitor shops at "Tech Malls" in Egypt
Some electronics recyclers are still smuggling computer monitors into Egypt.  I would like to.  But R2 or Responsible Recyclers standards require my company's trade to be legal according to the competent authority in the importing country.   I don't want to fink on the cheaters, because in the big picture, we want the young people overseas to have internet access.  We want them to learn for themselves about endangered species, coral reefs, mines, greenhouse gases, and rain forests.

So, to keep the relationship with the Egyptian WR3A member, we created another legal solution involving the contract manufacturers in Southeast Asia.

We introduced the Egyptian buyer to our friends at the audited Asian SKD factory.  As the slides on Facebook (below) show, the contract manufacturing factory sent boxed, refurbished CRT monitors at somewhat affordable rates ($30).  It could have been from one of the "clubbed to death" factories in Indonesia.   The refurbished computers were sold with warranty, and technically supported by the brand owner and distributor - our Egyptian business partner.

Facebook (23) | Videos Posted by MEDI_COM for import and export: Medi_Com [HQ]: "(Check out the Egyptian marketing on Facebook)"

The Egyptian company's expertise in repairing computers means they can extend and support the warranty  - something not all SKD factories do.  Hamdy's company brand is on the refurbished PCs and their boxes.  They now sell monitors to several other African countries, and are creating an Egyptian brand which may someday become Dell-al.   Good Point organized the deal, but doesn't take a penny from it.  We do supply the factory with inspected CRTs  (removing not just unrepairable units, but also CRTs which work but are the wrong raster, curvature, etc. - items a "tested working" exporter might miss).  They want to work with the UNGAID and other ICT programs to donate some to schools, and support the ones they donate.

Sending the CRTs to a refurbisher, so they can be legally imported as new, is inefficient.  Interesting, yes... but a lot of unnecessary transportation.   And now the protests against used technology "exports" threatens to close the imports in Indonesia, too.
  There were three men came out of the west,
their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die

Bans on "used computer" imports in China, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria - and now Indonesia - will have absolutely no effect on the lives of people burning wire at the dumps in Ghana.  That trade is just going to get worse.

Many posts by fellow environmentalists are critical of reputable environmental leadership organizations like EPA, ISRI, and UNCTAD.  As if to ask, why can't our government stop us from seeing poor dirty black people and brown people and yellow people burning wire?   Any solution appears welcome, and if it takes out the refurbishing class and internet access in developing nations, that's a price some are willing to pay.

Remember, the Basel Convention EXPLICITLY allows exports of CRTs for repair and reuseR2 requires legality in the importing country.  WR3A companies don't mix any drugs, guns or cigarettes into the containers, so our exports to HAVE to be working and repairable to offset shipping.  Nevertheless, good "Steward" companies like ERI, URT, WeRecycle and Total Reclaim - and SB20 processors in California - shred that equipment up, and trumpet themselves as superior to those of us engaged in fair trade with good people.

They've hired men with their crabtree
sticks to cut him skin from bone
And the miller he has served him worse than that
For he's ground him between two stones
If supply is now cut off to both Egypt and Indonesia, this creates shortages.  Buyers get desperate.  As an R2-ready company, I cannot supply them, but I cannot in good conscience accuse the underground recyclers who do supply them. 
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
and his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
proved the strongest man at last

We seem left with two choices:  to defend the very exporters who smuggle, or to pray that our poor friends will "leapfrog" us and get brand new computers, so we can all sing and dance and throw flowers.  And I have opened the door to my company being accused as an "export sympathizer."

Internet access is Barleycorn.  We can only affect the speed, the availability, and the environmental sustainability.  Mining up environmental disasters to provide expensive internet for the upper classes is one option.  It takes courage to try to get working equipment to the best and brightest in rapidly developing countries.    I know they are capable, and enthusiastically willing, to recycle the leftovers in a sustainable fashion if given the incentives to do so.   Therefore, I cannot ally myself to those who preach otherwise.

The Ox-Bow Incident The truth is, our company actually exports very few of the used computers we collect... about 22%.  It could be much higher, but we collect old TVs and other consumer electronics as as service to the Vermont community. Today, some of our commercial suppliers prefer to pay full recycling cost (zero reuse) to have their equipment disassembled.  We honor those individual requests, while sighing or grumbling about the "big picture".

It's constantly implied that the quality of an e-waste company can be measured by how little they export. Good Point Recycling chose to pursue a standard - R2 Certification - which our friends in Africa, South America, and Asia could also be certified in.   At 22% "intact units", are we 1/5th gangster capitalist, 4/5 E-Steward?  Would we be a better and safer company if we had a "no intact unit" policy?  We would create fewer jobs in the USA, and fewer jobs overseas, if we didn't run two operations (reuse and demanufacturing).  It is harder to do the best thing, and irritating to be slammed for doing so.

In respect BAN and NRDC:  They have a valid point.  We do not want to make excuses for sham recyclers who ship the other 78% as "toxics along for the ride".  We agree with BAN's basic goal of allowing good stuff to happen and keeping bad stuff from happening.   But an export ban is an end-of-pipe construct which addresses neither supply nor demand - that is the prime mover for unintended consequences.  BAN's interpretation of the law is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  In Egypt, Indonesia, and China, there has been an Ox-bow Incident, where the export market was condemned without trial.

E-Stewards Certification creates shortages...  Buyers get desperate, buy where they can, and more primitive wire burning results.  I'd embrace E-Stewards if I see reuse occurring from stewards, rather than hearing the crushing sounds of destroyed display devices.  It takes rather more time to repair or test them.  The destruction machines are so lightning fast, and they reduce payroll.

How did the other environmentalists get hooked, unable to acknowledge or respond to the existence of good overseas operators?   Well... E-Stewards Certification is also an expensive process which pays the NGOs handsomely for this digital lynching of the refurbishing market.  BAN is paid handsomely by the companies with big shredding investments.

Not participating in the export market is a sin of omission.   The Stewards don't pollute or poison people directly.  But if you neither repair, nor allow repairers to inspect and buy your goods, then you are left with raw materials which the developing world cannot afford to manufacture into new "leap-froggy" products for themselves.

Yes.  I admit it.  Reuse can indeed be used as an excuse for pollution.   But refusing to trade with people of languages and color is a cowardly reaction to that risk.  My vision is to use fair trade programs.  The value of western goods and the savvy of skilled southern and eastern technicians can build a bridge over corruption, poverty, and pollution.  With the Responsible Recycler certification, we will also assist developing world in creating safe recycling jobs for their own home generated e-waste.   Safe recycling jobs are a fine alternative to the mining investments which are pouring into developing countries.

This has been portrayed as an "environment vs. poverty" debate - but the fact is that reuse and refurbishing is environmentally far superior to recycling.  Shredding working stuff creates MORE pollution.  It's not this-or-that, it is a lose-lose proposition.  Fair Trade Recycling - woot!

Both direct repair and "Semi-Knock-Down" factories refurbish CRT monitors for reuse.  
Why does BAN criticize standards like EPA's R2 Certification, and ISRI export policy?  Here is BAN's apparent description of the market above:

"It is being recycled, but it’s being recycled in the most horrific way you can imagine," said Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, the Seattle-based environmental group that tipped off Hong Kong authorities. "We’re preserving our own environment, but contaminating the rest of the world." 

Associated Press, January 2008.

There are all kinds of recyclers, techs, refurbishing companies, villians, heros, importers and exporters.  There are nasty operations in Guiyu and Lagos.  And there are terrific ones elsewhere in Asia, Africa and Latin America.  It's a lot of work to find the right ones.   But when you find a good trading partner, the benefits extend far beyond environmental protection. The environmental benefits of reuse and proper hand-disassembly are indeed superior.  The social benefits are perhaps even more meaningful.

At bottom is a slide show of the good old days, visiting our repair partner in Egypt, before the knee-jerk export bans and "cancellation" rules turned him into an environmental boogeyman.  This direct reuse process demanded cosmetically nice monitors, and there was no "SKD" or parts to be recycled.  We photographed stuff that was damaged in shipping, and had a re-training with the staff in Vermont when I returned.  After 5 years of trading, Hamdy invited my family to come meet his family.   No humans or animals were poisoned by "ewaste" in the making of this slide show.

I hope more companies will join us in our pursuit of win-win, fair trade recycling partnerships.  The E-Scrap Conference in New Orleans in September is a huge opportunity to meet people of many countries, and - if you can document your domestic removal of junk - to apply for membership in the World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association.  BAN will be there, EPA will be there, ISRI is there.   Come visit me at the WR3A booth and learn for yourself how the export market works.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a lot to this. Thanks for your courage.