"E-Waste" History: Capacitor Heroes

(See prelude yesterday)   This is a longer post than usual.  But I think that understanding the issue of capacitor repairs is vital to understanding the policy debate around "e-waste" and "ewaste exports".  It's a story about a type of repair of a very small electronic component, a type of repair Americans once did but no longer bother with.  It's about how a faulty little piece on brand new computers led to a rush of disposal, recycling, warranty returns, exports to refurbishers, and an anti-competitive response by original manufacturers.  In the end, a whole class of technically savvy, green and sustainable business was attacked, insulted, and thrown together with sham recyclers.  And two separate electronics recycling certifications emerged based on which description of the overseas technicians (or overseas wire burners) you believed in.

I visited PC and monitor manufacturing operations in several countries.  Some were PC Clone makers, some were contract manufacturers for major brands. I observed takeback of electronics both in and out of factory warranty.

The biggest "recall" of products in the USA computer industry has been Pentium 4 computers which had faulty little capacitors, produced at a Chinese plant which tried to "paint over" the overheating problem.   The capacitors began to overheat and bulge, and the circuit boards failed.  Reportedly, the recalls of Optiplex computers alone cost Dell $300M;  IBM, HP and others who used capacitors made by China's LTE Company were also affected.

What is a Capacitor?

The capacitor is about the size of an insect.  It's function is similar to a battery;  its electrolytes slow or govern electrical flows.  Forty years ago, it was common for USA electronics repairment to replace these (my company still salvages rare ones for ham radio operators).   Techs in most developing countries still take time to replace "passive components".   In the past decade, thousands and thousands of the PCs with the defective capacitor were replaced at colleges, universities, government and commercial office buildings in what technical journals call the decade's "capacitor plague".

The repair and refurbishment companies overseas, like the one in Egypt (film posted of an actual capacitor bypass on the blog 3 days ago) would much prefer a working PC with a good set of caps, but if Americans are willing to sell these cheap, they are more than willing to fix them.  The market for affordable computers is huge in countries where the median income is about $3000 per year;  internet use is growing at 10 times the rate over the decade of growth in the USA.  Smart people who want to get online cannot afford a $700 computer... but they can afford $40 and a new capacitor.

"Gray" Market: 

Overheated capacitors swell and l
A hungry market is also an invitation for carpetbaggers and opportunists.  The "gray market" refers to unregulated commerce, where second-hand material may be sold as new, warranty's violated, off-spec material resold rather than recycled, etc.   "Spray and pray" operators paint over the badcaps and sell them without repairing them.  Stolen (black market) goods are sold side by side with honest goods.

The replacement caps don't cost much, and the repair is so inexpensive to do, so legitimate factories had little incentive to cheat.  Still, the buyer-beware market poses risks to the brand names of the major manufacturers.   And along the way, millions of dollars in serial numbers may have been phoned in for illegitimate refunds.  One can see why OEMs would want to just shred these rather than look at the PC again... and if they paid for that, they should be guaranteed it. Dell came to legal blows with Tiger Direct for resale of out of date product in 2009.

Contract Manufacturers and the White Box PC:

Of course, the OEMs also had a less noble motive for governing sales of PC Clones.   According to Gartner Research, off-brand and "white box" PCs were the fastest growing market share for PCs worldwide during this time (the generic or "good enough" market even takes a big bite from USA sales).   Used goods have always been looked at as "market cannabalization" by some manufacturers.   Just because a brand name says that a generic brand is no good, illegal, or illegitimate doesn't make it so.  In fact, some factories making the white box PC clones were also contracted to make the same item for a brand name!   The exact same facility, making the exact same product, can sell its own brand of goods in the "contract manufacturing" sector.

Our attitude was that we should see if the buyer really had the capacity to replace the capacitors.   In that case, a developing country could get a thousand dollar PC with a practically new hard drive and RAM for the cost of a tiny new capacitor.  WR3A was formed so that USA recyclers could cooperatively audit overseas repair and recycling markets.   There were very legitimate operations out there, as well as operations willing to "go legit" if given the "fair trade" incentive.    The importing buyers tire of being audited by everybody, and USA recyclers are weary of "fly and buy" visits (where a foreign buyer demands pre-inspection to keep from getting burned with a bad load).   In the very beginning, Jim Puckett of Basel Action Network called and spoke words of encouragement to me, wishing WR3A the best of luck, and said he hoped BAN could support it.

Negotiations between Responsible Recyclers

I had asked BAN about the factories we sold the Pentium computers to which could replace the capacitors, and raised this practice again while a stakeholder in the EPA's Responsible Recyclers (R2) Certification meetings.  BAN was calling for "fully functional", stating that they also object to foreign factories which remove a couple of one-millimeter faulty capacitors from a Pentium 4 computer and replacing them with a new capacitor.  I thought a repaired Pentium 4 was a lot better deal than a tested working Pentium 3.

Basel Convention Annex IX specifically states that export for repair was legal in the Basel Convention.  I cited language on List B1110, and BAN acknowledged that the Convention did indeed allow export for repair.  But they said that what the Convention meant was that the bad capacitor had to be removed from the board prior to the export.  That's like removing your old muffler in your driveway before driving to the auto garage.    Jim explained that the repair was legal, but maintained a crime was committed when the bad capacitor was shipped as "transboundary movement" of (eventual) waste.  I said we'd make sure it was recycled - but Jim said the damage had been done during the trans-boundary movement, and said even sending the part back to the USA would not undo the crime.

At the R2 discussion (where Sarah was representing BAN), I stated that this appeared to block warranty repairs at factories which made these boards. And I brought up other tricky questions.  Does export require a working power supply if the importing nation is 220v and is going to replace the power supply?  What about  voluntary upgrades - exporting a computer with 256 RAM to a nation which commonly replaces that RAM with 512 to 1gig?   In either case a greater "trans-boundary" movement had occurred than in the case of the replaced capacitor on a 6 month old computer.

R2 says "must be legal":

At this point, there was a very clear and honest difference of opinion: 1) about what the Basel Convention says, and 2) source of authority to resolve difference of interpretation.  Annex IX B1110 has a footnote saying Parties may consider these repairable units "commodities, and not wastes".  The importing and exporting nations make the legal determination. Those countries may even be restricted against banning the import by WTO agreements.  A nation could ban "the color orange", but that is not an environmental law, and I didn't think a ban on imports of tested working Pentium 4 dual core laptops by China needed to become part of an environmental certification.

John Lingelbach, the EPA's hired moderator, suggested we adapt language that the export "must be legal" in the receiving country (I kind of objected to this, but conceded to the majority).  BAN later said that some soon-to-be-published paper on cell phones would provide a decision tree making their case (implying that an international appointed body, not the court system, would decide... not the way international law works).

Environmentalists are pulled into the fray:

As time has passed, the subtle differences in international law and the fate of tiny capacitors (recycled by the importer under WR3A and R2, supposed removed prior to export under BAN certification) were forgotten in the media.   Instead, the highly functioning refurbishing factories overseas have been roundly denigrated in presentations to the press, and to Interpol.  The technicians replacing capacitors are described with pictures of primitive operations in Guiyu and at landfills in Ghana.  Pictures of burning monitors, tales of hard drives being scoured for personal information, tales of poisoned rivers... the attack on the technicians was shrill and relentless. 

During the past year, I have become obsessed with defending the technicians overseas against the "red scare" defamation by protectionists in China, obsolescence patrons in the USA, and well meaning environmentalists.

The technicians who buy the Pentium 4s and replace the capacitors are not "primitive".  This is like linking Pete Seeger to Stalin, or Mike Dukakis to Willie Horton, or Obama to Kenyan muslims.   It's dirty and shameful way to argue your case, and environmental organizations should really look in the mirror and ask themselves why they haven't distanced themselves from the racial profiling used to describe factories like PT Imtech, which they attacked and severely wounded in Semarang Indonesia.  

When the technician overseas is arrested and his family loses their bread, and the internet cafes go empty, and dictators strike deals with manufacturers to tax used and useful products, BAN should try to make the case that enforcement of the Convention will make this worth it in the long run.

Common sense and economics dictate that when an importer pays $40 for a dual core Pentium 4, refusing to accept a Pentium 2 (which has more gold), that the trade is not based on a primitive metal recuperation. The tiny removed capacitor, recycled in Indonesia, does not "poison" people (unless it's made before 1975, capacitors  no longer contains PCBs).  The pictures of landfills in Guiyu and Ghana,which motivated my industry to improve itself ten years ago, are not moving the developing world forward.

BAN has a reputation for moral leadership.   If they publicly state their legitimate concerns, that these reuse and repair clauses could indeed be misused as a loophole to dump unscreened, end of life product, we may be able to address them.  This way the discussion moves forward and we all improve.  BAN should however explain that the break between E-Stewards Certification and Responsible Recyclers interpretation was over a tiny capacitor and how an arcane footnote in a treaty should be interpreted and resolved - not over poisoning people.  False and defamatory descriptions of the best and brightest kids in Africa, Asia and Latin America is noticed by our peers oversas. 

Perhaps BAN can succeed in getting USA recyclers to actually repair the P4s, replace the capacitors, and supply the developing world with computers.  Perhaps not.  More likely cell phone technology will develop in a way which leapfrogs the PC, though that will cost 15 years of internet access before it's widespread in the developing world.  But whatever happens, the techs overseas are neither polluters nor impoverished victims of free and fair trade.

Telling the Boston Globe that a major Indonesian re-manufacturer is a "primitive, wire-burning" operation is wrong.   Telling CBS 60 Minutes that the thousands of CRTs in Hong Kong are being burned in Guiyu is wrong.  In the same way my industry can thank BAN for pointing out our errors, I write with the hope that someday BAN may see past their anger and thank me for speaking the truth to their newfound power.

Enemy of the Good?

I have made several allusions to the anti-communist campaign of Senator Joe McCarthy, to the ayatollah-like pronouncements of what the Basel Convention Annex IX "means".  That makes people mad.  But their use of pictures of primitive operations to describe contract manufacturing plays on latent racism.    "Sham recycler", "reuse excuse", "digital dump", and "primitive" don't describe the techies I have visited in person, and who are being described as criminals to Interpol.

My friends have questioned whether this has become a distracting "pissing match", and what I get out of the campaign for fair trade recycling.

I have friends who have been run off the road.  They are still in the ditch.  And environmentalists are not slowing down or apologizing or offering to help for their reckless driving.   A "pissing match" implies that the answer doesn't really matter as much as the ego.

I think that the opportunity to repair Pentium 4s by replacing capacitors is more than just an affordable recycling practice.  It is an important opportunity for the developing world, more important than anything I did in Peace Corps.  $300 Million is a lot of money.  It's a big risk for OEMs, but also a huge opportunity to create wealth and assist the developing world get internet access.  Maybe the OEMs can come up with the equivalent of a MAR license - a license to repair their goods, if they are donated to schools, or sold in areas that don't buy new PCs?

There are many ways that wealthy nations and developing nations could have cooperated, to "punt" the computers into schools which would never realistically have otherwise bought a new PC (and the OEMs would not have lost a sale).  There are many ways which good geek jobs could have been supported in Cairo and Ghan and turned into tomorrow's technically skilled recyclers.

I think David Bowie's "Heroes" has more "accoustic cover versions" than anything on Youtube.   If there is a hero in this story, it is not the American exporters who shipped junky Pentium Is and TVs on top of the P4s.   It is not the American companies who shredded the P4s and claimed they were not repairable.  It was not the NGOs who accepted cash for Pledges, or business generators who demanded "no intact units" in their recycling contracts.  It is not the "spray and pray" companies who resold PCs with bad caps to unsuspecting buyers.

The only heroes in this story are the people who took the time to repair the capacitors, or to get the PCs with repairable capacitors into the hands of people who could  repair them.  They are not "perfect", only "good".  But American Recyclers aren't perfect either.  Can't we all just get along?


colorado ewaste recycling said...
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Robin said...
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Deviant Music Video said...

These recycled computers are ending up in the internet cafes in Nigeria and Ghana and used in 419 scams against us. Why should we send our old computers to them if they are going to commit crimes against western internet users?