EWaste Hero: Silicon Sam

How do you know if it's exported for repair or for scrap?

Circuit board repairs, capacitor replacements, chip replacement, solder bypass -- these are all electronics repair techniques WR3A has filmed in Egypt, Peru, Senegal, Indonesia, Malaysia and China.  But people often ask me how we can really know whether a piece of electronics is really repairable before it is exported? 

Here's to Samuel M. Goldwasser, 
a.k.a. "Silicon Sam".  

Troubleshooting and Repair of Consumer Electronic Equipment 

Including: Test Equipment, Supplies, Parts, Incredibly Handy Widgets(tm),

Sources of Information, and Where to Find Broken Stuff
Version 2.45 (08-Mar-09)

Copyright © 1994-2009
Samuel M. Goldwasser

Sam "wrote the book" on electronics repair between 1994 and "as we speak".  Or rather, the website.  His FAQ on repair of electronics became a bible for my early research on requests from overseas buyers.
  • Want to fix a VCR?
  • Want to fix a turntable?
  • Want to fix a monochrome computer monitor?
  • Want to fix a color TV?
The Silicon Sam website is simply and efficiently written.  Moreover, the "usenet" group and google groups pages offer real-time advice, feedback, and guidance on repair jobs in action.  In the original FAQ, Goldwasser-man used web pages to "nest" answers for follow up (so if you needed more information on the flyback you and click-to-follow, or digress).  In the 1990s, USA electronics repairmen looking to check their work or troubleshoot a component began driving up the page rankings for Silicon Sam's FAQ, which was uploaded onto a server at Drexel University.  The site is regularly accessed  by repairpeople worldwide - In India, Thailand, South Africa, and Brazil, repairpeople are logging onto RepairFAQ every hour.

When it comes to exports, the Silicon Sam site is one side of the "rosetta stone" of ethical exports.   The other side is to look at the scrap value of the item (metal and plastic).  You ask for the price offered by the buyer, and then look up the troubleshooting guidelines via Silicon Sam.

A repairable unit should be worth MORE than scrap.  And a non-repairable unit should not be accepted at the same price (if at all) as the repairable unit.

The problem is that American exporters are shipping without even screening the material on "silicon sam's" website.   "As Is" sales do definitely include a lot of repairable equipment, but they might also include "toxics along for the ride".  A really good buyer will tell you to screen for the exact same problems as you find on the Silicon Sam RepairFAQ... if the tube is imploded (the phosphors disturbed on the inside of the CRT), it's not repairable, and you should not insist the buyer take it.

Why not just destroy all of it, just to make sure none is exported as E-waste?  I think that a med school student's key to online success at the University of Cairo is worth paying people to screen the equipment by Silicon Sam guidelines.  If a buyer will PAY $5 for one 1999 Samtron 17" monitor, but refuses (or charges a recycling fee) for the exact same Samtron 17" monitor because of a "troubleshooting" inspection, that's a repairman who knows his stuff.  If they reject the imploded tube, then the screened one was not sold for the raw materials, was it?

And it was NOT a waste.

BAN Defines Repair as "disposal"

To summarize BAN's position, repair equals disposal.

Here is a presentation made by Jim Puckett in Accra in December 2009.  See Page 28.

In this presentation and elsewhere, BAN makes a case against export for reuse and repair.  This is a case BAN has presented and LOST with UNCTAD, EPA, ISRI, and the Basel Secratariat itself!   So BAN is trying to get nations to DEFINE repairable and working units to BE "WASTE". Under the Basel Convention, such a definition could make Annex IX (definition of LEGAL trade) impossible with the USA (as a non-signatory).

The Basel Convention is CRYSTAL CLEAR that export for repair and refurbishment is legal if no toxic parts are DISPOSED.  We do need to make sure that replaced parts are recycled. WR3A considers proof of proper recycling of residue to be an important component in "fair trade".

But BAN is trying to get nations to define repair itself as "disposal", which would make the Basel Convention language circular (export for repair is legal unless something winds up disposed - but export for repair IS disposal - so export for repair is NOT legal).

BAN is justifying this with FALSE data and misleading photos.  In this presentation, they say 80% of exports are for disposal, when independent research shows 15% is not repaired.  BAN has NO DATA to support their contention of 80% waste.  It is completely fabricated... or perhaps is supported only by their own definition that repairable and working = waste.

Peace Corps volunteers, college grads, environmentalists, digital divide organizations should all stand up to this Ayatollah of E-Waste!  Use of internet is growing 10 times faster in countries with 1/10th of the USA's gross domestic product.   They cannot afford IPADs.  Stop the madness!  Fair Trade is the best solution.  Prohibition is counter productive.

Toaster Recycling Test

While toasting an English Muffin this AM, I stood and watched the toaster.   It's something a lot of people wind up doing.  I wondered whether I could market advertising space on the side of the toaster, with the LCD lit up by the lost energy from the grill.

I was reminded that I always wondered just exactly how a toaster works.   Because they have a plug, I should know this.   They don't have mercury in them.  How does the toaster know when to pop up?  I realized that this was one of the moments I dread, like an icy hand on the back of my neck, when my kids ask me how something ordinary works.  I'm 48, I'm an electronics recycler, and I don't know how a toaster works.

Quick, online.  There's "HowStuffWorks.com"...  Ok, forget how bad a job the site did on "e-waste" chapter. (Repeating false allegations by BAN. If BAN is a non-profit, and expresses angst for poor people, it does not mean that BAN statements are true.  The site should cite itself as an example of how propaganda works.. but I digress.  Back to the toaster).  Wikipedia also has a very informative article on toasters.  (Did you know that some students put frozen fish sticks in a toaster?  Gee!)

Whoa!  The heating elements are a nickel chromium alloy!  Nickel is a rare earth metal which should NOT get thrown away.  In a life-cycle analysis, the nickel in a toaster is probably more important to recycle than the steel in a toaster!

That reminds me of the wise words of Goodwill Industries of the Berkshires director Tom Speckert, when I worked with him to set up e-waste collections in the 1990s.  He told about how you cannot afford to hire a repairman if the cost of the new product is lower than a certain amount, and the example he used was repairing a toaster.  Easy to repair, nothing overly technical.  But you cannot pay a guy to repair (or even test) a toaster that you sell for $5.

So if Goodwill or Salvation Army gets your toaster, they are either going to recycle it, or sell it to an exporter.  I know a Haitian woman who buys all kinds of containerloads of goodies from Salvation Army.  She accepts toasters.  The toasters she buys get exported to Haiti.

Ok, my muffin popped up.  Not brown enough.  Back down, again.  I need to wrap this up.

Is a Toaster E-Waste?  Should EPA have a "Toaster Rule"?  What does a BAN-Certified E-Steward do with a toaster?  Can Dell pay for an e-waste program which allows toasters to be exported to Haiti, but not laptops or CRT monitors?

First things first - a household toaster does NOT contain mercury. 

But a modern toaster DOES have a small circuit board!

What is the bottom line for recycling an e-waste toaster?

- Circuit board means an e-Steward cannot throw a toaster into scrap metal.
- Circuit board means you must fix the toaster before exporting it (Sorry, Goodwill).
- Nickel means that if you remove the heating filament, you should send it to a precious metal recycler.

So is the solution Product Stewardship?  Should there be a law passed that toasters must be taken back by the companies that made and sold the toasters?  I doubt there are any toasters made in the USA.  This site says nope

If you cannot design a policy that works for toasters, how good is your policy going to be for computers?

Accountability for E-Waste Exports in Vermont

In the accountability department, Good Point Recycling's goal is to exceed published records from any other company in the United States.   We may make a mistake, but we will not make a mistake that we covered up.   Truth is light.  During the past 10 years, our disclosure policy has been unique in the industry, providing film tours of export markets, documentation of domestic processes, and we hold ourselves to the same simple rules (CRT Glass Test, PCB Test, Employee per ton test, Sea Container per year Test) that R2 Demands.  We are eager to see the results of competing audits.  Hopefully, as information is finally published, we can improve our processes and test our philosophy against competitors with actual data.

Good Point Recycling domestically recycled 78% of the material we received, exporting resulting raw materials.  Most of our exports are plastic, steel, copper, aluminum.  We domestically disassemble and recycle most PCs, and deliver printed circuit boards to Colt Refining, which processes them for sale to European smelters.

Our "reject" CRTs account for over 50% of that tonnage, and we recycle those primarily through domestic recyclers - most often to a BAN Approved CRT recycler, and ALWAYS to a recycler who is under a binding state contract (so we can call the Attorney General's office if they are not lying, not BAN's office in Seattle. Jail is a pretty good enforcement strategy).  We do have a small pilot program with Retroworks de Mexico - we invited NPR Living On Earth and Arizona PBS to come and film the project.

Because of changes in TV generation, and a lower potential export market for reuse TVs as compared to monitors (about 5%, through operations like Retroworks de Mexico), this percentage is growing.  Competition (especially from Goodwill and Dell programs) for higher value computer equipment from operations that don't accept TVs is also a growing factor in our declining reuse rate.  We are buying monitors from other recyclers to meet our obligations for our reuse purchase orders.

For computer monitors, we have offered, but not been welcome to sign the BAN Pledge because we sell intact monitors for refurbishing to a manufacturer takeback program.   That factory takes back monitors, as they did under warranty, and either repairs them for direct resale or refurbishes them into new monitors.  We say that is legal under Basel Convention Annex IX, BAN says it isn't.  EPA, ISRI, and our country of import agree with us.  BAN's position that "repair and refurbishing" (in the clause where it is specifically allowed) actually means "fully functional" is a bizarre stand that creates shortages and unintended consequences.

Rather than just quarrel whether we export poisons, here are the facts.

In two years I have exported 135,821 computer monitors, about 22% of what we could have exported. Zero contained cadmium phosphors, according to the MSDS sheets we have (no SVGA monitors less than 20 years old contain cadmium, and we exported NO televisions to this factory).

The total for direct reuse was 19,572.  The total for refurbishing was 91,449.

The total that were recycled outside the USA, for glass-to-glass recycling a new CRT manufactturing plant was 4% of our tonnage.  Since it is done properly, without poisoning anyone, to a factory with a legal import permit, which has ISO9000 and ISO14001, we think this 4% is worth the 135k in reuse that we achieved.

So we recycled 78% of our tonnage in America, and allowed 4% (reject, incidental breakage, etc.) to be recycled in a process which we audited, peformed by an original equipment manufacturing plant.  That's a total recycling rate of 82%, a final reuse rate of 18%.  Not exactly a reckless claim.

135,821 people got access to a computer display unit they could afford.

The 4% of bad units we paid a fair rate for recycling and audited the end markets.  

The company which we paid to properly recycle the incidental breakage, mistakes, and surplus (many working monitors were electively recycled just because of change in demand for that size of unit) donated many to schools in Malaysia and Indonesia.  Perhaps more importantly, the company now takes back bad CRTs from the schools and from other generators in the importing country.  The buyer also admitted that they recycled some units because the recycling fee we offered was higher than the resale value - so our fair trade program had the unintended consequence of less reuse in certain cases.  We document that and learn from it and adjusted the recycling rate we pay.  We have daily communication, skype, and film of our partner overseas.

Even if some 2009 units were electively recycled, by providing proper incentives to the refurbisher to recycle accidental breakage, we created capacity for proper recycling inside their country.

The amount of material being generated inside their country is more than they import.

We created additional jobs in a CRT reuse and inspection program in Vermont (compared to if we had just shredded the monitors in a no intact unit export policy).

We believe that if we had destroyed those 135,821 monitors, they would have been replaced by someone else's monitors, probably by someone else who doesn't do our fair trade process, and more junk ones would have been exported, without the financial reimbursements and audits we do for the proper recycling.

We know that if we had destroyed those 135,821 monitors, we would have applied both the recycling cost and the lost revenue to our clients, and charged them 21 cents per pound rather than 16.5 cents per pound.

We do allow clients the choice to instruct us "no intact unit", in which case we charge the client 21 cents and document domestic recycling.  So our clients in Vermont and New England have the final say over their e-waste.

Most of our clients have seen the films we take of the refurbishers overseas, or have met them in person, and prefer the idea that their 5 year old monitor might provide affordable internet access to a medical student or engineer in a developing country.  Most of our clients like fair trade recycling exports.  They don't just like the lower cost - many would rather we reuse their item even if we charged the full fare.

If people want to make this illegal, I ask them to provide the same documentation so we can research this and make a proper accounting.  If they say it should be made illegal because they claim 75% of exports from the USA are toxic junk, and that 80% of all USA e-waste is exported, you heard it here first:  They have no numbers, denominator or numerator, to support either claim, and it is a black eye to the environmentalist community that these fictional, made up, b@#$*t numbers are repeatedly circulated in the mainstream press.  NOT A SINGLE PIECE OF DATA HAS BEEN PROVIDED.  The emperor of e-waste has no clothes.  This makes "Climate-gate" look like Nobel Prize candidate for transparency.

We asked BAN to compare our records to other Pledge Recyclers several times over the past few years.   We look forward to seeing BAN's first ever numbers when they release their first BAN Certified information this month.  I will put a link up to the information here, and compare Good Point Recycling and American Retroworks Inc. to BAN's propaganda about Asian electronics reuse factories.

In my next post, I will provide complete data on the contract manufacturing refurbishing market, sharing what I have learned about the true cause and effect, supply and demand behind used CRT exports from the United States.  My hope is that I will be corrected wherever I'm wrong in a transparent and scientific process.

Letter to Jim Puckett about BAN's Opinion Piece

To Jim Puckett:

In your E-Scrap News commentary, Basel Action Network (BAN) had every opportunity to respond to the viability of WR3A's Asian CRT manufacturer-takeback programs, and to defend BAN's recommended ewaste certification process over the R2 process.  You do not have a right to state that the factories we work with are "poisoning people".

Some say I am to blame for informing you about these factories in 2002, some say I'm a fool to expose our company to an ego contest with BAN.  But I work very closely with these factories, and many of them are run by very good people, people you have done business with before, when you purchased electronics assembled by Foxconn, Acer, Proview, BenQ.  Most Americans are not familiar with those company names.  Those companies make most Apple, HP, Sony, and Dell products in a process called "contract manufacturing", which I have written about.  When Proview rolled up with CTX and Mag in 2000, a decade of reuse and refurbishing through contract manufacturing opened up, and a lot of people participated in that market, for better or for worse.  WR3A is championing the better.

Because WR3A recognizes that these are NOT "informal, backyard burning" operations, as BAN has repeatedly characterized them, we see an opportunity to engage with them in a "far trade" process, which would avoid the concerns you raise about passing the buck on pollution.  Over the years I have been in contact with you about incentives and accountability measures WR3A employs to ensure that the reuse value these factories achieve is not done at the cost the environment.

In fact, because MOST of the environmental cost embodied in a product comes from mining and manufacturing, not from use, WR3A achieves MORE environmental savings than programs, such as SB20 in California, which break CRT tubes for remelting (avoiding mining but losing carbon in the remelting process).

You have made the case regarding your agenda with the Basel Convention that we should join you to employ a consistent legal definition over "transit" of the monitors.   I assured you of proper recycling of all removed parts, and that I had that process audited.  Your response was that even if there is no pollution, that "technically" it had been "disposed of" through "transit".  Fair enough, but that is not the argument you presented in the E-Scrap News Opinion piece.

Instead you said that our definition of "fair trade" does not account for disposed pieces, and that we are poisoning people even if we do what we say we are doing.  You can doubt us doing what we say, or you can make the legalese case for consistency under your various Basle opinions, but I cannot let you pass saying that our process, properly conducted, produces more poison than your process.  

Our R2 refurbishing process produces less poison and less carbon than your processes.  

It also produces better jobs at better rates of pay, both in the USA and overseas.  Reuse value trumps shredding.
You can express DOUBT that we are really properly managing the CRTs and by-product, just as some people speculate about actual activities at non-certified "Pledge" companies.  Don't state the doubt as fact.  You can state you don't believe that we remove 100% of cadmium phosphor units (we have the model information and MSDS on units we do ship - cadmium phosphors were eliminated in the 1970s), you can demand proof that we don't export monitors more than 10 years old.  But in our past discussions, I clearly described to you that WR3A was fully accountable and traced everything to its end market, and you clearly stated that even IF it was true we did not pollute, and even if it IS true that we achieve a net savings to the environment, that you would still consider it a violation of international law because the USA is a non-party.

BAN's agenda is to get the USA to ratify the Basel Convention.  If good people doing good things get in your way, you are willing to call them bad people and to accuse them of doing bad things.  I understand that to be consistent with BAN's other legal stances that you do not feel you can let go of the precedent that "transit" is "disposal"... but that's not what you said.

You said we are poisoning people.

If you actually believe the process is poisoning people, why did you applaud our proposal to do it with Las Chicas Bravas in Mexico?  You stated that you'd accept it there, because Mexico was OECD (even if the area of Sonora is in much more dire poverty than Penang Malaysia).

When we have an opportunity to present our accounting, our audits, and our processes, our clients and others understand that we are not dumping waste in Guiyu, and that the reuse market has a legitimate role to play as the world demand for technology grows. Our logic carried the day at the EPA comment periods, the R2 stakeholder votes, and at ISRI.  I understand you are frustrated at our success.

I have tried to get you on board with manufacturer takeback programs at the contract manufacturers for almost a decade.   I have made my case that if your E-Stewards implement "no intact unit" export policies, that it is a war on drugs approach with unintended consequences.   You have at times in anger accused me of being a greedy businessman who is self serving and motivated by profits.  But if you do not state for the record that our process, if rightly verified, does not poison people, I will now begin to release your past correspondence which did say that (and made the case for legalese diplomacy).

BAN has been fully informed that we are not poisoning anyone.  But you are evidently willing to sacrifice the reuse market if it brings you closer to your goal of ratifying a treaty which, according to your own press, most nations do not bother to enforce.  We are working with real people who really want to get online, and cannot afford a new computer.  The same manufacturing facilities which made YOUR computer can refurbish your computer for resale in that market.  Catepillar does this, Cummins Engine does this, Video Display Corp does this.

If you are going to accuse us of poisoning people, we will be forced to demonstrate what you knew and when you knew it.  You are crossing the line from a legal debate into fraud.  It is impacting good people of many races in many countries.  I would urge you to recognize that you cannot hide behind the myth of primitive village conditions at WR3A re-manufacturing plants.  Both the economy and the protection of the environment are on our side.

Robin Ingenthron

PS:  Everyone else agrees with our interpretation of Basel Convention Annex IX B1110. 

Ingenthron Hired by Basel Action Network

This was an April Fools Day joke.  A representative of BAN has expressed concern about our posting of it, see comments section below.

[April 1, 2010 Seattle, Washington]    Electronics recycling organization Basel Action Network stunned "ewaste" industry insiders this morning with an announcement that the organization had hired Robin Ingenthron, a former state regulator and CEO of a used electronics exporting company, as its next Executive Director.

Outgoing Executive Director Jim Puckett described the surprise appointment as part of BAN's campaign to spruce up its message.   BAN has hired leaders from within the recycling industry before, including Lauren Roman of e-scrap processing company MaSeR.  Many other executives have recently made moves in the industry, including former EPA attorney Robert Tonetti moving to Unicor, and former Unicor director Larry Novicky moving to ERI, one of BAN's ESteward founders, but Ingenthron's switch from "export apologist" to export prohibitionist will certainly draw attention.

Puckett attributes the turnabout to the declining economy.  "We spent several years trying to get Robin to stop his apologist stance on hazardous e-waste exports.  In the end we found out that his company stock price was so low, it was cheaper just to buy him out."   The sale of assets from Good Point Recycling was estimated in the thousands of dollars.

Ingenthron was until recently a major critic of what he called "prohibition" export policies, and advocated fair trade policies to improve the export market.   However, photos surfaced in the spring of Ingenthron's exploitation of Vermont children, working outdoors in what an environmentalist watchdog's press release described as a "toxic garden of oozing CPU processors" and a "witches' brew" of inert metal scraps.

Asked about his new position at BAN, Ingenthron declined comment, citing (gesturing at) a non-disclosure gag order BAN had issued.   Ingenthron will be allowed under the contract to speak only non-western languages, and will be studying Hindi.

"We like the quieter, less argumentative, submissive Robin," said Puckett, who is being promoted to a new position at BAN's office in California as "Chief Engineer of Breaking Stuff".  Puckett hopped into a helicopter after the press event, sporting a black robe and long white beard.   Industry insiders expect more recycling executives to move to the Seattle watchdog's office, as BAN uses windfalls from its "gross earnings" tax on certified E-Stewards to pick off recycling professionals willing to sign similar non-compete and non-disclosure contracts.

WR3A.org, Ingenthron's former "Fair Trade" non-profit, has been interviewing several candidates to replace Ingenthron.  One candidate reportedly interviewed for the "Export Reform" organization, Willie Horton, gained national stature during the Dukakis campaign for his reform message.

Released April 1 2010   This is an APRIL FOOLS DAY satire, written the day after I read Jim Puckett's Opinion Piece in E-Scrap News, which accused our contract manufacturing partners of poisoning people.  In Jim's Opinion piece, he states "Some have called exporting such equipment for re-use a form of fair trade;  however, there is nothing fair about saving money by poisoning others".    I took this as directed at this blog, and the April Fool's satire above seemed like the way to respond with a sense of humor.  As is obvious to readers of this column, fair trade does NOT "externalize" costs, it recognizes them, requires they be dealt with, compensates the repair people for them, and audits that no one is poisoned as a result.