Meet the E-Waste Criminals

We have hours of video of all our our export partners, which we used to make some 3 minute films for Fair Trade and WR3A.  The first here is just a preview of the hours of interviews, I just grabbed clips from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal and Peru to give an idea of the "Geeks" who are working together.

These are not nameless, faceless, Viet Cong polluters.  These are the smartest kids from their schools, who in the USA would be applying for engineering programs at MIT.  In the countries where they were born, buying and repairing and selling computers is something they can be proud of.  Most of the ewaste they see is "home grown", but if they get a chance to get some really nice stuff from rich countries, it is a boon to them.

The truth is hard to massage into clips and sound-bytes.  I think "Fair Trade" works.  But it is hard for an agent of conscience to find the right pitch, to slow the train set in motion.  We have been sold a simplistic "export is waste" story, which served a legitimate legal purpose in reforming E-waste export practices ten years ago. 

At this point, the fear of exporting "toxics" has demonized the best and brightest in the developing world, taken food from peoples mouths, and taken computers away from blood banks.  It is out of control.   As we would desire and expect, the United States EPA took all of this kind of information in and drafted a CRT Rule which was intended not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and EPA formed a group of experts from NGOs (BAN, WR3A, CTBC, etc), manufacturers, non-export USA Ewaste processors, and reuse and recycling processors who export.  They drafted a set of rules for Best Practices called "R2". 

EPA is being attacked, the International Geeks are being attacked.   I find myself increasingly writing "Malcom X" blogs, because my "Martin Luther King" approach is getting nowhere.   The people in this video, the people from overseas, were not represented by anyone but BAN and me at the R2 meeting.  I am willing to set up tours from any journalist or reporter who wishes to "meet the exporters".  We will show you everything, the good, the bad and the ugly, the entire Heronimous Bosch fresco of recycling and refurbishing in the developing world.  It is not perfect, but when you meet the human beings that I meet and deal with, whom BAN has never spoken to, you will see what Micro Lending and Kiva sees.  People who are who they say they are, and do what they say they do, who are trying to drop their buckets where they are, and who lift as they climb.   This is not just about the environment, this is about development, and telling the truth about human beings who have no seat at the table and cannot defend themselves.

Way back, my Freeland relatives and Dewards lived in Vermont before the civil war.   They moved to Kansas to vote in the "free or slave state" elections, following the Missouri slave state vote which upended the Mason Dixon compromise.   I have often wondered if I would have had the guts to follow John Brown.   This experience, being the only electronics recycler to stand up to BAN, is perhaps in my genes.  

Basel Action Network's legacy - stagnation and poverty?

Is the solution to poor coffee farmers to take away their coffee business?
Is the solution to poor recyclers to take away their recycling business?
Is that the best we can do?  The people remain, we just remove "recycling" as the verb.
Folks, it is looking grim.  The U.S. Congress is currently debating whether to pass H.R. 2595, which would ban the export of any device not tested and certified as fully operational. Since the Basel Convention doesn't actually SAY "tested working" or that refurbishing businesses are illegal in developing countries, the new tactic is to get governments to call used computers "waste".  The same companies who brought us "planned obsolescence" are licking their chops, as laws are passed to do their work for them. Most "hindsight obsolsecence" laws are being passed in developing nations themselves, where officials are so fearful of the myth of toxic ewaste that they are denouncing their home grown techies, the Michael Dells of Africa and Asia, and banning even working units from import.

We are likely to lose the fair trade battle.  I have met with ambassadors, import businesses, and African Entrepreneurs.   Despite the films WR3A  has made, and the efforts we have promoted to make "fair trade" possible, the continent of Africa is increasingly accepting the BAN approach of a ban on imports.  (BAN has alternately said they are in favor of export for reuse and refurbishment, but is continuing to promote the phrase "tested working", and is taking no steps to convince either Africa or their E-Stewards that is is ok to export intact units).  The few E-Stewards who are exporting intact units at all should watch BAN's game in Africa and Asia, because the tested working market is being closed as well.

Since the closure of our repair partner programs in Senegal and Cairo, I have gotten desperate, even angry at BAN, for continuing to promote the myth that 80% of exports are junk.  That defies environmental sense, defies economic sense for the importer, and defies the photos and film the NGOs themselves are producing.  The films of containerloads being emptied show nice stuff.  They have to go to the dump to show bad stuff.

The bad stuff goes to the dump.  Is it 20%?  30%?  5%? - it depends on the exporter, and only WR3A members are able and willing at this point to disclose those numbers.   If it is a good company exporting, it's a little bit of junk (accidental breakage, removed parts).  If it's an uncaring company, it can be 30% and higher.

But now Cairo is shut down (we are refurbishing to like-new condition in Asia to supply Egypt), and here is a story from Kenya, announcing the shutdown of all used computer imports, working or not, into the whole country.  The same article shows a poll that Kenyans cite internet almost as high as cell phones as technology they cannot live without. 

Kenya's Saturday Nation, March 5, 2010
The Ministry of Information and Communication is proposing a ban on importation of refurbished computers in the next budget to reduce e-dumping in Kenya.
Permanent secretary, Dr Bitange Ndemo says that Kenya, like other African countries, has become a dumping ground for used machines.
“It has become big business for the foreign companies we import from as some are paid by their governments to amass the dumped electronics, refurbish and sell them to us,” said Dr Ndemo.

Ok Jim, you win in Egypt, you win in Kenya.  So let's complete the vision for those countries development.  Your hope is that they will "leapfrog" the west.   Bring it on.  Let's see the "leapfrog".  Where are the new computers?  That's the solution, right?  The Kenyans should "leapfrog" and get new computers.  What a great vision.  

The African continent can skip right over the repair, refurbish, reverse-engineer, knock-off, contract assembly, and manufacturing evolution that southern China, Signapore, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, India (and even 1800s USA) followed on the path to development.   We can throw out the UNCTAD reasoning, that recycling is inherently better than mining and should be cleaned up and reformed.

We can destroy the Zabbaleen's sorting stations, kill their pigs, and close down the informal recycling programs in Cairo.  We can ban the Indonesian CRT assembly and manufacturing factories which turned to refurbishing cores (CRTs) to save their factory jobs, like Cummins Engine in Memphis Tennessee did. See Indonesia rejects CRT shipments to Refurbishing Factory

If Fair Trade loses, who wins?   There are roughly 3 billion people earning about 3 thousand dollars per year who, for the past decade, have gotten access to the internet at 10 times the rate of the USA.  Even a $60 computer is extremely expensive to them.  But Basel Action Network has sold the vision, and the refurbishers are shutting down. So now they can now leapfrog us.  Their national development should not bear the indignity of checking email on (gasp!) a CRT screen.   3 billion LCDs (which last 25% as long as a CRT life), coming right up!  Ready, set, go!

Instead of protesting the mining of raw materials for electronics in Africa, like the coltan for cell phones (which has decreased the population of lowland gorillas by 60%), western NGOs like BAN have chosen to protest reuse and recycling, the only alternative to that mining (other than stagnation and poverty).  They hit a nerve among the conscientious in the recycling community.  And it is certainly true that there were plenty of bad actors mixing in "Toxics Along for the Ride". 
For several years, BAN did a good job of improving our industry by keeping us on our toes.  But today's article from Saturday Nation in Kenya is Sarah and Jim's prize.   The UN program I have been meeting with had a plan to put 500,000 internet computers into Africa this decade.  But the only way to afford that was with CRTs (which don't get stolen, are built like battleships, are repairable) - but used CRTs, working or not, are being made illegal to import used.

Meanwhile, independent university research into the issue indicates that WR3A and Fair Trade programs are on the right track.  A new study from ASU is appearing Mar. 22 in Environmental Science and Technology, which seems to blow apart the theory that ewaste export prohibition would clean up ewaste dumps overseas. The study estimates global generation of obsolete computers, with these results:
  • By 2016-2018 the number obsolete computers generated in the developing world will exceed that in the developed world,
  • Global volumes of obsolete computers are expected to triple between 2010 and 2025,
  • By 2025 the developing world will generate double the developed world’s waste computers.
[ASU]'s results fan the debate on how to deal with backyard recycling. Trade bans, he argues, will become increasingly irrelevant in solving the problem. The study’s authors suggest that direct policy action to address the environmental impacts of informal recycling is needed. Policy should also consider the considerable economic and social benefits of refurbishing electronics for reuse in the developing world. 

Who will manage the "home grown" recycling, as developing countries produce their own WEEE and e-waste?  In the USA, electronics geeks like Dick Peloquin and David Cauchi pioneered proper e-waste recycling practices.  One of the first thing Retroworks de Mexico did was estabish a "cash for clunkers" program to get ewaste off the streets of Sonora in Mexico. Our refurbisher in Malaysia is now the CRT recycler for schools and communities there.  But the same fair trade improvements made in Senegal and Egypt are now shut down.   With HR 2595, which BAN applauds, we will shut down the factories in Malaysia and Mexico next.

Jim, you wrote a comment on a past post that the dialogue was over, you were not speaking to me anymore.   It's all going according to plan, so why listen to criticism?  I'm sure you have a great answer to these questions.  You say that 80% of the exports are "junk" and that our processes are illegal because "a part may be removed during the repair, which is then waste".   

So are you saying the capacitors the techs may replace are 80% of the load?  Look at the tech in Egypt (at top) whose job is gone.  Did he really repeatedly pay for 80% junk?  Is his circuit board repair so polluting that he's better off spending three month's income on a new PC made from mined materials?  I confess, we did not remove the tiny little capacitor that he bypassed.

The Indonesia factories (left), BAN says to the press, are illegal because 80% of the material they import is waste to be burned.  But what BAN's director says to us, when we described the factory, is that the upgraded pieces (even if later properly be recycled), were technically waste because they were not removed prior to transport.  

Almost the same thing, I guess, 80% of the containerload is junk, or some pieces removed during a repair and properly recycled are "technically" waste.

BAN has momentum, they are going to win.  They will shut down these poor overseas techies and geeks I deal with, the valedictorians and heros of their schools, by throwing them in the boat with copper wire burners.  But they are making up a story about the med school students "leapfrogging", while treating these technicians like Joe McCarthy treated the "commies".  

They take pictures of junk and lead journalists away from the refurbishing factories (showing CBS 60 Minutes stacks of CRT monitors in Hong Kong and leading them to Guiyu, where there is not a single CRT factory - or a single CRT in sight).  And gosh, they are winning.  But whatever happens to my friends and their businesses, history is going to get out.  BAN had better come up with some solutions, either leapfrogs or fair trade reforms.  If Jim Puckett counts the Kenya, Egypt, and Indonesia import bans as successes, but does not replace the affordable electronics, he will go into the history books as the Ayatollah of E-waste.  When the perfect becomes the enemy of the good, both will fail.

Any Questions?

Dear BAN,

The factories you refuse to allow E-Stewards to sell good CRTs for refurbishment to are the same factories that you bought your CRT monitor from.

Any Questions?

(I think it's called "manufacturer take-back")

EWASTE: 6 Simple Rules for Recycling my E-Waste

You have 3 minutes to approve an e-waste vendor.  You are busy and don't have time to check out whether they are dumping in China.  The EPA's Responsible Recyclers standards look very promising, but there are not many companies which have gone through that yet, maybe there are none in your region.

  1. Ask the EWaste processor for their total tonnage from last year (the denominator).
  2. Ask where the CRT glass went, and how many tons went there.  Pound for pound, CRT glass is the most expensive and most regulated material in e-waste, illegal to dispose of with solid waste.   And it's a bottleneck, there are not many places taking it.  Be sure to check the destination.  Now divide #3 (CRT Glass) by #2 (total tons).  This provides the CRT Glass Test.
  3. Ask how many employees they have.  Divide  #4 (employees) by #2 (total tons)
  4. Ask where the printed circuit boards went, and how many tons went there.  If they have printed circuit boards as a separate weight (vs. left intact in PCs), they are probably able to manage the hard drive info because it makes no sense to spend the labor to tear down to circuit boards and then not deal with the hard drives.  Divide #5 (circuit boards) by #1 (total tons).
  5. Ask how many sea containers left the processing location last year.
  6. Ask if they are "EPA Approved".  If they are honest, they will say "there is no such thing as EPA approved or EPA Certified".  If they say yes, then all the info above is suspect...
 The information above is all independently verifiable, with the possible exception of total tons, which most companies tend to want to brag about and exaggerate (which is good for this analysis, the way to skew the calculations would be to under-report the total tons).

Depending on whether the company manages residential material (TVs mean more CRT glass as a percentage, as monitors are decreasing in number and increasing in quality), the CRT test (#2/#1) should be at least 10% and possibly as high as 45%.  The places you can send CRT glass to tend not to lie and say they got CRTs from people that are not delivering them CRTs.  The same with printed circuit boards, #4.  PC boards are a much smaller percentage, if the percentage is huge they may be giving you intact desktops as a figure.   The important thing here is that they can account for it and they are doing demanufacturing rather than sending old Pentium 2s into the export market for gold scrap content (an extremely polluting process).

The employees per ton, and sea containers per ton, are actually both independently verifiable.  Your state Environental Protection office hopefully keeps records on each of these.  Some sea containers is fine, demanufactured plastic and steel etc. is generally exported to the places that make things out of plastic and steel.   But processing reduces the amount of space, and if the sea containers are too high as a ratio to total tons, it's a sign that there is not much going on besides throwing stuff willy-nilly into sea containers.

Both the sea containers and the employees are verifiable from public sources (Department of Revenue and Department of Commerce), hopefully your state official knows how to get those records.

There are other things you can do to investigate the end market, and you should do those other things if you are making a long term contract.  But if you have to move stuff out of storage or do an upgrade and don't have much time, this list is good evidence that you are doing due diligence.

State officials have another list (see previous post) they can be checking for compliance.   If you are bamboozled, it's not for lack of trying, and if more and more people ask these 6 simple questions, our e-waste recycling community will be able to police itself.  I can tell you if my competitor is lying about any of the 1-6 claims.   Since they know you can show the information to someone else, they might be hesitant to fake it.

Mark Twain weighs in on CRT E-Waste Exports

Mark Twain:  
"It's not what you don't know; it's the things you know, that are not so, that really get you."

BAN seems to "know" that 80% of CRTs are waste, and that most of them are going to be burned for copper in backyard operations.  I have tried for years now to help BAN out, that this is "the thing they know that isn't so," and it is going to really get them.  They also seem to know what is inside sealed containers, and seem to know that the factory that manufactured TVs in the 1990s is now paying money for tubes that they burn in a backyard operation.

From today's Boston Globe:

"The Basel Convention considers cathode ray, or CRT tubes, hazardous waste, and it prohibits them from being sent to developing countries to be thrown away or recycled, according to the Basel Action Network, the group that alerted Indonesia to the shipment. To gain entry to those nations, many companies say the tubes are going to be reused or resold, the group said. Instead, it says, the majority of the tubes are burned, dumped, or, disassembled to extract reusable material by workers with little protection against toxins."

- Working or repairable CRTs are NOT considered hazardous waste.
- The majority of CRTs being exported are not burned, dumped, etc.

From yesterday's PC World Magazine:

 "[Puckett] What I was told by Indonesian authorities was that it was old TVs and monitors. Whether it is CRTs in the form of TVs or CRTs in monitors is immaterial. CRTs are listed in the Basel Convention ... as a hazardous waste."
- Puckett says he was told this by Indonesian authorities... but the Indonesian authorities say they were told the contents by Puckett.  Neither BAN nor Indonesian authorities opened the sea containers.
- Export of CRTs for reuse, repair and refurbishment is explicitly, in black and white ALLOWED under the Basel Convention, Annex IX B1110, it is NON-repairable or waste CRTs that are listed in the convention as a hazardous waste.  Puckett makes a statement which is only true if he knows the contents.

...But Puckett questioned whether CRT Recycling had tested all the electronics before shipping. Many countries are starting to require that electronics be tested before they're imported for reuse.
"You need to test for functionality, you can't just claim it," he said. 
- The containers were still sealed when received in the USA, the Indonesia government said they did not open or inspect the containers, but responded to an allegation by BAN that the load was not repairable and not working.   BAN says they suspect this or question it.  But BAN did not visit the factory or ask for the load to be inspected.  

Does BAN know?  If they simply suspect, and have had the containers turned back halfway across the globe to Boston, they should hold their press release until they know whether they were right, or they owe CRTR an apology.

The whole question turns on whether the Brockton MA load was good or bad.  I certainly don't know.  I don't want to be pulled in as an expert saying one way or the other whether the load was mostly bad or mostly good.  What I do know for absolute fact is that there are good, reputable CRT refurbishing factories in several parts of Southeast Asia, and that I used to be able to source for the most reputable ones from 5 different CRT suppliers in New England.  All of those companies have stopped supplying the good CRTs, explicitly citing fear of as the reason.  Now I cannot source the good monitors from good people, and I am unwilling to source loads from companies that I cannot inspect and vouch for.  The company in Brockton happens to be one I have not accepted CRT product from.  But if my friends in Indonesia are offered no other choice, I have to attack the organization which takes away their choices.  And that organization is BAN. (The used CRT factory in this photo is from Indonesia and we did inspect it, but it is not on the Island of Java or Semarang port where the Brockton TVs wound up).

Were the loads as good as the ones I used to ship?  Don't know, I have my doubts.  Was the Java factory as good as the ones WR3A has audited?  I just do not know.  The quality is bound to go down as more good CRTs are destroyed under the "no intact unit" policies, and overseas buyers have fewer suppliers to choose from.  I don't qualify many TVs for export, and cannot vouch one way or the other for TV refurbishment in Indonesia.  All I am saying is that Prohibition creates Al Capones, and that BAN's justification for the prohibition - that CRTs are "burned" etc., is a thing BAN knows that isn't so, and it's going to get them.

EPA is being attacked here, and while those attacks are largely hype and mostly unfair, it would probably do us all good for EPA to increase enforcement, to take away the onus of exporting for reuse and refurbishment, so that we don't have to take the word of a 3 person non-profit office in Seattle for what is in a sealed container shipped back and forth between Boston and Semarang.


"War on Drugs", the E-Waste Drama

The Prohibition on used and repairable electronics mixed with e-waste continues to generate conflicting press.

From Recycling Today  2/26/2010

Electronics Recycler Seeks Korean CRT Units

"Vermont recycler says demand for refurbishable Korean CRT monitors not being met..."

And this morning, from Basel Action Network:
Indonesia Turns Back Illegal Shipment of E-Waste from USA "Recycler"

(full text of BAN press release follows in blue after the film from Indonesia below)

BAN and other "Export Prohibitionists" offer us a blanket description that 80% of these loads are "waste".   I have not seen and cannot vouch for the quality of either the loads or the remanufacturing plant in Semarang, Indonesia.  But if there is a shortage of the good monitors, and the BAN Pledge Signers are destroying all monitors, this is a tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum arrangement that likes of which have not been seen since rum runners during Prohibition.  Most importers are in the business of refurbishing and remanufacturing, and have no incentive to pay thousands of dollars to import loads to be "burned, melted, or chemically treated... in backyard operations".
BAN's own press release conveys a false impression:
 "According to BAN, about 80 percent of the e-waste consumers deliver to recyclers is not recycled by these companies at all but is simply shipped to countries in Asia and Africa to some of the world’s most impoverished communities where the waste is smashed, burned, melted or chemically treated in extremely dangerous backyard operations."
BAN has never accepted the Fair Trade alternative, to get the refurbishing companies into ISO14001, mandate EPA inspections,  and to utilize permitted factories.  Here is one CRT refurbisher in Indonesia, which BAN also considers an e-waste importer (this is not at Semarang Port, where BAN "caught" the containerloads).  Click photo to roll the film...
Here is BAN's own press release.

Indonesia Turns Back Illegal Shipment of E-Waste from USA "Recycler"

Seattle, Washington (1 March 2010).  The Basel Action Network (BAN), an environmental watchdog organization, reported today that it had successfully prevented nine sea-going containers of hazardous electronic waste from a Massachusetts business calling themselves a recycler from being exported and delivered to Indonesia in contravention of the international treaty on hazardous waste known as the Basel Convention and Indonesian law.  The action was made possible due to a tip by BAN to the Ministry of Environment in Indonesia.  Last week in Bali, Indonesia, representatives from BAN and Asian environmental groups met with and personally thanked the Minister of Environment and the Indonesian authorities responsible for this police action, which comes just as the United Nations Environment Program released a report
Indonesia is just one of many countries now being flooded by a tsunami of toxic electronic waste from the United States,” said Jim Puckett, Executive Director of the Basel Action Network.  “Even though our own government knows that the importation of toxic waste from the US is a violation of the laws of most countries of the world, our own EPA shamefully allows the global dumping to continue.” 
In this case, the perpetrator of the shipment, CRT Recycling Inc. in Brockton, Massachusetts, utilized a waste broker, Advanced Global Technologies Inc., that is listed on an official EPA website as being an EPA registered e-waste exporter.  In 2008, the Government Accountability Office slammed the EPA for doing far too little to control exports of electronic waste from the United States, but still little has changed as there remains no law sufficient to control the flood of toxic e-waste.    It is estimated by Hong Kong authorities that 50-100 containers of e-waste enter the port of Hong Kong alone each day.   Almost all of this comes from the United States according to BAN.
BAN, together with the Electronic TakeBack Coalition, has been campaigning for a new law prohibiting hazardous e-waste exports from the United States, a ban already in place in 32 other developed countries.  In 2008, BAN assisted CBS’s 60 Minutes to track containers from a similar Colorado based recycler to China.  Since 2001, BAN has travelled the world revealing the cyber-age nightmare of e-waste exports and dumping in developing countries (see photo gallery at:
In this case, BAN volunteers staked out CRT
highlighting the massive amounts of e-waste flooding developing countries in contravention of the Basel Convention. Recycling Incorporated in Brockton, Massachusetts, a company that takes thousands of monitors every year from local schools and governments who unwittingly believe their old computers and monitors will legally and properly recycled.  BAN photographed a container in the CRT Recycling, Inc. yard being loaded with cathode ray tube (CRT) computer monitors.   Using container numbers and online shipping company databases, they were able to track the container and its ship to the port of Semarang, Indonesia.  In November of 2009, BAN contacted the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and warned them of the ship’s imminent arrival and the hazardous wastes it carried. 
Indonesian authorities then seized the container and found it to be part of a consignment of 9 such containers coming from CRT
Recycling, Inc.  These were opened and confirmed to be stacked full of untested, used computer monitors -- each containing several pounds of lead and other hazardous substances -- thus making them an internationally defined hazardous waste and therefore illegal to import into Indonesia.   All 9 containers were then returned to the US.  The containers arrived in Boston port in early February and are currently thought to be detained at the Boston Freight Terminal with a deadline to clear customs by February 28th.   CRT Recycling, Inc. has stated that they will turn the CRTs over to RMG Enterprises, of Londonderry, New Hampshire, for further processing.  The EPA is expected to inspect the containers upon arrival.
However it is unlikely that CRT
Recycling, Inc. or its broker, Advanced Global Technologies Inc., will be prosecuted for illegal hazardous waste exportation as the United States has never ratified the Basel Convention, and the only current law on the subject, known as “the CRT Rule,” is riddled with loopholes allowing uncontrolled exports.  In fact, on EPA’s CRT rule website (see, Advanced Global Technologies Inc. is listed as an EPA officially sanctioned waste exporter.

 According to BAN, about 80 percent of the e-waste consumers deliver to recyclers is not recycled by these companies at all but is simply shipped to countries in Asia and Africa to some of the world’s most impoverished communities where the waste is smashed, burned, melted or chemically treated in extremely dangerous backyard operations. BAN warns businesses and consumers to hand over their old electronic equipment only to designated e-Stewards® Recyclers that have been carefully screened and audited to ensure they do not export, use prison labor, or dump toxics in municipal landfills and incinerators. 
Consumers can take action to prevent techno-trash dumping,” said Puckett.   “We must urge Congress to pass a prohibition on waste exportation at once, and we must vow to never deliver old computers and TVs to any company that is not a designated e-Stewards Recycler.”