"e-Waste" Travel in Scrap Metal

The most common mistake humans make is thinking that a century is a long time.  Extinction is apparently forever.  Consuming something non-renewable is more important to me than, say, correspondence about dating and relationships.  There is little going on today of more environmental importance than non-ferrous metal consumption.

Consuming finite earth natural resources is something all humans have in common.  But compare readership of "recycling" articles and blogs to, say, Jezebel's website.  Many more people are obsessed with "crap email from a dude" - or CEFAD - and thousands of posts and sub-posts comment on these poor guys' nerdy correspondences to lost girlfriends. It's humbling.  People seem more interested in what some lady's ex-date wrote in an email than they are in undersea mining and coral reefs.  Those crap emails from dudes about wrecked relationships seem inexhaustible, but people seem fascinated.

My obsession is about other wrecks (or wrechs, a new recycle tech term  first coined here) ... I'm into recycling. I write endlessly about junk, wreckage, breakage, and scrap.  The photo above is from 2002, when I toured a metal scrap shredder for automobiles at Guangzhou Iron and Steel, and arc metal furnace in Guangdong.  They had purchased a large used auto shredder from the USA.   At that time, it was a big deal.  Since then the company has bought MBA Polymers, the USA plastic recycler, and has seen its own operation dwarfed by larger ferrous recycling investments, particularly in northern China.

I was recently asked about the export category of "breakage" and "printer scrap" and miscellaneous small wrechs, computer speakers, keyboards.  Compared to refurbishing at contract manufacturing factories, it's a tough export to defend.  But it's not easy to be proud of the domestic solutions either, if you really do a mass balance and lifecycle analysis.  Right now, there are 3 ways of dealing with the printers, VCRs, speakers, keyboards, and other somewhat unregulated e-knick-knackage, sold for plastic and/or metal value, with less than 25% reuse:
  1. Hand dis-assembly.  We can do this in Mexico, and Unicor can do it with prison labor, and of course they can do it in China.  It means taking the printer or telephone or computer speaker apart and sending the plastic value to the plastic recycler and the metal value to the metal recyclers, and maybe catching a few reuse items (This week we sold a queer thing called a Power Technology Portable Fiber Optic Fusion Splicer for over $300 which someone pulled out of "breakage").  Not all hand disassembly joints are alike.  I have also seen Chinese women with razors carefully stripping copper wire by hand (photo).  I was proud of them.  Recently Adam Minter commented on the relative success of women like this in the scrap field in China.  It's not a job to be ashamed of.                                                 
  2. Shredding.  Most of the shredders out there get the steel with a magnet and the aluminum with an eddy current.  The plastic, the circuit boards, the copper all winds up in a pile of waste known in the recycling business as "fluff".  Because of the way electronics are screwed together, a lot of the plastic and glass and boards stay on the aluminum and steel.  What results is actually very similar to ZORBA scrap.  If you look at it, it can have stones and plastic and wood and glass and  debris all in it... but it is still richer in copper, aluminum than anything coming out of a metal mine.  There are very high end shredders which can apparently get even circuit boards out of scrap metal, and there are ones which basically make big stuff smaller.  Not all shredders are the same.  But generally, the more clean they make the grind, the more carbon and energy they have to spend... there are diminishing returns on re-re-re-re-grinding ZORBA, and at some point the recycler or certification process has to make a somewhat arbitrary decision as to where to draw the line, how much plastic-shard per wire segment is enough processing.  Then they need a law or a regulation to make people pay for their machine.             
  3. Burning.  This gets most of the  anti-export film. It happens in this country, too.  Burning wire to get the copper out is the ugliest recycling.  There are 'materials of concern', i.e. solder and small boards on these items. The only thing that prevents it from being downright "bad" are the alternatives to recycling - throwing it away and mining more to replace it.  A recycler told me she'd rather throw wire away then let poor people burn it.  Having seen poor people without even copper to burn, and having seen virgin mining, I'd put burning down above "safe disposal", as a next to next to last resort.  Another novel form of burning was done as a trial at our partner's smelter in Nacozari.  Ten years ago, when they upgraded the office computers and copiers, they tossed them all at once into a 1200+ degree centigrade smelter furnace capable of getting out the copper, gold, silver, and zinc.  They have a wickedly modern smokestack that estracts pollutants and extracts them into other raw materials... but it's probably not an efficient option.
So... the rest of this post is about a common but unknown management practice.   I didn't put it on the list above, because it could wind up to be any or all of the three.  Just as our smelter engineers threw all the obsolete office machines into molten metal ore, most people in the USA throw a lot of different stuff - hair dryers, lawn mowers, spent PCs - into scrap metal bins.  When those items are collected at a one-day event, they are called e-waste collected, but when they are thrown into a scrap metal bin, where do they show up in the numerator and denominator of MSW management?

Here is a reminder of a post last spring, the "Toaster Recycling Test", describing the 'materials of concern' on a toaster.  Toasters have pretty high failure rates, they have copper and little circuit boards.  Not many are handled as 'ewaste'.  Pound per pound, however, it would be pretty difficult to tell a shredded ton of toasters from a shredded ton of VCRs.

When the electronics and electric appliances wind up in the river of scrap steel, with the bikes and file cabinets and cars, they are heading to an unknown - their numbers are diluted in a river of steel, and they become a statistical footnote.   There is so much steel out there, a lot of recyclers just throw telephones, printers, computers and even monitors into scrap metal bales.  All the e-waste in the country could be diluted into all the steel and it would go "away" like bike tires and plastics in an old fridge.  Like in Goodfellas, you can throw bodies into the trunks of cars at the auto yards, why not a TV or a dot matrix printer?  Would it surprise or shock any of us to find toasters and VCRs in America's #1 export - scrap ferrous metal?   ISRI does an amazing job bringing legal terminology to a chaos of devices and publishes the bible on scrap metal terminology.

In fact, many of the CPUs and printers and other scrap I saw in China were being pulled out of bales of scrap steel.  Huge quantities of scrap ferrous metal arrives in the port of Hong Kong.  The CPUs and microwaves and printers and other machines arrive inside loads with cars (which have their own computers in them now) and white goods and lawnmowers, etc.

What really confuses people is when the Price of ABS and HiPS plastics pass the price of metals, as happens more and more frequently.  Then Chinese will pay a lot more to keep the plastics out of the shredder, figuring they can always sell the metals afterwards.  I will write a totally separate post about plastics recycling in China.   Here is a photo of a Chines plastic recycling business for electronics plastic.

The USA companies which are shredding  e-scrap are largely giving up on the value of the plastics, which wind up in 'fluff'.  If 1% of steel scrap is used electronics, and this company imports 1,000,000 metric tons per year of scrap, then 1,000 tons of computers and other e-waste is coming in as a very small percentage of bales.  And this is just one scrap metal company in China.  In 2009, the USA exported 2,030,000 tons per month of ferrous scrap:  at 2% "e-waste", that would account for 100 sea containers per month just going out with the regular scrap metal.  SteelOrbis runs monthly export figures (like this one from Sept 2009):
"According to the latest statistics released by the United States International Trade Commission, the country's ferrous scrap exports totaled 2.03 million metric tons in September, increasing by 31.19 percent year on year and down 13.72 percent over August.
In September this year, the US' largest ferrous scrap export market was South Korea, with exports of 511,993 metric tons. South Korea was followed by China, with ferrous scrap exports of 384,500 metric tons, and by Turkey with 309,160 metric tons.
On the other hand, in the January-September period of this year the US exported 17.33 million metric tons of ferrous scrap, down 1.15 percent year on year. In the period in question, China imported 5.16 million metric tons of ferrous scrap from the US, Turkey imported 2.77 million metric tons from the same source, while South Korea imported 2.49 million metric tons."
 When the PCs are shredded by poor first generation shredders, they can be more easily sprinkled into this outgoing ferrous metal. 

My point is that the number of containers of "obsolete" PCs blended in with good and repairable equipment must indeed be improved on.  But if no one is providing numbers or data, we don't actually know whether bad apples inside repairable PC loads is as bad a problem as the obsolete scrap going into scrap steel bales, shredded or unshredded.  Whether or not WR3A's loads could be improved from the 15% recycling rate, the 100 containers per year we export would yield 15 containerloads per year of recycling.  1% of steel scrap is a lot more than 15% of good computers.

Modern and sophisticated Chinese integrated metals companies, like ARMCO (which trades in ore, scrap, and metals) actually LIKE e-scrap mixed into their metal scrap.  According to their website:
"The needed raw materials of this project product are the waste automobile, waste machinery, building materials, waste machinery equipments, dismantled ships and steel scraps in the society and so on. Along with the development of iron and steel industry, the existence of steel scraps resources in the society as well as the increment of the waste ships and automobiles have provided large amount of resources for the recycling and processing of steel scraps."
In my opinion, the much of the current recycling story is "man vs. machine", a John Henry ballad about which will happen first, a shredder which doesn't ruin the plastic and copper and reuse, or a sweat shop with an air conditioner which people trust not to set stuff on fire.  When the USA does it by hand, we use immigrants, prisoners, retirees, charities... I think it's too tough to call, some of the newer shredders look impressive, and the notorious non-transparency of the scrap dealers in China is maddening. But from the past decade, I'd say the hand dis-assembly wins environmentally.  And it's a much higher job creator, and tends to capture more reuse.

WR3A has been labelled a "reuse" organization.  The fact is that we focused on reuse first because the technicians overseas are the farthest from the racially bigoted stereotypes that it was easiest case to make that organizations like BAN had painted exports with too broad a brush.  The case for "export for recycling" will be more difficult, as companies with shredders that work better raise the bar on certification standards from the decade-old shredders which simply require the ZORBA etc. to be re-sorted overseas.  As Chinese companies like Soundera and ARMCO continue to invest in their own high-tech shredding operations, the lines will be further blurred.

In five or ten more years, when everyone knows that China is generating most of its own "e-waste", when China and India and Brazil are OECD countries, and when most of our computing power is in a cloud run from our cell phone (or wristwatch), a lot of this debate will seem archaic and quaint.  The blogs about dudes who write crappy emails to ex-dates will probably be more relevant.   The only question is how much rain forest and coral reef we preserve over the next ten years while filling the insatiable demand for metals and plastics.  Anyone who gets in the way of recycling will have blood on their hands, and if they got in the way of affordable recycling with lies, they will got a lot of 'splainin' to do.

My 2004 proposal for UNICOR still stands.  Rather than complain about Unicor, the federal prison industry recycling program, why not send them all the keyboards and printers, the things that even owners of big shredders cannot want to process?  It would keep them busy, which is really all that the Unicor program is asking for.  Unlike computers and monitors and TVs exported for reuse, tracking plastics and metals disassembled by hand is really,  really hard to document and certify.  I'm confident our Mexico operation is doing it right, but I also know how hard it is for us just to verify data on the factory we own.

It's really hard to track your commodities around the world.  People surprise you. 

First surprise, Arkansas hillibilly named Mr. Fire Cloud is building a genuine French castle within an hour of my parents' home in Searcy county.  See today's NYTimes.

Second surpise, kids from South Park convince me that "hate crimes" are mistaken. (12.2011 removed video, found it causes posts to be blocked in some countries)

CRT Recycling Primer

What is inside a CRT that makes it so dangerous?

Here's a good 6 minute video that explains the "picture tube" or TV (from The Secret Life of Machines)

The leaded glass protects us from the radiation-like cathode rays.   Barium does the same thing (blocks the rays), but has a much higher melting point than leaded glass and is more expensive to make.  So they use barium in the "panel" (the front part) and leaded silicate in the rest of the glass.

The lead is vitrified or melted into the glass, which is about as safe a way to store lead as can be imagined.  Vitrification - binding into molten glass - is a form of haz mat storage that is used for really expensive waste materials such as plutonium waste.

But if recyclers eliminate labor and shred barium and leaded glass together, they get something much less useful.  The melting point of the leaded bits is lower than the barium bits, and the barium bits float around like stubborn ice cubes if you melt it at leaded-glass temperatures.  So people who shredded them together have fewer interested buyers and have to pay more to make their piles go away.

So, what's the stupidest thing you can do?  Ask California.  Tax people to grind it up into sand, like shown in this CA film.  This takes it from the safe form (CRT glass actually has less vitrified lead than fine leaded glass crystal ware) and frees it to be dispersed into the environment.

Why does California do this?

An organization in Seattle called BAN dupes people into thinking that the CRTs sent to THIS FACTORY

To be made into THIS product,

sold to medical students at THIS STORE

Was actually sent to THIS woman, who was nowhere to be seen on the CBS 60 Minutes video, and which BAN director Jim Puckett announced was nowhere to be seen in Guiyu at a presentation to Interpol and EPA

 So to prevent that, CA taxes people to grind it into sand like THIS

so that it can be put into concrete likeTHIS

Which will eventually wind up deteriorating, like THIS, poisoning the soil like lead paint chips,

And so we will mine new lead from THIS mine in Africa (Kabwe, the most toxic place on earth)

 To be made into brand new CRTs which Egyptians cannot afford.

Who did this?  My friends, the Environmentalists.
This is because the environmental movement has been infiltrated by bad social science.  
As Walt Kelley coined, "We have met the enemy, and he is US."

Retroworks Mining Factsheet

The worst recycling is better than the best mining. 

American Retroworks Mining Factsheet  

Sustainability means improving recycling, making it more efficient.  Usually, that means enforcing against the worst actors, not restricting trade to the best actors, or giving stimulus to reward early adaptation of better practices.

By the way, grinding up CRT glass and mixing it into concrete is not exactly recycling (we call it "Jimmy Hoffa recycling").  The famous TCLP test is for safe disposal in an lined Subtitle D landfill, it is NOT a permit for putting stuff into concrete.   Concrete really doesn't last as many generations as people think it does, and putting lead and barium into the concrete is not really any better an idea than putting it into paint.

Can You Guess Where This Paper Mill Is?

This mill runs day and night.  It is in a country with very little supply of recycled paper.  Question:  should Basel Convention allow this paper mill to import "waste paper" from the USA (not a signatory)?   If that is a question, then should the paper mill be allowed to import TREES from the USA (a "commodity", not a waste)?

The mill is in Pakistan, a non-OECD country.  Still, under Annex IX of the Basle Convention, the export of waste paper to this country is legal.  Annex IX provides a detailed list and description of allowed raw materials.   Waste paper is on the list as an allowed material - as are CRTs destined for reuse or repair.  This is what you'd want... the process is the same, whether it is virgin or recycled, and recycling is better for the environment.

Here is the next question:  The lead smelter below is run by Doe Run, the only CRT glass end market in the USA.  Is Doe Run allowed to ship recycled lead (dry acid batteries or CRT cullet) to its Peru facility?

Doe run can definitely export virgin lead and lead ore, if the toxic metal is mined from the ground it is a "commodity".   Some groups say that recycling should be treated differently, and under their interpetation of the Basel Convention, mining is allowed and recycling isn't.

Recycled lead sure walks and quacks like a commodity.  Chinese lead smelters are buying all the lead scrap they can get their hands on, as automobile ownership skyrockets in China, and demand for lead acid car batteries heats up.   Here is an article about the effects on lead smeltering businesses in Africa, which cannot afford to buy their own domestic African scrap batteries, because Chinese demand is so high.  The article points out that some countries are passing laws against the export of lead batteries in order to protect their domestic smelters. 

In fact, this month, India passed high tariffs on iron ore exports from India.  That's right, tariffs on their own mined raw material exports.  The Indian congress had actually considered a complete export ban.  Chinese demand is credited with the tug of war over these metals.

When I look at a Chinese company meeting demand for metals, like ARMCO, I see a company buying virgin ore, trading bulk raw materials, and (yes) importing scrap metal for recycling in China - about 1M tons per year.  I get the most excited about their recycling business.  

If you are a college student writing a paper about "e-waste" and the export controversy, I suggest you start with www.usgs.gov  - The US Geological Survey in the department of the interior tracks metals all over, both secondary metals and  primary (mined) ores.  Whether the lead in paint in toys is recycled or virgin is not the issue with lead paint in toys.  And lead paint in toys is certainly not an "e-waste" issue.

Invitation to WR3A "California Compromise" of SB20

Today's Sacramento Bee response editorial from Maziar Movassaghi represents the biggest window of opportunity to reform SB20 to allow reuse.  
As many readers know, WR3A, as a "fair trade recycling" business consortium, has asked California to change its interpretation of "cancellation" under SB20.  WR3A achieves reuse in partnership with extremely well-run contract manufacturers which originally manufactured a lot of the computers.   By taking its monitors off the market, CA creates a vacuum which is either met by "sham recyclers", or through "switcheroo" CA SB20 companies which ship good stuff overseas and use the "freed up" California addresses to bring in junk from neighboring states.
I want to invite everyone with an interest in environmental stewardship to meet and hash out a compromise which fits either R2 or E-Steward standards.  WR3A.org will be holding its annual meeting at the E-Scrap Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana this September 29.  I would like a crowning achievement to be a letter formally endorsing an SB20-eligible purchase order, allowing either WR3A-method (stripping CRT after assessing for direct reuse) refurbishing in Mexico or BAN-method (stripping first in USA) in Asia.
WR3A would like to announce the "California Compromise" at the E-Scrap Conference, which means crafting the compromise ASAP.  This is a call to allow for reuse at manufacturer takeback and SKD factories whose national governments legally accept CRTs and LCDs for refurbishing under Basel Convention Annex IX, B1110 (not all nations share USA EPA's definition of commodity, WR3A trades only with those which do).   In a recent conversation with Jim Puckett of BAN, I offered to set up a system which strips the CRTs and tests them to a degree which BAN considers legal as well.  CA has proximity to ports and savings it can achieve under SB20 which would make it the best candidate to pursue the WR3A-BAN compromise.

California needs to add one sentence to SB20 language, which it could do under Executive Order or even with a letter of definition, e.g.

"For the purpose of manufacturer and assembler takeback programs, cancellation may include CRT tubes whose vacuum is left intact when sold under a certified process which refurbishes the monitors for reuse under factory warranty."

WR3A will sponsor travel for CalRecycle if necessary, but we would like the trial agreement to be negotiated ahead of the E-Scrap Conference and to use the Conference as an official kickoff for recyclers and generators willing to ship under this process.   We will also invite Paul Jhin whose non-profit organization is working to fill the United Nations GAID purchase order for working computers, and WR3A has proposed to donate 20,000 units per year to UNGAID if California implements this change.

California e-recyclers who participate will be offered 100% certified reuse and recycling, and still get credit for "CRT Glass" just as if the CRT had been re-melted before being turned into a new product.  They will be able to meet E-Steward or R2 certification, and will get more prompt reconciliation records.   And the reuse markets they take over will compete with their lowball competitors.  It's a win-win-win.
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From Vegetarian to Recycler

I was vegetarian in college.  It was not just about cows and pigs... it was about how demand for beef and pork led to the cropping down of rain forests to make pasture land.  I was avoiding beef to save rain forest critters.

Our purchases (demand) and waste (lost supply) have an impact far beyond our trash cans. When I learned about mining, I realized that the intrusion of mining operations and timber harvesters had an impact far beyond the forest consumption.  Purchases by the world's richest 5% of the population (1980) were paying for roads and infrastructure in the rain forests, and exponentially increasing purchases of bush meat or "bushmeat".

Killing and eating apes and monkeys and other exotic rain forest animals was sustainable when the world's population was about 500 million.  At 6+ billion, even if most of us swear off of it, a few ridiculous people will  order "endangered species platter" just to say they digested chimp flesh before they died.  Even if we run a campaign to increase the awareness of sustainability in Asia, and reduce the number of myths about special properties of organs from endangered species, we can plan on a certain number of ****heads.  If one percent of people are ****heads, then all you can control is access to the perversion, you cannot ever achieve all good people.

The access to bushmeat is roads.  If you build roads into the Congo river basin to harvest rare earth metals, other trade will follow the route.  When legitimate hunters, like ones I met in Cameroon, were first given guns, species were already endangered by the demands of earth's 1 billion population and 1% (1 million) ***heads.  But it was guns and roads, roads into the deepest parts of the forest , to mine coltan for cell phones and gold for circuit boards, or tin for "lead-free" solder, which broke the garden wall protecting bush wildlife.

In the capital of Yaounde, Cameroon, I could avert my eyes and walk on by the rugs of bushmeat.  But I knew that it was the "eaters" of hardwood and non-ferrous metals that brought the hunters to the mothers of these baby chimps.  And the West's contagion of consumption - consume, use, discard - is our most frightening export.

If you are a true recycler, your actions will mean more than vegetarianism for a lifetime.  Because if you are NOT a true recycler, and you don't recycle paper, metals and e-waste, then the gold and copper and tin and silver you "eat" opens the doors to the virgin forest.

I spent an amount of time meditating and trying to choose the best possible career.  If you want to make a difference towards sustainability, jewelry, electronics, and other industries consuming rare earth elements are the way to go. I'm fascinated in the potential for women's rights to reduce consumption of rare earth metals.  On the other hand, there are some tragic directions I see environmentalists taking.  Switching from toxics (like recycled content lead) to non-toxic rare metals (like tin and silver, the lead solder replacement) is probably the most tragic career pursuit an environmentalist can engage in.  Selling recycled mercury, diverted from well regulated landfills, to gold miners in the rain forest, is perhaps as bad.  Following that would be anything environmentalist pursuit that reduces participation (through higher costs or cynicism) in recycling... which we all need to be polite to one another in order to avoid.

Gold Mining Opens in Costa Rica

Meanwhile, as we argue exactly how to set standards for collection of non-ferrous metals from recycling, the demand for non-ferrous metals from mining continues. Whether it's R2 or E-Stewards, recycling your "e-waste" cell phone or computer makes a difference in how we supply ourselves.  Reuse is even higher in the hierarchy.  Mining the metals out of rain forests is the worst way possible to meet the hunger for raw materials.

Gold mine proposal threatens endangered monkeys, macaws in Costa Rica

Photo: The endangered Great Green Macaw.
Credit: Alois Staudacher via Creative Commons license
Dear Robin,
Canadian mining company Infinito Gold is pushing for Costa Rican government permission to start the Crucitas open-pit gold mine in northern Costa Rica.
Forests, rivers, communities, endangered species threatened
If built, the mine would destroy tropical forest that hosts endangered species like the Great Green Macaw and Geoffrey's spider monkey in the Agua y Paz Biosphere Reserve. The mine could also threaten communities' agricultural livelihoods and the San Juan River on the border with Nicaragua with toxic spills.
End special treatment for the Crucitas proposal
The new President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, decreed a ban on all gold mining as she came into office this past May. But her decision has not stopped the Crucitas project that was declared of "national interest." She needs to do more to protect Costa Rican communities and biodiversity from gold mining's destructive impacts.
Click here to write President Laura Chinchilla and urge her to stop the planned Crucitas mine!  Our allies in Costa Rica have requested YOUR help.

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We real geek. We tweek tech.

Somewhere on earth, at this moment, there is a young man or woman who has few chances.

  • Agriculture is honorable, but hard work, and they die old before 60.
  • Government work is comfortable, but they are cogs in corruption they cannot change and survive.
  • Multinational corporations hire a few good high school students to extract raw materials or to make a mono-crop of textiles.   Better than not having the option, but not a very exciting prospect either.

The smartest kid in your Peace Corps class, the one who says with every gesture that he/she knows what their parents have sacrificed by letting them go to school, when there are cassavas to dig or coffee beans to pinch off... hey you know the ones I mean.  The ones who read and re-read every lesson on "technologie", who stare at the dog eared textbooks of 15 year old inventions, and who dream of places they have heard of... like MIT... where they could pursue their dreams next to other hard working cross cultured geeks... Knowing they will never, ever, ever have that access to an opportunity to apply.

You know the kids I mean.  The kids I mean are not refined.  The ones who aren't real cool, who don't skip school.  Many become doctors and work in third world hospitals with white coats, amputating legs and delivering babies without a blood bank or, for that matter, a clean neeedle, the ones who work despite the AIDS in the blood on their coats.  In the home village, they are the Obama, the one who made good.

Many also learn to repair electronics.  They set up thousands of businesses, on Alibaba and recycleinme and exportersid and exporters.com.sg and recycle.net  Actually, there's one in the Frontline PBS episode on Ghana, who is showing the filmmakers how to search hard drives for data.  I will bet he did not learn this from MIT.

When I visit Cairo, I ask my Good Point Recycling techs to give me a couple of newer laptops that they cannot fix.  I meet Hamdy at his shop, and while we talking he has one of his 25 employees take the two laptops to a back room.  Before we leave for lunch, I will have two working laptops, one of which I will give to Hamdy as a gift, and the other of which I will work on for the rest of my visit.


We aren't cool. We
go to school. We
walk ten miles.  We
are technophiles.  We
test old parts.  We 
make things start. We
make good grades.  We
dig dads graves.  We
yearn for more.  We
grow up poor.
We know more than you.
We aren't Guiyu.

They say we don't.
We say we can.
You call me boy.
We call me man.

The Product Stewardship advocates and the E-Steward activists and the Greenpeace volunteers and the green bloggers, they all mean well.   And in their way, they are improving lives overseas, by holding companies like mine to the standard we want to be held to, and the standard we want to compete in against other companies.

But the ecosystem of trade in repair and reuse of second-hand goods, whether it's rebuilt turbos and trannies for trucks, or scavenged DDRAM, or counterfeit or warranty repairs, it is a complex, complicated ecosystem.  WEEE systems have no bad intentions and may work well with many waste products.  But they are a non-native species in the secondary market, and in a world of "planned obsolescence" or "obsolescence in hindsight", they need to be studied carefully.

The people in the product stewardship field want change, and people who yearn for change get frustrated by finger wag warnings of unintended consequences.  I am just suggesting that if stewardship is to work well, we need real geeks from developing countries, the african engineers, to meet with and influence USA's and Europe's social engineers.   I am alarmed and saddened by friends who are basically accusing my blog of obfuscation and raising an impossible number of questions when something, something, has to be done now, when all I am saying is "meet the export market", shake hands, and don't draw your conclusions from a poster.

This generation of stewardship advocates has put 4 years into the legislation.   The legislation itself is THEIR effort, and effort is supposed to produce CHANGE.  They want to celebrate becoming the 2Xth state. Groupthink is when you meet with so many people of such similar views that you begin to think of yourselves in some kind of majority.  I don't know if engineers, geeks, techies succumb to group thinking.   Enviros of my generation do.

Professional environmentalists in their 20s should take heart.  Not everything has been written, thought, or said.  My generation of environmentalists, truth be told, were not of the same patient scholarly caliber as the student in Africa without a scholarship to MIT.  We developed policy without the patience demanded of real engineers.

My dream is for a dozen other documentary filmmakers to come to Ghana and Egypt and Mexico and Peru and Senegal, and to visit people still alive who witnessed Singapore and South Korea leapfrog from poor as China to better than USA in technology.  Get your youutube wiki on.  It is a more difficult story to tell than Scott Pelley at CBS 60  Minutes or PBS Frontline have told.  If a MacArthur genius grant is ever given to a kid from Ghana, that kid will be one like the top of the page... or one who discovered something on the laptop repaired by the kid at the top of the page.

"All right, then I'll go to hell".

Vermont Gathers West Coast Bullfrogs in Wheelbarrow

Ladies and Gentlemen:

We now have several people on board to try to set up a system where CA SB20 processors can legally sell good, inspected CRT tubes to a factory-takeback program which will reuse the CRTs, donating a portion to the United Nations.

Thanks to the Sacramento Bee's coverage, we appear to temporarily have a harmonic convergence of well meaning environmentalists actually willing to fix something.

Of course, we have tried gathering  bullfrogs in wheelbarrows before.  There is no much of a barrier to exit.  But I have worked for several years to bring "fair trade" reuse programs into the "e-waste" discussion.

I won't announce the names of people willing to discuss this, but I think it's "everybody".  I will try to get everyone to the E-Scrap 2010 Conference in New Orleans and see if we can sign something which would make legitimate refurbishing happen legitimately, taking reuse out of the back alleys of fraud.

The chief beneficiary could be a United Nations sponsored internet-in-schools program.  In other nations, this 1959 poem by Gwendolyn Brooks is being played out in pidgin and creole. 

We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Die soon.

This is the life in "the developing world. "

50 feet per year... the speed at which Sahara sand dunes travel.

R2 Recycling Certification Vs. E-Stewards

Responding to an editorial/blog on R2 (Responsible Recycler) vs. E-Stewards (BAN.org) certification:

While BAN.org and their E-Stewards Pledge has the best of all intentions, they have committed the mistake of "perfect is the enemy of the good".  There are very good repair and refurbishing factories all over the world, and there are many types of repair and refurbishing that the USA has no capacity in, whatsoever.  Even BAN, in fact, has to accept CRT glass going to non-OECD CRT furnaces, because there are none left in OECD countries (and its a good thing BAN did close one eye on that recycling practice).

The buyers are not importing from the USA as a favor to the sham recyclers.  In fact, they don't like sham recyclers very much.   They are buying what they need to meet demand.   For example, no one is making a $10-20 video display for computers, but people in countries making $3000 per year are getting online at 10 times the rate of internet growth in the USA.  Supply and demand...  If E-Stewards refuse to sell or export monitors, they will get them from someone else - someone who doesn't bother to inspect them and who doesn't offer the buyers any compensation for dealing with the junk.  The ones who suffer are the end users in the developing nations who must accept an older or lower quality product, at an artificially high cost.

Just as Fair Trade Coffee realized that the "coffee boycott" hurt the farmers and that coffee cannot be grown domestically, R2 or Responsible Recyclers certification realizes that shredding things in the USA is by no means superior to repairing them in Indonesia, if the Indonesian factory is treated fairly, sent good material, and given environmental audits.  R2 will succeed because it sees people, including people of color, for what they can do, not just for what they cannot do or did not do in the past.

The USA e-waste recycling companies which are trying to meet BOTH standards usually harmonize them by abandoning computer monitor refurbishing in favor of shredding;  R2 does not insist on export for reuse, it only allows the option of certifying overseas reuse and repair operations.   Organizations like WR3A.org are exploring other ways to harmonize the standards, e.g. getting subsidized states like CA to test monitors prior to export to BAN standards.  Moving an Indonesia factory to Mexico (a poor OECD country) is another possibility.  But I for one will not tell an Asian engineer who invented, designed, and oversaw manufacture of a CRT monitor that he can never recycle it due to his ethnicity.  Doing so robs the developing country of a head start in establishing a recycling infrastructure for their own material, which is about to eclipse the generation of e-waste domestically.  And during our lonely pursuit of compromise, that is what is happening.

According to FINE:
Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South. Fair Trade Organizations, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade.[5]
Visit MIT.   Visit Cornell.  Visit Boston College.  Visit Universities of California...  BAN's image of Guiyu, China's ewaste is real, but it is real in the same sense that images of redneck hillbilly rednecks in Arkansas are real.  There are also Clintons, and Fulbrights, and Ingenthrons in Arkansas.

And a final benefit:  When used electronics, e-scrap, and e-waste are certified and traded transparently, Basel Action Network could then focus on the important aspects of the Basel Convention, like the prosecution of Trafigura in Europe, which moved a hazardous waste vessel to Ivory Coast to avoid cleanup fees in Holland - with disasterous results.   This is what the Basel Convention is about.  When BAN tries to use the Convention to interfere in trade of Annex IX (legal) materials, it sabotages its case for ratification of the Convention in the USA.  The abuse of international treaties to interfere in WTO affairs is the biggest excuse or reason NOT to ratify the treaty.  Invoking the treaty to ban the export of a device (Cathode Ray Tube) explicitly mentioned in the Treaty as legal for export or repair (!) is precisely the type of thing worries the USA when it comes to signing on.

End of Life: the people

A gal buddy from Carleton College posted a link to this post by Melissa Weiss Steele on facebook  And it was just a week after I was reading this NYTimes post about French Women and "Aging Gracefully".

My wife is French and the subject of preserving your looks is a minefield that any man is a fool to wade in. Especially someone carrying around the suitcase I call a gut.  But why do I care so little about something other people care about so much?  I just composed this simple haiku:

I see the mirror
With eyes of a grandfather
Spring forward, fall back.

It means that if I was 68 years old, I'd feel really proud of myself right now.  Why deny that I'm 48 or want to be 28 if it's less work to convince myself I'm 68 and ahead of the game?

The National Geographic magazine had another woman on their cover this spring.  She's 4 million years old, and her skull is amazingly well preserved.  Steve Jobs and Bill Gates discussed who would be the "richest man in the cemetery," and I put the "most attractive person at the class reunion" on the same shelf of priorities.

Speaking of priorities and cemeteries, my Mexican friends frequently ask about my religion and my faith.   I realize there is some mystery if you don't attend church frequently.  For me, the word "philosophy" still means "love of wisdom", and the difference between wisdom and knowledge is a matter of triage.  Triage is a statistical application of probabilities to assign or prioritize attention allocated, in order to maximize likelihood of discovery of most important outcomes.

If wisdom is the use of triage to apply to truths and probabilities to achieve desired outcomes (or avoid bad outcomes), faith still directs us to the outcome.  Philosophy is love of wisdom, and wisdom is application of truths to achieve Good.  Good is a matter of Faith, for me... (I guess you could say "a wise gangster wipes his prints").  I do believe in higher good works and cannot be satisfied without a currency of Faith.  Religion, in this matter,  is the practice of giving God the credit for God's sunshine.

Faith is gravity.
Our traction and direction
The truth is the light.

If I definitely won't be the one deciding who is going to heaven or hell, then it is unwise use of my time to judge or dwell upon it. Like Huck, it's best to decide which direction faith tells you, and to watch for the truth to light the way from bad directions to those goals.  My experiences in church involved too much rote judgement, and the praise I can give in a closet. I let God work it out, and give Him credit if an inspiration led to a better place (and by better, I tend to focus on "meaningful", but for folks in Sonora it's a little closer to the bone than that).   Faith treats belief as if it is Truth... we do that when we set off in a direction and don't stop every 2 seconds to verify the compass again and again.

I raise my kids on truth first - checking the compass.  I trust that faith, the ability to believe and follow the direction chosen, will find them as it found me, they will be ready. Faith is gravity, truth is light.  You have no traction on the ground if you don't have faith.  You can't see where you are going if you don't have truth.

Chaucer's poem, The Legend of Good Women, is the link to save this from digression.  The first link, to Chaucer's name, gives a modern English translation, but I have always liked the olde English...

A thousand tymes have I herd men telle,
      That ther is Ioye in heven, and peyne in helle;
      And I acorde wel that hit is so;
      But natheles, yit wot I wel also,
      That ther nis noon dwelling in this contree,
      That either hath in heven or helle y-be,
      Ne may of hit non other weyes witen,
      But as he hath herd seyd, or founde hit writen;

Disclaimer:  The skull in the photo is actually a 2 million year old person, not the 4 million year old woman on the cover of NG.

Product Stewardship Institute Conference in Boston

I came down to the PSI Conferrence today, it's at the Omni Parker in Boston.

When I've written before about product stewardship, it has  mostly focused on the disconnection to contract manufacturing, and how concerns over the gray market lead to unintended consequences.  These are criticisms which are fairly specific to my pet issue, "ewaste".

When it comes to carpets and old pharmaceuticals, I cannot say that either of those concerns is an issue.  If there is no disagreement about the word "waste" vs. "commodity" - as there are in "e-wastes" - there is less likely to be an underlying disagreement over title, as in property or. job function

We don't want to become so colored by a negative experience in our own issue - for me, repair and reuse and the secondary market - that we become deaf to issues where the government fix may actually repair a problem.

The photo of the Boston sunrise is from the MIT web.  Scott Cassel, the director of PSI, has a degree from MIT.  When we both worked at Commonwealth of Massaachusetts, he was the polished one, I was the sparky one.

California Recognizes Retroworks de Mexico

The Sunday Edition of the Sacramento Bee was a "Grand Slam" edition on E-Waste.  Reporters Tom Knudson and Hector Amezcua produced 4 pieces - 2 investigative reports and two videos - which brought to the national stage the problems of unintended consequences of legislation which destroys reuse value.

The first and main piece I blogged yesterday showed data on bad returns for California taxpayers in the ewaste management program SB20.   The reporter Tom Knudson travelled to Tucson, Arizona and documented actual loads of junk TVs snuck into California for SB20 redemption - using addresses freed up by resale of good product collected and switched in CA.

While the "legal" thing is to shred the good and working stuff, Knudson also shows the unintended consequences of THAT system, with a visit to our Retroworks de Mexico facility in Sonora.   Knudson and Amezcua spent two days watching Las Chicas Bravas demonstrate their training from Good Point Recycling.  It opens with a view of the benefits of honest reuse - Pentium IV computers donated by Retroworks to the only internet cafe in the town of Fronteras.

Mexican town turns U.S. e-waste into treasure

Every month, mountains of working monitors like this one are destroyed in California under the state's e-waste recycling law. And that angers Robin Ingenthron, the Arizona e-waste dealer who donated the monitors.

Adding to that outrage is his concern that California, by paying a bounty of $15 to $18 for old monitors, has triggered an illegal cross-border trade of out-of-state e-waste, draining the supply in Arizona.

"They are paying good people to break good equipment," Ingenthron said. "They are making computers and Internet more expensive for students in the rest of the world."

John Chen, executive vice president of the Tung Tai Group, a San Jose e-waste recycler and exporter, called the situation "a crying shame."

"Nine out of 10 monitors that come in are working," he said. "And what do we do? We destroy them and sell them for scrap."

In recent months, Ingenthron has taken his case – via e-mail – to Jeff Hunts, manager of the e-waste program for CalRecycle.

Hunts is interested but not optimistic.

Read more: http://www.sacbee.com/2010/07/18/2897620/mexican-town-turns-us-e-waste.html#ixzz0u7vswXw3

As an added benefit, the Sacramento Bee online shows film and slide shows of ECS in Santa Clara CA, CEO Jim Taggart, describing what CA SB20 is supposed to do, with high tech shredding equipment and some of the best refining technology.  He contrasts that with the "informal sector" in the export market.

Then, Amezcua interviews Alicia Valenzuela and Victoria Ponce of Las Chicas Bravas, who describe earnestly their intent to do things the right way, as the women have been trained to do in Middlebury Vermont at Good Point Recycling.

California SB20 Exposed! Legalize Exports, Dudes

It has taken two years, but we have finally exposed what happens in Arizona, via the California SB20 system.  Kudos to Tom Knudson and Hector Amezcua, who visited our Retroworks de Mexico operation last spring.
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California's pioneering e-waste program a model gone wrong

Read more: http://www.sacbee.com/2010/07/18/2897609/californias-pioneering-e-waste.html#mi_rss=Top%20Stories#ixzz0u3dZLBZK
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When our Retroworks de Mexico program saw its bid for the City of Tucson electronics reversed and awarded to a more expensive operation, they claimed they would keep the material in the USA.  We watched to see what would happen.

Here's how CA SB20 got involved.

Two recyclers, ARC and Global Comp One, shared a warehouse in Los Angeles.   They exported computer monitors to "Big Secret Factories" in Asia, which is not environmentally a problem, but it is not allowed under SB20 to be redeemed for the taxpayer deposit.  Of course, Arizona TVs are also not eligible for the CA deposit.

The switcheroo:

  • ARC gets decent monitors turned in from legitimate CA residents, about 35 pounds each.  They ship the monitors to the refurbishing factory.
  • Global Comp One goes and buys junk TVs from Tucson.  They weigh about 100 pounds each.
  • ARC then sends the Arizona TVs to ERI in Fresno, getting the collectors share (about 20 cents per pound) times 100 pounds, or $20 each.  The good monitors they sell to Asia for $5 each.
  • What ERI or CalRecycle should have figured out was that the weight per address would be more than double the average recyclers, since small monitors were getting replaced with big ugly TVs.  That would not have required the "red handed" address verification.  
  • This crippled the economics of the honest Retroworks de Mexico operation, and has given ARC and Global Comp One an unfair advantage bidding on university and other state surplus markets (they don't need to worry about bad ones, they recycle them for CA SB20 money), and an unfair advantage selling to the Big Secret Factories with their CA subsidy.
The Retroworks Proposal:  Legalize It!
(As originally proposed in April's "Saving California" post...)  

What CA SB20 should do is LEGALIZE the Big Secret Factories.  Then other CA recyclers would be on equal footing with the cheaters, and Arizona material would not have a free CA address to sneak in with.  The quality of exports to the factories would go up as CA material entered the market and they could be more picky.   Hurt the worst would be the sleazy east coast recyclers who used the artificial shortage (created by CA non-cheaters) to mix in more bad monitors as Toxics Along for the Ride.  It would also provide for faster reconciliation of glass, and faster payment to SB20 processors, and would avoid an often glutted CRT cullet market.

From Big Secret Monitor Factories - Legitimate Reuse vs. "E-waste"

From Big Secret Monitor Factories - Legitimate Reuse vs. "E-waste"

Note:  Even Basel Action Network allows stripped whole CRTs to be exported for refurbishing and reuse factories, as in the photo above.  Unfortunately, California goes a step further, and requires "tube cancellation" or ruining the vacuum, making these unrepairable.   Only California rules make export in this form illegal, Basel Convention, country import laws, E-Stewards, and R2 all recognize this as a legitimate form of export.  Legalize it, California.  Dudes!