The Anti-Reuse Excuse

During a tour at Good Point Recycling last week, someone posed the old question about "export for reuse", that eventually the items we sell to poorer countries won't work, and that at that point they will have a waste problem.   Are developing nations shifting another "eventual" environmental costs (like mining, refining, and manufacturing) to poor nations when we export for legitimate reuse?

We covered this in 2002.  The issues against reuse are Toxics Along for the Ride (items they don't want mixed in - BAN considers parts that may be removed to be TAR even if recycled), and items so old that they are obsolete (including "tested working").   No reputable environmental organization is calling for a ban on export of 6 year old working electronics, they are just concerned when it's not reused, when it's a loophole for end-of-life ewaste.  So, BAN is pro-Reuse, and has asked us to stop implying otherwise.

But for whoever planted that question on the tour (the lady said it was a criticism from a competitor), let's accept the postulate that the eventual disposal of a reused PC is a "CON".

The PRO's for export for reuse are pretty well settled.
  • Carbon production is mostly in the manufacture of new electronics.  So if the faster they are replaced with new items, the more carbon is produced.
  • Pollution from primary or virgin production is much higher than pollution from disposal.
  • The internet is growing at 10x the rate in countries earning $3k per year per capita GDP.  The difference in cost between a CRT which lasts 10 years and an LCD that lasts 4 years is huge when you earn $3k per year.
  • Breaking a CRT to remelt it glass-to-glass is also producing a CRT which will eventually be sold in a developing nation (they are still made in the millions per month, but not sold in rich nations), so breaking the CRT does not avoid the "Con".  New items also become obsolete.   
  • Fair trade programs, which require reuse/repair operations overseas to also recycle incidental breakage and take back "clunkers" when selling PCs locally, address the "eventual disposal" infrastructure (and boycotts do not).
  • CRTs are better for certain consumers than LCDs.  They are less prone to theft, endure non-air-conditioned environments, and last longer (20 years) than LCDs, and have better display qualities and refresh rates for certain applications.
  • Refusing to sell a reuse computer to someone who cannot hope to afford a new computer sentences the buyer to remain "backward, barefoot and pregnant" in the next decade.
When the CRT glass market for the CRTs we break finally goes away, and mankind stops making new CRTs which last 20 years, it may come the time to stop reusing working CRTs (good for ten years).  But if the affordable display market is going have 10 more years, not 20, then reused CRTs are better than new ones.   This is why Basel Action Network and WR3A are united on improving the reuse market, not just destroying working equipment.  

By the way, over 80% of the CRTs we randomly test today are working when collected from the generator;  most of the damage is in shipping and collection.  Working stats are even higher for units less than 10 years old.  Americans are getting rid of them because we can afford new new new LCDs, plasmas, and other flat screens.  Throwing away our leftovers in the face of a hungry market is stupid, expensive, gives the market to scumbags, and is just generally indefensible in any possible way.   The "e-waste" companies which are too lazy to test, to stupid to speak foreign languages, too disorganized to track purchase orders and sales, should not be badmouthing reuse organizations which use Fair Trade standards to create win-win scenarios, reducing carbon, reducing pollution, reducing costs, and creating internet access in poor countries.

Have I made my position clear?

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