101 What's the Truth about "E-waste"?

Foxconn in China
Where do computers and cell phones get made?

Most are made or assembled in China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Taiwan.

Where are used computers sold?

The biggest used PC buyers are contract manufacturers, usually subcontractors to Foxconn, Wistron, Proview, BenQ etc. Those factories are in turn contract manufacturers for companies like Dell, Sony, HP.  The names on the computer don't tell you where they are made.  (Lenovo is a Chinese factory which was making all the IBM laptops... IBM and Lenovo finally cut a deal a few years ago to transfer ownership, and credit, to Lenovo).

Why are there so many junk computers in places like Guiyu, China?

There are four reasons.  First, China is rapidly growing.  There are about 400,000 employees just at one factory (Foxconn in Shenzhen), which isn't far from either Hong Kong or Guiyu (two extremes in living standards in a very large nation).  Foxconn employees alone generate enough "e-waste" to keep Guiyu busy, without any imports.  And Hong Kong is a city of 7 million, which could be producing 30 million pounds of "ewaste" a year without importing anything.

 60 Minutes in Hong Kong, city of 7M
Second, China is relatively resource-poor, and needs raw materials to make all the stuff they are making.  Chinese don't throw plastic and metals away.  They recycle everything.  This is a strength, and it has created an import business (recycling) from countries which don't have the same recycling talent, infrastructure, or labor pool.  This post by ShanghaiScrap describes how sorting of metals (and I would add, working parts) is a pretty good job by Chinese standards.

Third, it is true that Chinese copper wire burning is unregulated, and dominated by the informal sector.  While there are very good copper recycling businesses, there is a lot of simple wire burning.  Regulation of wire burning in the West created a natural opening for wire burning in the East.  It is debated whether the West over-regulated this practice.  There were seven secondary (recycled) copper smelters operating in the USA in 1960.  Chemetco was the last... it closed under heavy environmental fines in 2001.  Primary smelting (extracting copper from ore) is more polluting than wire burning, but survives in the USA.

Fourth, the contract manufacturers and subcontractors described above also include "white box" manufacturers.  The "white box" is a term given to computers without a brand name or without a known brand name (sometimes the name eventually becomes known, like Acer, Vizio, and Lenovo).  Those factories often produce affordable computers by buying warranty return items and store return items, off lease computers, and parts, and putting together very cheap computers for the "Good Enough" markets.  In China, cords and cables, such as ribbon cables and power cords, are also commonly sorted (prior to burning the remainder), and sold in "grey market"... a reuse practice which is frowned on by Chinese government, but which is environmentally pristine.

Why do Americans think Asia is environmentally backward?

Asia has tremendous environmental problems. Coal mining, metal mining, mining of tin from coral islands in Indonesia, manufacturing, acids, refining, etc.  Many manufacturing, mining, and refining plants were built without a concern for anything but job creation and money making, and a lot of pollution resulted.

It's a myth, however, that a significant portion of the pollution in China comes from importing the pollution form the USA.  Some groups truly thought so, but there is a lack of data or science supporting the poster child images.  The images are very successful in leveraging both white middle class guilt and support from anti-white-box groups (the OEMS who don't like knock-offs imitating and growing into their space).

Here's a good series on how China has developed, by Christian Science Monitor reporter Peter Ford.  Still, the "poster child" photos of Chinese peasants continue to steer American policy, leveraging legitimate concerns about environmental justice.
China has been transformed beyond recognition since the ruling Communist party decided 30 years ago this week to abandon Maoism, build a market economy, and dismantle the "bamboo curtain" that had isolated the country from most of the world.
This is not to say the USA and EU are not contributing to the pollution in Asia.  But really, more toxics come from extraction industries, driven by the consumption in Europe, Japan and America, not from waste generated by consumers.

How does consumption produce more pollution in Asia than waste exports?

When we consume non-toxic products, like lead-free solder, we call them green.  But the tin and silver in the solder create far more pollution than the disposal of old lead solder computers ever did.  The developed world has a serious consumption problem, and is frighted to see developing nations approaching the same levels of consumption, like an alcoholic parent seeing their children taste wine.

The recycling, even clean recycling, of used product has become a scapegoat for distracting Americans from the pollution created by mining, refining, and use.

It is important to invest in a fair trade infrastructure, and to support proper, clean and professional recycling programs.  Unfortunately, during the past 24 months, it is precisely the best recycling operations which have been targeted and destroyed.   Those remaining are now going "underground" rejoining the smuggling economy.  We also need to understand how purchases of non-toxics, like jewelry, pour mercury into the environment.

Does the Basel Convention require used electronic exports to be "fully functional" or "tested working"?

Absolutely not.  To me, it is absolutely frightening to see people use a law to shut down factories when the law does not even say what the enforcers say it does.

Exporting working devices sounds better than exporting for repair.  Is it?

It depends.  What is important is "fair trade", which involves disclosure, transparency, legitimate wages, rights, and incentives to pursue the right environmental outcomes.   As for the devices, it depends what the buyer wants and what protections the buyer has against sending "toxics along for the ride".

Very fast, Very talented, repairer
A non-working computer may be far more valuable and have a much better lifecycle than a working computer.   It's the same as automobiles.  A Mercedes which needs a new transmission may be worth more than an old jalopy that still runs.  Many repairs which people forgo in wealthy nations are considered simple and routine in developing countries.  Entire factories run on "cores", which is the WTO name for non-working items which are available at such a scale as to support factory assembly lines.

How easy is it to play "Misguided Angel", the sad song by the Cowboy Junkies, on the guitar?

It's a beautiful song played with just 3 chords.

I have seen (and filmed) computer monitors being repaired (capacitor by-pass) in less time than it takes to play this song.  That was in Egypt.  The repair guy was put out of business based on false information about the Basel Convention.  He has a beautiful wife and daughter, and  he and his brother employed 22 people supplying repaired computer monitors to medical school students in Cairo and Alexandria.   They lost a lot (a LOT) of money when my containerloads of tested and repairable computers were seized at port.

That was a turning point for me.

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