Global Trade and Recycling

There are those who think that global trade in recycling is a waste disposal campaign that exploits countries with poor labor and environmental standards.  There are those who think that free and fair trade generally leads to better outcomes than government efforts to intervene between market supply and demand forces.

The latter argument is usually bolstered if the government restriction begins with half a recipe for success.   Regulating the secondary market and ignoring the primary market is a textbook case of sloppy regulation.

The global production of metals and petroleum and timber is the elephant in the room which no one (else) is talking about.   Mining residue and waste is considered domestic generation by Basle Convention;  recycling residue and waste is considered a trans-boundary movement.  This was an unfair playing field to begin with, but now advocates are trying to gut Annex IX, B1110, to add even repair and refurbishing to the list of "waste" processes.

The right to repair demands constant vigilance, even if virgin manufacturing is benign, or environmental impacts are equal.   But virgin ore mining and refining is far more polluting, toxic, and resource consuming than recycling.  Mining and forestry provide necessary products for modern society.  But if we ever have the choice to buy recycled instead of buying extracted, we'll reduce our impact on toxins and extinctions.



The worst recycling in the world is better than the best mining in the world.  And the criticism of globalization has this truth - the metal ore mining and forestry has moved to developing countries.   The same eco-watchdogs who want to close the used electronics repair factories in Indonesia applaud the transition to tin solder, which finances mines on Indonesian coral islands.

Right here, right now, the environmental community should be screaming at the mirror.  If the end result of the Anti-Export Watchdogs is less recycling, then that material will be replaced from two possible places:  Putting refurbished goods out of reach of developing societies, and mining more rain forests for virgin product.

This distrust of globalization is understandable.  But over-zealous promotion of the point, through stereotypical depictions of barefoot Chinese and barefoot Africans has thrown techs of color under the bus, and threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophesy if the sustainable fair trade path to development is thrown out with the bathwater.   This is not just the opinion of American businessmen.  This is overwhelmingly the opinion of consumers in the developing nations.  It is the opinion in Karachi, in Mumbai, in Douala.  

Recycling is not a form of "waste disposal".  It is a form of resource extraction.  We should be more concerned about copper mining, iron mining, and lead and zinc mining than we should be about smelting old auto batteries to make new auto batteries.  Once the auto battery factories moved to India and Philippines and Thailand, it makes sense that the auto battery recycling would follow.  Environmentalists need to follow the example of fairtrade coffee.   We could not have moved the coffee plantations to the USA if we tried, and we could not have harvested the coffee beans if we had, any better than we're able to pick our own grapes.   We just need to provide technical assistance and make the recycling as clean and fair as possible, so that it does not result in released toxins.  That's what the Basel Convention says.  Twisting the Convention to say that the successful repair and reuse of a 5-year old computer is de facto transit of waste is perverted, sick.  I put a nice Fatboy Slim song above, but here's another for folks with extra listening to do.

I have been overseas many times, and it's blatantly obvious that if you boycott the buyers, YOU are the one forcing the buyers to trade with unfair recyclers. Come with me and meet the Techs of Color, the recycling community overseas.  They won't stay barefoot and pregnant, they cannot afford new, please offer them a choice of fair trade recycling.



I highly recommend the PBS Nova program, Quest of Solomon's Mines.   It tells the story of the bronze age, and how ancient techniques to extract metal from mine pits left pollution at the Dead Sea.  It also tells a political story, which is being enacted today as protectionism and planned obsolescence over the same material which put lead in the teeth of E

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