Another Research Paper: Boma Brown-West June 2010

 I wrote this post at 4AM and then took off, hoping to come back and read the thesis below, and assuming I'd have managed to make contact with the author by now, in person.      - Robin

There's been another academic research paper published.   Brown-West submitted this for her Master of Science in Technology and Policy, last June.
"A Strategic Analysis of the Role of Uncertainty in Electric Waste Recovery Systems Economics:  An Investigation of the IT and Appliance Industries"
I haven't finished reading it.  I see a lot of people accessing it through the blog, hope it's generating good discussion.  It appears to make the case that uncertainty tends to be bad, and cites interviews with people in the end-of-life (big shred) business for background.

My two quick comments are that "recycling" in the USA does not necessarily increase certainty, except that reuse is out of the picture.   And that while BAN and the shredders are legitimate data points, that it's a good idea to also interview people in the cores and refurbishing business.

The paper compares recycling systems for white goods / appliances and electronics.  As I took a stab at in my post "E-Waste Travels in Scrap Metal", many have failed to distinguish between specialized electronics disassembly operations and raw "scrap metal" (ferrous scrap usually) recycling.  Throwing a computer into a scrap steel bin is a major, if not the major, end point for most Americans.  It's important, therefore, for all researchers to distinguish between electronics recycling, auto shredding, refurbishment, and simply lumping computers with toasters and other appliances.  There may be a false sense that shredding equipment in the USA means less primitive recycling in Guiyu, or that hand-separation of intact units in China necessarily leads to a more polluting outcome than hand sorting of shredded pieces.  (Again, I am not tying this to Brown-West's paper, which I haven't read, but making the point that "shredding vs. export" can be a false dichotomy for comparison,  if ultimate disposition is to be measured in the end).

There are few e-waste companies which have invested as much in shredders as GEEP.. and I've frequently written about electronics manufacturers who embrace shredding as a form of "planned obsolescence in hindsight".  When I saw that these people cited as industry sources in "acknowledgements" about exports, my yellow light started flashing.

The recyclers she interviews - Metech, GEEP, Sims, and certainly HP, are all good companies.   Their processes are appropriate for a large share of used and obsolete equipment.  But they are also part of a "obsolescence industrial complex" which is funded in part by a war on the grey market.  The major failing of investors in capitalized, automated processing systems has been the zeal to embrace a "no intact unit" policy. In particular, display units (CRT monitors) do not have the short life described in "Moore's law", and constitute over 50% of the weight of the computer and 50% of the cost in the most rapidly emerging markets (the 3B3K markets which increase access to internet at 10 times the rate of developed countries, and are the spotlight of the CES International show in Las Vegas).  These should be assessed separately from IT equipment, as IT is from white goods.

My concern is that environmentalists and researchers have been in many cases enlisted in an all-out firefight between major OEMs and the "white box" marketers of ink cartridges, cell phones, LCD televisions, and Pentium 4 computers.  I'll be reading the paper to make sure it doesn't get used unfairly to promote shredding in cases where hand-disassembly can create sustainable jobs.

Original equipment manufacturers have very legitimate concerns, as well as pure economic reasons, to emphasize policies which result in the demise of the secondary market.  My point is that to get a more rounded trajectory, researchers should balance shredder-solution sources with interviews of "white box market" manufacturers.  I recommend the Harvard Business Review article, "the Battle for China's Good Enough Market".  While the Harvard paper does not deal directly with refurbishing per se, many of the industries they describe began by refurbishing of cores or using off-spec or used parts to make a less expensive gadget.  When parts are available for refubishing in very large and uniform quantities - like the $350M in Dell Optiplexes which had bad capacitors, which almost no American tried to replace - the refurbishing or white box market is able to achieve scalable economies, and can rapidly emerge as a primary manufacturer.  Wistron and Acer came from the computer monitor refurbishing business.

There is certainly "uncertainty" in scrap metal prices and reuse value prices, but it is almost always a certainty that the more someone offers to pay for a material (assuming transparent and open transactions and warranty), the more value added they recognize.  Value added is almost always more in a reuse appliance.  It's harder to prove with mixed loads, but if you assume uniform loads (e.g. 1,000 CRT monitors of a certain age and model), you can quickly deduce whether the "80% burned as scrap" allegation holds water.

There is more uncertainty in mixed loads.  A single Mercedes Benz or Harley Davidson hidden under piles of junk TVs can go a long way to paying for a load.  But using materials to hide other materials from customs is not a problem unique to recycling - it exists in food aid, malaria medicine, school books, and corn shipments.  The Egyptian market was virtually shut down in 2008 by discovery of an operation in Toronto area which was putting generic viagra into used computer monitors.

Shredding equipment into little pieces certainly shortens the flow chart, and I guess that reduces "uncertainty".  Likewise, selling to poor people will increase "uncertainty"..  The more humans are involved, the less control of the "final outcome".  NO INTACT UNIT policies draw the shades on the people outside who are willing to replace capacitors, fix boards, or burn wire to keep from starving.  I believe that certainty is best achieved with enforceable civil law contracts, purchase orders, and audits.

During my own time in developing countries, I learned that the loyalties and friendships that people carry mean more to them than a new car means to you or me.   And that is really kind of refreshing.   During my time in Peace Corps, I think I laughed and had more natural dopamine from friendships, loyalties and relationships than I could ever get with a new I-phone or X-box.   For me, that is the part of the trade with developing nations which the USA gains the most from.  It leads to nothing less than world peace.  Fair Trade Recycling has a social and spiritual multiplier effect which some e-waste watchdogs are completely tone deaf and blind to.

Now again, I've not studied this paper, and I hope that by posting a link to it I can increase the type of dialogue we all want to have. I'm not writing blindly about the paper, I am just very very cautious if I see BAN, HP, GEEP as major sources of about what happens in an export market.  It's like taking testimony about bicycling from people on the subway.

Speaking of deaf dumb and blind, here is a link to a place that sells replacement circuit board to pinball games.  Pinball games aren't manufactured any more.  They are only refurbished.   People take the same board from the pinball game (Tommy) and put it into a new pinball game, like Spiderman.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A tangent, but Stern Pinball in Illinois is the remaining pinball manufacturer in the world. I had the fortune of touring their factory.