Why the Free Market Doesn't Quite Work

Fifth Method of E-waste Exports: Beyond Belief?


Without data, export policy is defined by our beliefs of what is happening.

Method 1:  Say everything is "tested working".  Then export whatever you want.  Refuse to export the good stuff unless they also accept the junk.  Get Americans to believe your lies.  Good outcomes are beyond belief.

Method 2:  Say "No Intact Unit", destroy / cancel everything, export only "clean scrap".  Complain bitterly about the economics of your business model.  Applauded by Method 1 advocates because you take your material out of the market.  Good outcome?  Beyond belief!

Method 3:  Insist on "fully functional" and "tested working", removal in advance of any parts that may require repair.   Verification is your word that you have shipped all "fully functional".  No report of "incidental breakage" or post reporting, you are sure it is all good because you said so, and we believe you, and we believe you will take the time to test them and remove parts prior to export to retail buyers (the ones who buy tested working are usually not factory refurbishers, though they sometimes are).

Method 4:  Find out what the overseas market will pay the most for.  For example, a non-working but screen-protected LCD is worth $22 at a Malaysia repair factory, but a tested working Trinitron CRT is worth only $1.  Keep records of the trade, reconciliation of receipt, and verify proper recycling of anything reported to unsellable (including tested working items without market demand).  Two sets of data - exporter and importer - provide cross-references.  Blind shipments (the importer does not know who the exporter was and what their record of size, model, etc. was) make fraud unbelievable.  Paying more for junk than for tested working?  Beyond belief.

Method 5:   The California Compromise combines the post-reporting of #4 with the pre-testing of #3.   I'm open minded to the possibility that California recyclers really will do both and that the quality under the combined method will be better than either #3 or #4 by themselves.   Combining conservative shipping with believable receipt data goes above and beyond either R2 or E-Stewards.

We have to believe it will work before we abandon #3.   I won't support closing a factory that needs 100,000 to stay in business because the #3 or #5 doesn't show up with product.

If #5 (which is #4 with WR3A post-audit from #3) does indeed supply the 100,000 units, with fewer recycled, my opinion won't matter.  The factory will buy #5, putting the #3 and #4 Method E-waste recyclers out of the export business.  The demand for refurbishable units at contract manufacturing facilities, unlike demand for gold scrap and copper scrap, is finite, depending on month to month orders.  I believe that if the California Compromise works, the factories will stop buying from USA recyclers who send lower quality or more residue.

Toxic Non-Recycling: It's the mining stupid

Two blatant, obvious, environmental news stories...

Caustic Sludge Floods Several Hungarian Towns

Metal refining plant in Hungary poisons thousands.  New York Times, October 6, 2010.  Photos of people in moon suits with pails, rescuing kitty cats, and trying to clean up the toxic heavy metals from hard rock refining.  A mining crime.

Mercury in gold mining: a Third World toxic threat

It reminds me of the biggest story of 2009, when Jakarta Post showed us pictures of miners using handfuls of mercury to "float out" gold specks in a river.   The shocker?  THIS IS RECYCLED MERCURY recovered from lamp and electronics recycling plants in the USA!  A recycling crime?  Actually, an accomplice to mining.

We already knew that hard rock mining of metals produces 45% of all toxics produced by ALL USA Industry.  We already know that Chinese metal refining is a Terminator.  The production of rare earths in Chinese smelters is kept under a curtain.  We already know that coltan mining (for cell phones) in Congo kills gorillas, we know that the OK Tedi copper mine in Borneo clubbed a fishing village to death, producing toxic flumes visible from space.

Our recycling industry needs to look in the mirror and ask ourselves why, when the Guangzhou virgin lead ore smelter overflowed and poisoned the Pearl River and hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless in 2006, why we were more interested in the tiny, marginal story of Chinese recycling poison.  I am not apologizing for toxic recycling processes.   But in the scale of the tragedy, mining and refining virgin materials kills an poisons millions of people in poor countries.  Those countries need metals.  Oh, and also greedily desire metals - most gold mining (the worst offender) is for personal jewelry.

My theory is that environmental science is in a scatological phase.   Early western medicine cared more about poop than about nutrition.  Environmentalists mean well, but we are studying society's poop instead of what society eats.  We want to eat recycled feedstock, and we want all societies to eat recycled feedstock.  That is a recipe for reforming recycling, not ending it, wherever it is occurring.  If in the USA - great!  If in China, great.  I don't care where it happens, I just want more reuse and recycling and less mining and refining.  California?  Perfect.  Just follow the waste hierarchy - reduce, reuse and recycle - and follow the chain of effects in the global marketplace.

Every zip code with a mined raw materials smelter has more to worry about from the smelter than from the recycler.  That's obvious to us at Doe Run in Missouri.  Why is it different when it happens overseas?

I'm 48.   I don't have time to be polite.  I will rub people the wrong way and hope that some college student with less John Brown-ish manners will seed the plowed soil with more approachable ideas.   The fact Americans continue to spend billions to divert mercury lamps from secure lined landfills in the west to sell mercury to alleuvial gold miners in the tropics, who sell gold back to us to make watches and rings, is hideous.    And it's not carbon neutral either.  My Halloween costume?  A gold wedding ring.

Reforming and investing in proper recycling practices overseas is NOT about making "e-waste" recycling cheaper in the USA, though admittedly it does do that.   It is the reason I got in to recycling, when I stood in front of the Fayetteville Arkansas Board of Selectmen in 1979 and gave an impassioned speech on behalf of the Fayetteville Recycling Center (which needed a new can flattener).

Good God Almighty, It's the mining stupid.

American Retroworks Mining Factsheet                                                            

CA SB20 "E-Waste" Compromise: e-Winners and e-Losers

My apologies for the long tease.   We want to get this right.

This afternoon we received comments back from Basel Action Network on the way the SB20 Reform process should go, from their legal viewpoint.

Where these were points of argument at the R2 "e-waste" dialogue, WR3A strongly agrees with BAN that these are a better method of reuse than California SB20 collectors and processors use currently.  Our concern all along is that E-Stewards were opting for zero reuse and zero export, creating a "war on drugs" trafficking opportunity for "toxics along for the ride".   California can do an elaborate amount of testing if reuse and testing is put on an equal footing with recycling.   It's a win-win proposition.

California wins.   The SB20 pays for the destruction of every monitor anyway.   Any that are sold represent dollars and jobs brought back into the state.  Every sale takes away an opportunity for someone else to ship a shoddy containerload.

The importing factories win.   They get newer, better products with lower shipping costs, and get a better choice than laying off skilled workers where any job, let alone a sustainable tech job, is in demand.

The developing world wins  With a gently used CRT, they get a display device which lasts 5 times longer than an LCD, is less fragile and less vulnerable to theft.   And, in the proper recycling of incidental breakage and take-back of their own electronics scrap, they get capacity to recycle their own "e-waste".

The "E-waste" advocacy organizations win.   BAN and NRDC and ETBC and SVTC get to demonstrate their own reuse standards, creating new markets for their "e-Stewards".

If California processors actually test significant numbers of CRTs to BAN's specs, and ship them to the contract manufacturing plants WR3A works with, the result will be better CRTs provided less expensively.

Who loses?  

Sham Recyclers who grew accustomed to shipping lousy CRTs during the shortage created by SB20.  They had a great decade, making millions off of a shortage California helped to create.

Basel Convention Agreement - How "California Compromise" Works

When two doctors recommend two different diets for the same patient, neither doctor intends for the patient to eat BOTH daily diets.   One doctor or dietitian may recommend a vegetarian diet;  another may think that low carbs are most important.  But both want the same thing - a healthier patient.

If the patient currently feasts on five meals per day of Hostess Ho-Hos, and weighs 690 lbs, the smart doctors stop arguing and start agreeing.

For the past 10 years, California SB20 has been on a diet of zero percent reuse.  The collectors get paid for collecting an item, whether it is reused or not.  That means that if the SB20 processor does NOT destroy the item, they forgo not only their own processing money, but must actually PAY CalRecycles for the monitors etc. that the collectors were already paid for.  At least, that's the theory.  In practice, the SB20 recyclers either have zero reuse, making it a theoretical issue, or they cheat (reporting no reuse but using the CA addresses to cover the cost of junk collected in other states).

BAN and WR3A, SVTC and ISRI, ETBC and TechSoup, and the other organizations who want a healthy "e-waste" recycling policy all agree that the patient has a bad diet.   We have all decided to have an intervention with DTSC and CalRecycles, to educate them that neither the Basel Convention nor Federal CRT Rule requires a diet of Ho-Hos.

Here is Jim Puckett of BAN's recipe for a new SB20 Cancellation definition. 

Dear Robin:

Here you go.  My 5 pts. from todays....

1) Anything that is hazardous and is either not functional or would not be reused, would need to be removed prior to export.
2) The functionality of the rest would need to be demonstrated by testing.  
3)  Material would need to be labelled or designated in shipping documents as being fully functional
4) Properly packaged to ensure against breakage or damage.
5. Ensured reuse destination. (full reporting)

yours, Jim

WR3A will add its rules which are based on civil law.  If the factory doesn't WANT a CRT of a certain age or size, it doesn't matter how it is packaged.  The more people providing more choices, the more the overseas company benefits.  We then leverage that benefit to provide fair trade outcomes in the receiving countries - takeback in Mexico, glass processing of breakage in Malaysia, donations of surplus reuse to United Nations programs, etc.

The SB20 rules for cancellation, the BAN rules for reuse export, and the WR3A rules for reuse export can all be packaged together to promote a healthy environment that saves California money.  SB20 processors won't be able to bill the weight to California until it is proved to be neither double redeemed, nor illegally exported, nor resulting in pollution.

The agreement in in place, the various camps are passing around draft language and press release, and we have SEVERAL SB20 processors lined up to submit the new "cancellation" when they are certain they won't be attacked and won't waste their time.

Here is how well I hope we will harmonize...

Litmus Test for E-Waste Legislation

Having freshly drafted an unsigned compromise, I'm a bit hesitant to comment on the big news, the E-Waste Bill filed by Gene Green of Texas.

My analysis is always based on answers to 4 questions:

1) "will more mining result?" 
2) "will less reuse result?" 
3) "will recycling practices improve?"
4) "will dictators use this to f**k with my freedom friends?"   

Cleaning up recycling operations is very, very important.  I'm pretty confident number 3 will be answered affirmatively, though I am not positive that my company will earn more and be more competitive if this bill is passed.  We'd be better off than many of our competitors. 

I do think that metals mining waste (see picture to left) has been left out of the lifecycle discussions about recycling... the dirtiest recycling rivers are cleaner than the cleanest mining rivers.  But that should not be an excuse for recycling not to improve.

The biggest concern at this point is that countries of TRANSIT must be notified prior to shipment and must assent.  That means that the transit (moving containers from one ship to another) major ports - Dubai, Rotterdam, Hong Kong - gain a kingmaker status.  If you mail something to a friend in India, and the mail goes through a post office in Shanghai, you have to notify Beijing if there are electronics in the package.

China has already declared the words "second-hand" to be "waste", whether or not something is discarded.  People thought I sounded paranoid, so at the Interpol meeting in Virginia last summer I openly asked whether I can sell a barely used, working, Pentium 4 dual core laptop to a friend in China.  The answer from the Chinese "competent authority" was NO.   If I had owned it, I was now "discarding" it, and it was "secondhand" and therefore "waste".

Everyone knows laptops are made in China and that this is pure "obsolescence" interference to hamper the secondary market and "right to repair".   We discuss it openly with the Chinese.  They admit it.  They say we put tariffs on their electronics, this is what they do to us.  It's a commerce debate.  There is not a stitch of environmental protection in the discussion.

Think of how many Iranian students used second hand computers to transmit news about the election during the green protests.  Now ask yourself, if you are sending a fully functional used computer to the school for blind Tibetan monks in Penang, Malaysia, whether you are ok that you must notify the nation of China that you are shipping the computer to Tibetan monks?

And I the shipper must notify them it's me shipping it.  What if Beijing has a database and the fact I posted a picture of the Dali Llama on a blog results in banning my shipment?  How would I know? What if the country objects for some other reason which has nothing to do with the environment (as the Pentium 4 laptop demonstrates?)  What if the country says I must have tested the used working computer never contained a cartoon of the prophet?  Does the competent authority in commerce get to consider Sharia law?

I think it's downright creepy.

It's still early.  I think the bill will be stronger if some of the layers of "certainty" of environmental good are peeled off.  If you keep adding every single environmental guarantee you can think of to the shopping cart, the risk of unintended consequences increases.

Sometimes "less is more".   The Green/Thompson bill will be better with some of the hyper-protection clauses removed, or put in check.  We must look to make sure that the innocent are protected.  Test the bill by assuming an absolutely clean, environmentally safe, good item has been properly inspected and repaired.  Fill out the paperwork.

How many enemies of the good does the shipment encounter?

It's a fair question.

Fair Trade Seeking Confucius

California is about to get an urgent invitation, signed by WR3A and BAN, and all of our friends, asking the state to return to the recycling waste hierarchy - reduce, reuse and recycle.   California environmental regulators are not criminals, they are not enemies.  They wanted to do the right thing with SB20.  They wanted to make the world safe from "e-waste".  The Department of Toxic Substances Control interpreted the Basel Convention to mean "no intact unit", when what it says is that working units are commodities, and not wastes.  EPA follows that, but requires proof of acceptance, and also diligence (recordkeeping) that the CRT is ultimately reused, and not discarded).  I have failed dismally to simply and effectively explain the reuse and recycling business of my friends overseas.  My friends overseas have hidden and sought refuge underground, rather than stand and be counted.  And I believe some advocates have been too slow to object to destruction policies committed in their name.

Sunrise.  It's a new day.  Russian and American and British soldiers are reuniting in Berlin.
Things that are done, it is needless to speak about...things that are past, it is needless to blame.
- Confucius
It is strangely safe, while appearing to be courageous, to be "waging a war against friendly fire".  The instant an American trooper starts firing at his own personnel, the fog of war becomes the problem and the dispute with the true enemy is put on hold.

The very instant your ally stops shooting at your friend, he is instantly still your ally.  A soldier in Falluja who is shooting at another soldier demands 100% of the battalion's attention until the second he recognizes his comarade and stops firing.  At that instant, he is your colleague again.
What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.

The importance of a victory for reuse advocates should not be exaggerated. I was speaking to a recycling engineer who lives in Mexico, making huge shredding machines for off-spec equipment (he's a strong supporter of WR3A and our Las Chicas Bravas experiment).  We were talking about the dangerous environment in Mexico, and the war of drug traffickers.  We both love recycling, and we both love Mexico, but the context of our recycling cause is put into sharp focus by the calamity of the Mexico drug conflicts.  Thomas is from Spain, I'm from Arkansas, but we both know that our nation's demand for cocaine and marijuana are the fuel to this ghastly fire in Mexico.
When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it - this is knowledge.
Thomas remarked that whether or not someone will murder you can be counted in dollars... if they hate you enough, he was saying, you are not even safe in Europe with $500,000 on your head.  But in Mexico, the economy of human life is suffering.  With so many murders, life seems not worth as much to save.
To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short.
Intellectually, saving a life on a battlefield, or the last of an endangered species in the forest, is worth more because it is rare.  But psychologically, surrounding yourself with destruction desensitizes us to loss.  If a homeowner seeks his laptop broken at the donation center, he feels tragedy.  If a man running a shredder sees one more laptop either go up the conveyor, or be pulled out to donate to a child, it's hard to get him to care as much.  Our challenge in California, having built an industry which resembles a slaughterhouse, will be to get those in the trenches to think like a zookeeper.
To see what is right, and not to do it, is want of courage or of principle.

That's a digression from "friendly fire", but a life taken in accident or from misunderstanding is a special tragedy.   A doctor performing the wrong operation, a misdiagnosis leading to death, a father reaching out to grab his son from a precipice and scaring his child over the ledge... these are a special kind of tragedy which is different than the murder, revenge, calculated for position in the Mexico drug wars.
Ignorance is the night of the mind, but a night without moon and star.
Too rare, the happy ending.  It seems like crusades for peace, for an end to conflict in Palestine, or an end to hostilities in the Afganistan, for friendship between Pakistan and India, or even peaceful dialogue between French-speaking and English Quebeckers, too seldom end.  As rare as an October firefly, it seems, when the press reports on the end of a standoff.

This post is another bit of indulgent introspection.  But this moment, I feel as if two comarades have a chance to walk out of the fog of war, and look each other in the eye.   Neither has killed or wounded the other, neither has gone without firing bullets back.  In setting down their weapons, and recognizing their alliance, each must think of the parable of Jesus... that he is facing in the other, the Prodigal Son.   For each, the other's compromise looks like reform.  But really, the two soldiers who mistook one another for enemies were equally mistaken.  
"Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes."
As a Brit, I have shot at Yankee soldiers.  As a Yank, I've shot at British soldiers.  The best thing is to forgive quickly, recognize each other as an ally against a common foe, and leave our differences to be resolved later.

I'll spend the rest of today trying to make sure that the California Compromise goes off without any other injury.  Differences remain on the export for repair standards of E-Stewards and R2, and the analogy of the father suspecting an overdose from mother's medicine won't end soon.  The machine of destruction in California will be hard to stop, even with the compromise.  With 9,000 CRTs being destroyed as "e-waste" every day, using taxpayer dollars, we may wind up with a "Schindlers List" of reuse... the ones saved for reuse, worth saving, but a reminder of the unintended consequences of a decade of "no intact unit" policies.
To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short.

I was looking for a different quote from "Confusious", but I think this one is good.  The quote I feel certain that he said, but will take credit for myself if necessary, will be:

"When two good people exaggerate their differences in order to seem like better people, the lesser people win" (Robin Ingenthron)

But there is no racism intended by Basel Action Network, and none by ISRI.  By working together to salvage working computers from certain an stupid death under SB20, we can hopefully make common ground.