A Day in the Life: Honest Used Computer Exports

We get hundreds and hundreds of these requests through WR3A.   I just wanted to share a sample correspondence, received in the past 10 minutes.

Dear Mr. Ingenthron,

I am interested in importing used computers to from the US to East Africa. Does  your organization provide services related to linking potential buyers to legitimate exporters? If so, what can I do to benefit from this service?

Thank you and regards,


The Know-Nothing Recycling Movement?

"The Know-Nothing movement was a nativist American political movement of the 1840s and 1850s. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to Anglo-Saxon Protestant values and controlled by the pope in Rome. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it strove to curb immigration and naturalization, though its efforts met with little success. Membership was limited to Protestant males of British lineage over the age of twenty-one. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class and entirely Protestant membership fragmented over the issue of slavery." -wikipedia

I wrote a long post yesterday (Sac Bee Finds Guys).  It took awhile to land on the theme of exactly what intrigued/bugged me about the Sacramento Bee article.

   "We don't know how they dispose of it, 
       but we don't agree with it."       

Sacramento Bee Finds Guys: How SB20 Defrauds Reuse

Warmer, Warmer, Waarrmmmmer... Cold!

On Sunday, Sacramento Bee reporter Tom Knudson released another big story about "E-Waste" exports in California.  He is the reporter who travelled to visit Retroworks de Mexico last February, and did a good couple of stories about SB20.   Yesterday's article is titled "California recyclers find market for toxic trash" (follow link).  (2012- McClatchy has dropped links to the story, but follow ups found here).

Knudson nearly scores a home run.  However, there remain some bases to touch, or dots to connect.  The article continues to leverage value from the myth that recyclers overseas are nasty and brutish (I admit they are short).  I know Tom struggled with how to describe a fair trade operation.  Today I'll try to weave the arms and shoulders of the multi-colored dreamcoat together...

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong... How E-Waste Photos steer WEEE Policy

How does a great wall of "ewaste" photos obscure factual data on the trade in second-hand goods and secondary scrap commodities?  Data collection is more important than a competition to photograph the "largest TV sculpture".  

European "E-Waste" Recycling is heralded by some Product Stewardship advocates as the model for the USA.   The EU is certainly taking a very tough stand on exports of used computers.  Is the EU's Maginot Line against export trade the best response to unfair trade practices?

Are the European restrictions against sale of used electronics to emerging nations based on art or science?   Most photos of export loads don't answer the basic question, "Is the container 80% full or empty of affordable electronics?"  Queue the song, "Black Swan" by Thom Yorke.

Maybe I just didn't realize how traumatized the Europeans are by Cathode Ray Tube televisions.  These days, they are X-raying sea containers in Rotterdam, the Scottish EPA is arresting people at Salvation Army donation centers, and they are planning larger enforcements against anyone who sells a computer monitor to be used in an African Internet Cafe.

Based on photographic evidence, one might assume the CRTs are needed at home in Europe - to complete a "Great Wall of E-waste", which will completely encircle the European Union.

This Great "E-waste" Wall seems to symbolize a trade barrier to the export of second-hand electronic equipment, or export of copper or plastic scrap.

Could Europe be using arts market development to become self-sufficient in demand for used electronics?  On the other side of the wall, will Africans "leapfrog" their way into laptops and flat screens?

Ok.. I'm making fun of the Europeans here.  The point is not about this ill-conceived use of "e-waste" debris as objet d'art (located in Vilnius, Lithuania, where my first fair trade partnership started in 2003).  My point is that using photos to describe an entire culture is fraught with problems.

Global Trade and Recycling

There are those who think that global trade in recycling is a waste disposal campaign that exploits countries with poor labor and environmental standards.  There are those who think that free and fair trade generally leads to better outcomes than government efforts to intervene between market supply and demand forces.

The latter argument is usually bolstered if the government restriction begins with half a recipe for success.   Regulating the secondary market and ignoring the primary market is a textbook case of sloppy regulation.

The global production of metals and petroleum and timber is the elephant in the room which no one (else) is talking about.   Mining residue and waste is considered domestic generation by Basle Convention;  recycling residue and waste is considered a trans-boundary movement.  This was an unfair playing field to begin with, but now advocates are trying to gut Annex IX, B1110, to add even repair and refurbishing to the list of "waste" processes.

The right to repair demands constant vigilance, even if virgin manufacturing is benign, or environmental impacts are equal.   But virgin ore mining and refining is far more polluting, toxic, and resource consuming than recycling.  Mining and forestry provide necessary products for modern society.  But if we ever have the choice to buy recycled instead of buying extracted, we'll reduce our impact on toxins and extinctions.

Transition from Color to Black and White TV 1960s

Palm tree scandal in NYC
Watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  The same blimps, the same schtick, on the same living room CRT.   It seems like the opposite of change.  I remember watching Mighty Mouse, from Terrytoons, on our black and white TV when I was a kid.

The Story of Stuff cites Moore's law, which says that processor speeds can double every 18 months, a prediction which has held true for silicon processors and transistors..  Moore's law is a contributing factor, necessary but not sufficient, to explain the rapid obsolescence of cell phones and pentium and AMD chips.

Today's price:  $4
Moore's law has nothing at all to do with video display terminals.  Yet countries are lumping together cell phones and televisions and computer monitors in "4 years since date of manufacture" laws.  Razors, toasters, cameras and coffee makers are being sucked into a "Stuff" hammermill subsidized by policies, best explained by History of Stuff.  If it's "electric" it's "e-waste" or "WEEE".

Exports Compared: E-Stewards and R2

What is the big difference between R2 (EPA's Responsible Recycler standard) and the BAN E-Steward Standard when it comes to export for reuse?  Here are some diagrams of how surplus computers, scrap computers, or "e-waste" is managed under the R2 and E-Steward programs (click links to see larger version)

WR3A presentation to NERC 2009 on fair trade recycling exports

This method of displaying the Powerpoint presentation isn't the best, because the photos are layered.  When you click in powerpoint, the photos overlap one at a time, but in PDF they are glued on top of each other.

Still, this was a presentation I want to share, and until I can upload it to the website, I'll share it this way.

WR3A NERC Cert 2009 Photos Robin Ingenthron

Pssst! TSA... Distort the Image Dudes!

People are getting all panicky about the new TSA x-rays.  I don't want to even copy and paste an actual example, I could get the blog dinged for adult content.

But TSA could do the same job if they purposefully distorted the images.  You know, like stretching a comic copied onto silly putty.  The fact that someone is carrying a weapon would still show up, and you could have a rule that if a foreign object appears that the image would be restored to "normal", or even "normal" just for some radius around the object.

There is no reason to show the actual morphology of the actual person's body.  It would be really easy to stretch out the images and then people wouldn't feel as self-conscious, and TSA wouldn't have to make a big point about deleting the images.

Aww.  A few hours after I posted this, the Washington Post reported that a "scientist" had the same idea.

But dudes... My idea continues. The images should totally be played to the soundtrack of Roxy Music's "Manifesto".  Like, the TSA guy will be sitting in Washington watching the photos, and it will look like this below, but on his TSA screen, and he'll be like, "Wow, that's totally interesting, and I'm neither bored nor turned on... just groovin."

Scrap Metal or "E-Waste" Recycling? Electric Razor

I'm not too happy with yesterday's post.  I got back late on Sunday with the truck, following the collection event in Kingston Rhode Island, and went looking for something in the "draft" folder which was close to finished work.  The CRT Demand Forecast wasn't that bad, but I'm a bit tired of writing about display devices and CRTs, and many people have gotten the point by now.

Display devices don't become obsolete, and whether a CRT can be sold for reuse depends entirely on how many poor people can have literacy and electricity.  CRTs are a declining share of a growing market.  So it depends which happens faster, growth of the market or price pressure from flat screens.

Done.  Ok, what about electric razors?

I shaved with a Braun which my mom got me for Christmas, probably more than ten years ago.  I've replaced the razor head twice, and really like that I'm able to find new heads online.  It's rechargeable, and though I leave it plugged in all the time (probably not good for the battery), it works for the 60 seconds I need it to shave when I travel with it for several days.  Today's question, when it does break or get replaced, what do I do with it?  In this society, probably the most likely cause of displacement of the razor is that I'll be gifted another new one, and if that keeps happening, I'll stop buying replacement razor heads.

In theory, if I simply decide not to replace the razor head, someone else who's in a more frugal country may do it themselves and be grateful.  But I chose razors today for a reason.   From what I remember, when I shared a house with Mbaku Christopher, the other English teacher (an Anglophone from S.. town south of Bamenda, before the ring-road), white people electric razors do not work very well for Africans.  He tried my electric for awhile, hoping it would help his razor-burn face, and told me it made it worse than ever.   Let's assume also that plenty of new razors are manufactured in Asia, and that the repair and reuse market is low.

I assume that the tiny circuit board and rechargeable battery would fail the "focus material" test for R2, requiring domestic handling, and fail the waste export test for Basel Convention.   I am pretty confident, however, that the amount of copper and hard rock mining metals in the razor would be very worthwhile to recycle, compared to getting the same amount of material from ore.

If the material is exported as "breakage", what is going to happen to it?

It may become a lottery ticket for a gentleman like this Egyptian (below, at the Goma flea market, Cairo).  I've seen these scavengers in Africa and in China, spending the day with a blanketful of electronic gadgets and trinkets.  My Egyptian friend and host Hamdy pointed out that a flea market guy was also selling European electrical wall switches, pulled out of some construction and demolition debris, and told me that the German mark was considered higher quality than the new 'made in China' electric outlets.  So, there's a chance that a guy will sell my electric razor off of his blanket full of "party favors".   But there is zero chance that I'll be able to audit that and report on the end market destination, so if sold "for reuse" I won't have the impeccable records I have for SKD factory CRT reuse.

If someone burns the razor on a pile of wire, like the kids at the landfill in Ghana, there wouldn't be a lot of evidence where the razor had been generated, but let's say we track this one and it's definitely mine.   Burning the plastic is nasty.   Let's assume though that the kid stands away from the fire - something the kids normally do unless and anti-export photographer is asking them to stand closer to it.   Burning the electrics razor on top of the other wire will put some lead solder into the ashes, resulting in pollution.  The lithium rechargable battery is worth more in scrap value than the copper these days, so unless the person burning it doesn't know the recycling business, it's not in the fire pile.   It's questionable whether the pollution is as bad as if you get a similar amount of copper out of a copper mine, and I'd still argue that the world is a better place than if you throw the razor away in a USA landfill and mine the same amount of copper from OK Tedi mine on Borneo, where the mining leads to extinction of Orangutans (adding strange meaning the the juxtaposed images in the Braun razor advertisement shown below).   But I'm in the minority there, most people feel revulsion and so we cannot be honest with clients and ship the razor as "breakage" if it's going to be burned.

So, what should happen?  Let's assume that the recycler got the razor, it didn't sell off the blanket, and the recycler knows not to burn batteries etc.  What could they do in a "fair trade" scenario?  Disassemble the razor by hand.

Clank!  A quick flick of the wrist, and the razor is thrown onto a cement floor or into a barrel.  The plastic flies off, leaving a steel piece, a tiny circuit board, the copper wire, and the battery.  Snap!  With some wire cutters, those different metals are quickly sorted into boxes.   The tiny circuit board can now go with the printed wiring board for proper recycling at a smelter, perhaps one in Japan or Belgium.  The steel can go into a steel box.  The copper wire can also be sold to a secondary smelter, or even  be cut by a woman with a razor who removes the insulation and sets aside bright and shiny electric grade copper, which can now skip ahead to the end of the refining line, saving massive carbon and pollution costs.  You all know, I think that manual disassembly, with proper financial incentives and technical assistance, is the best possible end use.  I love the ladies who create valuable metals without strip mines.

But alas, let's say we cannot get the razor to this Fair Trade Recycling operation.  Perhaps the host nation bans the import, like China.   Or the USA contract with the generator prohibits export of the unit.  Now what?
  • We could demanufacture it by hand in the USA.
  • We could bale it with the printed circuit boards and send it to an R2 destination.  Hopefully, someone examined whether it was a rechargable battery or a straight plug-in razor, like my older Braun.
  • We could run it through a Maser shredder, which turns and grinds and turns and grinds, spending more energy to get the copper fraction mechanically separated from the steel fraction.
  • We could throw it straight into a mine pit, and hope that the refining chain will get out the lithium and copper and iron the same way as when those materials are combined in ore.
  • Most likely to occur?  In Vermont, Arizona, Arkansas, Massachusetts, and other places I'm familiar with, the razor will get thrown into a pile of scrap metal, headed for a steel shredder.  It will get recycled, a la Jimmy Hoffa, but whether the materials wind up in China or not, in tiny pieces, is an open question.  "I recycled it in the USA" sometimes means "I made it in small pieces in the USA".  See posts on scrap metal and ZORBA.
  • We can send the item back to Braun.  Braun will then make the decision, from among the same choices I've laid out above.  Except Braun probably won't allow reuse.  Just as Nissan shredded an entire sea ship full of cars when the ship listed to the side and the cars were damaged, Braun won't want the potential liability if they sell reused parts themselves, and Braun definitely won't want someone else making the decision on the gray market.  
So, how do we answer this question?  With all the twitter advice, all the Facebook ads for recycling, with all the Stewardship and  fanfare, how do OECD nations recycle electric razors, something people have been handing out as Christmas presents for decades?

Robin's CRT Demand Forecast

Forecast is cloudy.   But winter is coming.

As regular readers and members of WR3A know, I am the staunchest defender of the integrity of export markets for reuse items, and have tried to push back against the hysteria over Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) exports in particular.  The CRT is a beautiful thing.  It was built like a battleship.   A typical CRT lasts 25 years and is a very decent display device.  

It is more fashionable to have an LCD or plasma or LED, and it's space conscious, but there is none of the "functionality" trade-off to continued use of a CRT monitor, as compared to a Pentium II desktop.   The refresh rates on a good CRT are actually better than an LCD.   Some people, such as internet cafe operators in developing countries, prefer something that lasts longer, survives high heat waves, and is difficult to steal.  I prefer the big CRT television in my house because I can channel surf 5 times faster than I can on an LCD in a hotel room.

Since I've made my position so clear, many readers who have been exporting their CRTs are now calling me and saying "We agree!  Buy ours!"  The phones start to ring...

What you must also hear me say:  "It's a buyers' market."   

It absolutely AIN'T a seller's market.  Buyers dictate the terms.  If I have 5,000 CRTs this week, I  can find good homes for 5,000.  But if I get 10,000, the quality specification will change - I may still be able to ship only 6,000.  The other 4,000 will be voted off the island and recycled.  WR3A members are frustrated that the more supply we obtain, the pickier the buyers get... because it is the poor buyers in developing nations who get to dictate the terms of a buyer's market.

The price offered for reuse CRTs is crashing through the dang floor.  As Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta and Singapore and Shanghai upgrade to LCDs, they are flooding the reuse market with working CRTs.   There is still demand, but just like corn or wheat or milk, the supplier cannot dictate the price.

They also don't particularly like buying from the USA.  Shipping costs are high, and Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore are all upgrading displays and generating very nice CRTs for the secondary market.  When you add USA environmental groups which call them "primitive" and send letters to their governments alleging pollution, you can't be surprised by the "don't call us, we'll call you" tone of these manufacturer takeback programs.

Some American recyclers respond by leaving the market and shredding up the CRTs.  As the price of copper and lead go up, they say it doesn't make as much economic sense to export.  State legislation pays you to destroy them, and besides, the export market has already become the social-stigma-equivalent of dating a black man in Birmingham Alabama in 1959.  Those who sell overseas risk being are branded as "export-lovers" by our competitors, and those who shred are called "Stewards".   

This is all natural in the free market.  What I don't like is the moral speeches from those who choose to destroy rather than export for reuse.  And I don't like that the losers are the poorest internet users in the world.

How does an Ethical "E-waste" Exporter continue in fair trade in a crashing market?  

First, study the market.  Make sure that you are not just clinging to old sales models.   I've quoted Danny DeVito before (Other People's Money) about the best buggy-whip maker who made the last best buggy whip.   I've read www.digitimes.com since 2001;  the subscription pays for itself.

Second, be comfortable breaking even.   If you can just ship the monitors for free, the avoided disposal cost may be worth it.  Five years ago we were paid $7 apiece for white monitors... now it's a lot of work to sell them for $1.50   But it's still environmentally preferable if done in a fair trade manner.

At a certain point, the price of LCDs will fall to where their estimated life of 5 years is offset by their reduced shipping cost (more fit per transport container).  Some of the emerging markets, such as BRIC nations, will continue to enjoy increasing wealth per capita.  At a certain point, CRTs may still have demand, but relegated to a non-credit-worthy environment.  Just as farmers will turn to producing high-protein-muscle-building-whey when children as still hungry for milk, the refurbishing market may abandon the SKD (professional refurbishing factory) business.  

Every month that my company inspects computer monitors for working CRTs, we know there is a chance we won't get paid for a shipment.  That's still worth it to me.  I'd like to be the last guy in America to get the last working screen into an internet cafe in West Africa.  But WR3A will find it very hard to broker loads for other suppliers as we enter this stage.

At that point, the CRT monitors would become suitable only for direct-reuse, a market which is a) applauded by BAN, and b) notorious for its "informality", compared to the contract manufacturers which BAN and ETBC have vilified.

I digress.  But the point is:

  1. CRT demand is declining rapidly as a percent of the display device market.
  2. The display device market is increasing wildly, promoted through huge growth and over-production
  3. CRT demand in absolute numbers is steady, but supply (from displaced CRTs) is increasing.  
  4. It's a buyers market
  5. The buyers of CRTs are poor.
It kind of resembles automobile manufacturing.  Poor people in the 1970s still needed small cheap cars, but USA auto manufacturers didn't want to chase that market.  They decided to make big expensive cars for richer people, and left the manufacture of little cars to Asia.  The CRT is the little cheap car with a low margin, sold to people with bad credit.

What Good Point Recycling is doing is charging generators almost the same for the reuse items, and selling them cheaper than the other exporters, while getting pickier about quality (or in cases like Mexico, paying to properly recycle whatever swing in the market dictates for "reuse" CRTs that cannot be moved economically).

That's our niche, we have clients willing to pay us for their stuff that can still be reused.  The ones who want to get paid are good people, but let them by plane tickets and go sell their working stuff like we do.

I have personally bent over backwards to create WR3A and to establish easier ways for the good companies to sell their material.  What I run into in my marketplace is clients who have been told we are a bad operation, because we export.  The recyclers I applauded as Stewards five years ago are exporting almost nothing.  The investment has all been made overseas.  The overseas SKD and contract manufacturers have put in glass processing, established zero-import of cadmium phosphors in their POs, gotten ISO14001 and ISO9000, etc.

What should we do?

The CRT reuse market in the for-profit sector may be down to the final 18 months, and we are transitioning to charging everyone for everything.  Even notorious junk exporters are charging for CRTs now.    The market may pick back up again when some of the CRT molding machines close (Samsung Klang skipped retooling and is in its final death march for 2012), the smartest thing might be to charge for them and warehouse them like airplane parts.  But the price war in LCDs, and the coming of LEDs, is causing the market to bristle for, at best, a glut of recently-replaced CRTs (from people who respond to the LCD price war crash by upgrading), and at worst, a further slow in demand in the CRT reuse market. 

We are still paying for CRTs from WR3A members who have stayed with the organization from the beginning.  We are still exporting to the SKD factories which, as I have emphasized, are less "informal" than the largest and best E-Stewards, full of engineers and technicians who are the aspiration of their nations.  Those men and women are starting to outgrow CRTs, they are growing into larger companies.  This little episode in the early millenium when they were depicted as wire burning chimps will be over, and their willingness to refurbish CRTs will probably be limited to markets like United Nations sponsored school and internet programs.  

The United Nations and charities may find donated working CRTs to be a boon to the non-profit digital divide sector.  But they have been labeled "toxic waste" by so many people, that the easily-sued, trigger-happily sued donors may walk away from students who cannot leapfrog their way to an LCD.

ICT programs will help to develop new markets, which Cisco and Dell and HP and Lexmark will benefit from... if they aren't beaten to it by Wistron, Foxconn, BenQ and Proview.

For the history books, the story of CRT exports is going to look a lot like the story of yellow cheese vs. white cheese.  That's a reference to a Political Science course I took at Carleton College, about the Interstate Commerce clause and the attempts by Wisconsin and Minnesota to protect their cheese factories by regulating the color of the cheese.  I cannot even find any reference to it on google.  It was all the rage, cheese color protectionism, back in the day.

Another Research Paper: Boma Brown-West June 2010

 I wrote this post at 4AM and then took off, hoping to come back and read the thesis below, and assuming I'd have managed to make contact with the author by now, in person.      - Robin

There's been another academic research paper published.   Brown-West submitted this for her Master of Science in Technology and Policy, last June.
"A Strategic Analysis of the Role of Uncertainty in Electric Waste Recovery Systems Economics:  An Investigation of the IT and Appliance Industries"
I haven't finished reading it.  I see a lot of people accessing it through the blog, hope it's generating good discussion.  It appears to make the case that uncertainty tends to be bad, and cites interviews with people in the end-of-life (big shred) business for background.

My two quick comments are that "recycling" in the USA does not necessarily increase certainty, except that reuse is out of the picture.   And that while BAN and the shredders are legitimate data points, that it's a good idea to also interview people in the cores and refurbishing business.

The paper compares recycling systems for white goods / appliances and electronics.  As I took a stab at in my post "E-Waste Travels in Scrap Metal", many have failed to distinguish between specialized electronics disassembly operations and raw "scrap metal" (ferrous scrap usually) recycling.  Throwing a computer into a scrap steel bin is a major, if not the major, end point for most Americans.  It's important, therefore, for all researchers to distinguish between electronics recycling, auto shredding, refurbishment, and simply lumping computers with toasters and other appliances.  There may be a false sense that shredding equipment in the USA means less primitive recycling in Guiyu, or that hand-separation of intact units in China necessarily leads to a more polluting outcome than hand sorting of shredded pieces.  (Again, I am not tying this to Brown-West's paper, which I haven't read, but making the point that "shredding vs. export" can be a false dichotomy for comparison,  if ultimate disposition is to be measured in the end).

There are few e-waste companies which have invested as much in shredders as GEEP.. and I've frequently written about electronics manufacturers who embrace shredding as a form of "planned obsolescence in hindsight".  When I saw that these people cited as industry sources in "acknowledgements" about exports, my yellow light started flashing.

The recyclers she interviews - Metech, GEEP, Sims, and certainly HP, are all good companies.   Their processes are appropriate for a large share of used and obsolete equipment.  But they are also part of a "obsolescence industrial complex" which is funded in part by a war on the grey market.  The major failing of investors in capitalized, automated processing systems has been the zeal to embrace a "no intact unit" policy. In particular, display units (CRT monitors) do not have the short life described in "Moore's law", and constitute over 50% of the weight of the computer and 50% of the cost in the most rapidly emerging markets (the 3B3K markets which increase access to internet at 10 times the rate of developed countries, and are the spotlight of the CES International show in Las Vegas).  These should be assessed separately from IT equipment, as IT is from white goods.

My concern is that environmentalists and researchers have been in many cases enlisted in an all-out firefight between major OEMs and the "white box" marketers of ink cartridges, cell phones, LCD televisions, and Pentium 4 computers.  I'll be reading the paper to make sure it doesn't get used unfairly to promote shredding in cases where hand-disassembly can create sustainable jobs.

Original equipment manufacturers have very legitimate concerns, as well as pure economic reasons, to emphasize policies which result in the demise of the secondary market.  My point is that to get a more rounded trajectory, researchers should balance shredder-solution sources with interviews of "white box market" manufacturers.  I recommend the Harvard Business Review article, "the Battle for China's Good Enough Market".  While the Harvard paper does not deal directly with refurbishing per se, many of the industries they describe began by refurbishing of cores or using off-spec or used parts to make a less expensive gadget.  When parts are available for refubishing in very large and uniform quantities - like the $350M in Dell Optiplexes which had bad capacitors, which almost no American tried to replace - the refurbishing or white box market is able to achieve scalable economies, and can rapidly emerge as a primary manufacturer.  Wistron and Acer came from the computer monitor refurbishing business.

There is certainly "uncertainty" in scrap metal prices and reuse value prices, but it is almost always a certainty that the more someone offers to pay for a material (assuming transparent and open transactions and warranty), the more value added they recognize.  Value added is almost always more in a reuse appliance.  It's harder to prove with mixed loads, but if you assume uniform loads (e.g. 1,000 CRT monitors of a certain age and model), you can quickly deduce whether the "80% burned as scrap" allegation holds water.

There is more uncertainty in mixed loads.  A single Mercedes Benz or Harley Davidson hidden under piles of junk TVs can go a long way to paying for a load.  But using materials to hide other materials from customs is not a problem unique to recycling - it exists in food aid, malaria medicine, school books, and corn shipments.  The Egyptian market was virtually shut down in 2008 by discovery of an operation in Toronto area which was putting generic viagra into used computer monitors.

Shredding equipment into little pieces certainly shortens the flow chart, and I guess that reduces "uncertainty".  Likewise, selling to poor people will increase "uncertainty"..  The more humans are involved, the less control of the "final outcome".  NO INTACT UNIT policies draw the shades on the people outside who are willing to replace capacitors, fix boards, or burn wire to keep from starving.  I believe that certainty is best achieved with enforceable civil law contracts, purchase orders, and audits.

During my own time in developing countries, I learned that the loyalties and friendships that people carry mean more to them than a new car means to you or me.   And that is really kind of refreshing.   During my time in Peace Corps, I think I laughed and had more natural dopamine from friendships, loyalties and relationships than I could ever get with a new I-phone or X-box.   For me, that is the part of the trade with developing nations which the USA gains the most from.  It leads to nothing less than world peace.  Fair Trade Recycling has a social and spiritual multiplier effect which some e-waste watchdogs are completely tone deaf and blind to.

Now again, I've not studied this paper, and I hope that by posting a link to it I can increase the type of dialogue we all want to have. I'm not writing blindly about the paper, I am just very very cautious if I see BAN, HP, GEEP as major sources of about what happens in an export market.  It's like taking testimony about bicycling from people on the subway.

Speaking of deaf dumb and blind, here is a link to a place that sells replacement circuit board to pinball games.  Pinball games aren't manufactured any more.  They are only refurbished.   People take the same board from the pinball game (Tommy) and put it into a new pinball game, like Spiderman.

Rhode Island E-Waste Recycling at URI in Kingston

Good Point Recycling will be holding its 60th "one day event" at the University of Rhode Island this Saturday, from 9 to 2PM.  The event has been advertised at several games and on the web and radio, and is expected to be a doozy.  The cost of the electronics will be paid for by MITS.

MITS, the Manufacturers Interstate Takeback System, represents a group of electronics manufacturers who financially assist with local collation activities and oversee the entire process to assure residents and customers that only responsible recycling methods are followed. Sony Electronics, Acer America Corporation, Viewsonic Corporation, and LG Electronics are represented by the MITS program in Rhode Island. Good Point Recycling of Middlebury Vermont, a member of the MITS responsible e-cyclers network, will coordinate collections and process material for Rhode Island recyclers, including Elwin Electronics, Goodwill Industries, RRI Recycling, Indie Cyle, Smart Technology Management, and other groups.

How Dumb Are We "e-waste" Quiz?

Yesterday's post, about trans-boundary movement (e.g. tourism) and exports (e.g. emigration) was pretty simple by some standards, but complex for people who get their news off of Twitter.   Recognizing the impact of stick figures in the "Story of Stuff" video, I have designed a Quiz to help you decide whether you are capable of learning about electronics recycling policy from this blog, or should remain with stick figures and tweets.

Here is the simple quiz on "E-Waste" Recycling, inspred by the Stuff film

Here it is faster for smart people:

Is Technically Not Imported "E-Waste" Still Exported "eWaste?"

The term "competent authority" sounds so good.  But is it too good to be true?

What if you took a trip to Cancun, and when you came back home, an environmental agent (or other authority without expertise in Immigration and Naturalization) said that you had not vacationed, but had emigrated and were no longer a citizen?

In the world of contract manufacturing, assembly, piece work, and repair, the terms "import" and "export" are not thrown around lightly. There are many commerce treaties involved, and sometimes a device is more of a tourist than an immigrant.    The discussion of "export rules" begs the question, if someone thinks they are the authority, and their national courts say they are not, then how competent are they?

In Mexico, the Ibarrolas (customs agents) must document that loads brought into the "maquila" zone have not been imported.  The maquilas were set up to bring assembly jobs for televisions and automobiles, creating employment for Mexicans in the border area.   Ford makes car parts, sends them to a Ford plant in Mexico, and the screws are affixed and the car is brought back for sale in the USA.  Nothing remains in Mexico, Mexico does not collect customs on any parts or cars, and the USA Commerce Department does not consider the car parts to have been exported and Mexico does not consider them to have been imported.

China has "special economic zones", and the island of Macau in Chinese waters is an entire small economy based on "not importing" into China.

Now there is a company in India, Intarvo, which has created "refurbishing" factories for electronics.  India is notorious for not allowing import of used equipment, and famous for its brilliant young techs who can fix anything with a cord.   Intarvo has set up facilities to bring in used electronics without "importing" the e-scrap.  They repair what they can, but cannot keep it in India... it has to leave the country.

Personally I think this is a lot of work to create recycling and repair facilities in places which have the knowledge and skill to recycle and repair used electronics.  But when I asked an EPA person whether this is "exporting" (in the case of our Mexico facility, which ships all the screws and plastic and CRTs back into Arizona for processing after testing and disassembly), the person said "of course it's exporting if it leaves the country".

What I'm pointing out is that you can split out the two issues - primitive polluting shameful practices and technically adept refurbishing - and not even get to the definition of import and export at all.

Even Radiohead (the rock band) knows what a "Maquiladora" is.  My point is that a group of people gets together to figure out what the rules should be for "ewaste exports", and they don't even bring in a representative from Commerce, they don't bring in anyone from an importing country, and they start to make rules based on what a small non-profit says that the Basel Convention says...  And I'm not complaining or trying to be mean.  It's kind of funny, if you aren't being clubbed to death.

Tribute to E-Waste Watchdogs

Watchdog Tribute 

When the only cloth acceptable
Is the blanket that fits my bed
When the only story I repeat
Is the one inside my head

When the after-story started
Where I let conclusions lie
Where beginning doesn't matter
And winning seems so nigh

The silence of the chimps
In mining jungle land
Will make me seem much louder
Drawing my lines in the sand

My impotence is silenced
By my long pointing finger
I claim you do not care
Making your blame linger

When you carried the child
To the grave you helped to dig
And you used a repaired shovel
And you sweated like a pig

His father was a teacher
Who taught kids to repair
And diagnose, add value
Refurbish, fix and share

When eventually the shovel breaks
And can no longer be fixed
And the rust reclaims the pails
The routers and the picks

You'll be be worse than me
For you left your shovel there
And my fingerprints are idle
Proving that I care.

Things fall apart
So they should never be allowed
Leaving barefoot and pregnant
More children wrapped in shroud

Things fall apart
And we don't trust those who fix
Let them buy new shovels
Digging mining graves like ticks.

The dead boy's photo
On a pile of rusty Stuff
Proves that we are better
Cause you cannot do enough.

The only song I play
Is the one I've played before
Colonial guilt extraction
From deeper than the war.

Don't let them fix computers
When they can carry guns
Don't let them turn screwdrivers
Boys raised to be like huns.

The chopped off arm
The hunger, the mosquitos and the blame
Your footprints prove me better.
Erecting fingers, Walls of Shame.

I don't sell product to Africa.
We don't trade with Asia, Too.
We are better with our Shredder
You deliver dirty, we recite "new".

The grave you dug was shallow
The abandoned shovel dumped
Dumper, exporter, recycler!
Re-users, you are lumped.

Mining out the islands
Putting coral reefs to sleep
We spit upon your exports
Ignoring toxics that precede.

The silence of the chimps
The silence of the child
Are a tribute to our landfill
Which is safe, like boy in shroud.

My conscience is so shiny
My experience unabused
My intentions are so golden
My intelligence, gently used.

woof woof woof.  Cartoon linked to IktomisWeb.com

e-Waste Prediction: e-Watch for the e-words "Up To"

The study by Pradesh/Manhart, the study by Williams/Kahhat, WR3A's data, the study by the UN (showing most informal sector e-scrap is "domestically generated", not imported, in developing countries), and some upcoming research from MIT, is all closing in on one basic fact.

It is a Myth that 80% of USA used electronics exports are junk.

Since we have repeatedly asked for the source of the oft-printed 80% statistic, and have found only circular references (BAN citing a journalist in Ghana, the journalist citing BAN), we think this stat needs a fork stuck in it, it's done.

What I predict is that BAN and ETBC will begin to insert the words "up to" in front of the 80% statistic.  I'm sure there's been a load that was 80% junk, so that would be a correct statement.   Let's just remember, you saw it here first.

I'll try to follow up and post some links to the studies above, but am on my way to NYC in a truck... starting NOW.

Soukous E-Waste Happy Consequences

Reuse and repair and recycling or electronics in Africa.   Look what happened when some Westerner "discarded" his used electric guitar in the Congo (Zaire)...

By 1975, Soukous was pandemic.

Franco repaired and reused the guitar, in defiance that "Things Fall Apart".

He tuned it to match the strings he had.  He listened to Papa Wendo... He jammed electric.

Poly-rhythm.  Soukous.

Robin danced to Soukous! in Bukavu, Zaire.

When the massacres occurred in Bukavu, Burundi, Rwanda, etc., and I saw the bodies floating in the lake Kivu I used to swim in... it was shocking, like something from "28 Days Later".  But I also saw the Soukous and Makossa bands were still catching on in New York, Paris, Washington...

Now yours truly cannot stop thinking about giving Africans used electric "ewaste" guitars.  I remember my students of "technologie" in Cameroun, concentrating on their electric schematic diagrams.

Listen to the Soukous song at top for at least the third minute, when they "shift gears".  The soukous "shifting gears" - adding a new guitar rhythm, revolutionized African music.  It just gets more intense and lovely, and they just start to sneak more polyrhythms in after each chorus.


Jimmy Hendrix burned his guitar, in America, not Franco in Zaire.  Westerners invented "waste", in poor countries they harvest commodities.  "Yankee frugality" has become a joke.  If I started my own band tonight, it would be called "Zabaleen", and we would not burn or dispose of our guitars on stage.

Manu Dibango rules.  It wasn't ewaste.

We're 297th! We're 297th!

[Warning:  Introspective Blog Alert.  Click up there to close browser; back away slowly]   Wow, I found out that this blog ranks number 297 in most-read technology blogs.   I'm kind of proud of that, though I admit it's kind of lame.  It's just not quite as lame as I would have thought.

Much of the readership has come from overseas. 

Mexico, Egypt, USA negotiate over Sushi outside UN
Two months ago, I was offered a job to blog for a professional site, it would have paid $600 per month, and had some nifty "tools" or "apps".  Being offered a paid job to blog is... I don't know... like being selected for a "Reality TV" show [no long term contract, probable destination nowhere].  In other words, I accepted immediately.

SSFF*.  It required too much html editing for my ability to learn quickly, and more "for dummies" topics for my interest, and the offer came at the very busiest time of year for my business.  But it struck me that I'd have been earning three times the average monthly wage in many African countries to write two posts per month.

So, I'd suggest to the publisher (owned by NYTimes) that they offer the blog-about-recycling job to a Geek of Color.  Find someone in India, Pakistan, India, Senegal, Egypt or Peru.   Too many Americans who write about recycling are just copying dogmas and repasting them.  (Look at me:  I ran a small junkyard in Vermont, and I'm an international expert).

Blogs have no editors (except for comment fields, pointing out I repeated the word "faggot" in a Dire Straits song, which I appreciate).  They are cheapo journalism.   I really notice how the cable news networks all do talking-head-opinion shows as much as they possibly can, and I know why they are profitable.  Cheap!  no travel, no remote crews, no investigative reporting.  Punditry is the fast food of journalistic nutrition.  And blogs are somewhere below that on the news-o-sphere, because they rely on one person's opinion.

When I used to drive long distances (commuting to jobs in Massachusetts before my wife had tenure-track reappointment), and I frequently listened to Rush Limbaugh on the AM radio.  Mostly because it kept me awake (and I had no CD of Japanese death-metal band Dir En Grey, "Agitated Screams of Maggots", which will also keep you up).  At times I could agree with 60% of what Rush said, but right or wrong, the way he "sold" his opinion to listeners was frequently disingenuous.   "The Clouds".  Aristotle he ain't.

What was really depressing, however, were his tribe callers who just got on the air to say "ditto".  I wrote a comic post about "dittoer.com" which made fun of the number of Twitter Tweets which were just doing the same thing as Rush Limbaugh.  People who call in to say "ditto" could be replaced by computers.  We can automate the twitter process of taking half baked arguments and pushing them forward on the power of weak-minded "repeat"-offenders. Computers connected to re-tweet one another could save everyone the time of re-reading and reposting.

So I could improve my 297th blog ranking by saying things that people tweet and ditto.  Do you think that's been done?

Yep.  Environmental issues are being promoted by dumbing down arguments to appeal to tweetcasters.  Just like anti-gay zealots, or America-xenophobes, or white-power bigots, we are too often willing to harness raw panic, and ride a wave of tweets and dittos. Wiki-modeling (crowd-sourcing) was great for many things, but it also slips into laughtracks and propaganda.

Some say this is how you win and lose on the battlefield, and General Patton (tonight's Veterans Day reference) would defend the environment the same way in order to succeed.  I respect friends who say that this is how unions are formed, this is how elections are won, this is how change is made.  But if the end result is that good tech recycling companies overseas are "clubbed to death", I think recyclers will regret mob-sourcing.

So... 297th.   Stay introspective, true, and low-on-reading-priority?  Or become the DrudgeReport of environmental stories? Perhaps if I actually work to overcome some bad habits, like publishing too quickly, stepping on my own headlines, pushing posts "below the fold" with too many updates, just perhaps I can reach some greater portion of the 6 billion people who think deeply about recycling, resource usage, sustainability, and positive globalization, to continue meeting people like Sranama Mitra, Frederic Somda, Hamdy Moussa, Lambert Faabulon... and that kind of reader will be my "good enough market".  And 100th blog may be good enough for me, like Fareed Zakaria's GPS is the best, if not most watched, of the Sunday morning talkingheads programs.

By the way, here's a copy of the latest propaganda war, a response letter from BAN to Willie Cade of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers of Chicago.  I had not seen Willie's email that BAN responds to.  I have heard the phrase "pay to play" regarding the E-Stewards campaign, there are a lot of people who share Willie's opinion about the cost of E-Stewards compared to R2.  I have mostly heard the complaint that the revenue to BAN from E-Stewards makes BAN unlikely to seek compromise with R2, and makes them less likely to discuss R2 fairly.   They are making money selling their own solution, a solution they admittedly worked very hard on to develop, and I don't begrudge them the income.  Not having seen Willie's letter, I have to agree with BAN that they have every right to develop a standard and I don't follow the stigma hullabaloo about the accreditation body.  Even if it is "Money for Nothing".   The letters are all CEFAD to me.

Here's the "Hello Kitty" version of Agitated Screams of Maggots.  I cannot post the "Eraserhead" version of the video, it's too unsettling, and I don't recommend you follow the link.  It will give you nightmares.

I purposefully buried this ewaste headline about BAN and Willie Cade.  A little piece of Drudge, like dessert at a healthy restaurant, ain't so bad.  I wanted to  be a philosopher, so I'll keep boring some with Plato and Aristotle and journalism-where-for-art-thou references.   But that's the beauty of CRTs and e-waste.   We think they are SO important.  But they really aren't that important for the reasons we say they are important.  What's important is reducing mining while connecting human beings so that people in tyrannical societies see that things like women's rights are not the Armageddon.  If the USA's deep south had gone online and watched Frederick Douglas, we'd have gotten through a lot of messy stuff that was stoked by fear and greed, harnessing of raw crowd emotions.   Truth is the best recipe.

*SSFF - "Started, Stumbled, Farted and Fell"

Manitoba Canada Recycling Insanity

(See story below) Ok, so now if you recycle something into a durable, like a doll, and it's sold to a country in Africa which later disposes of the doll (probably after many years), then you didn't really recycle it? That means either 

1) Africans get dolls made of virgin material, or 

2) African children get nothing for Christmas. 

I am a career environmentalist, and these "fellow environmentalists" are making us look like idiots.  This is another attack on recycling which is using "Willie Horton" tactics, passively tapping into latent racism against Chinese and Africans.  Chinese are good at making stuff.  We want them to make stuff out of recycled feedstock.  If you stop recycling, that doesn't mean China will stop making stuff.  DUH!

Electronics and polymers are the white man "juju"... Alarmists (calling themselves "watchdogs") leverage guilt and ignorance in order to convince people not to recycle?   Extraction, mining, cutting down trees to make new products, THAT is the problem!   Africans getting goods made of recycled content is not the dang problem.   Self inflicted wounds by environmentalists.  Another market being "Clubbed to Death".

Winnipeg ships plastic waste to China

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 10, 2010 | 7:07 AM CST 

CBC News reporter Mychaylo Prystupa stands on top of mixed plastics gathered in Winnipeg, packed into metre-sized cubes and destined for China. (CBC)
CBC News reporter Mychaylo Prystupa stands on top of mixed 
plastics gathered in Winnipeg, packed into metre-sized cubes and 
destined for China.
Most of the plastics that Winnipeggers toss in their recycling bins are sent to China to be remade into fly swatters, dolls and other plastic objects that never get recycled again, a CBC News investigation has learned.

City of Winnipeg documents show 82 per cent of plastic waste in 2009 was sold to International Paper Industries in Vancouver.

That firm's marketing manager, Doris Wong, confirmed that 4,835 tonnes of Winnipeg's "mixed rigid plastics" are then shipped to Hong Kong to be remade into countless plastic goods for world markets.
The goods are made from everything from tossed yogurt tubs to margarine bins.

These so-called second-life durable goods, like carpets and polar fleeces, do not get further recycled. Instead, consumers trash these items after they get old or worn down.

As a result, nearly everything plastic put in Winnipeg's blue bins ends up in a landfill somewhere in the world.
But at least the materials were recycled at some point, said the city's solid waste manager, Darryl Drohomerski.

"Is it better to landfill (the plastics) the first time through? Probably not," he said. "So at least you're getting more life out of it — whether it becomes something that is recycled once more, or twice more, it's still better than zero times."

Recycling betrayal

Eco-watchdogs say Winnipeg's plastic recycling system betrays the recycling symbol found on almost all blue boxes: the three arrows in a closed loop, suggesting the materials are continuously recycled.

"The whole idea of recycling plastics, for me it's a total fraud, it's a total scam," says Manuel Maqueda, co-founder of California-based Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Eco-watchdogs say Winnipeg's plastic recycling system betrays the recycling symbol found on almost all blue boxes. (CBC)
  Winnipeg's recycling system works like this: the plastics are picked up by trucks, dumped at a city recycling facility, sorted by hand at a conveyor belt, bailed into one-metre cubes, then sold on world recycling markets.
Drohomerski said it's better to ship the plastics overseas than bury them in a local landfill site.

"Really, in a way, we're kind of closing the loop by sending material back there so they can actually turn it into new packaging or new products as opposed to them using oil to actually make new plastics to ship back to us," he said.

While the lion's share is bound for China, clear plastic bottles and milk jugs get a different destination.
A company called Ekman Recycling purchased most of Winnipeg's milk jugs in 2009 (about six per cent of the city's plastics), and trucked them to Minnesota, where they were remade into products like plastic decking for use in backyard patios.

Another company, Merlin Plastics, bought all of Winnipeg's pop and water bottles, about five per cent of the city's plastics.

Those materials are shipped to Vancouver and resold to remake fruit cartons and drink bottles, for example. Coca-Cola bottling in Canada, for instance, uses that kind of recycled plastic to make up to 10 per cent of the content of its bottles.

A mere one per cent of Winnipeg's blue bin plastics in 2009 were recovered locally, by Transcona-based X-Potential. The company used recycled plastics to make plastic curbs and landscape ties.
The plant burned down in 2006 and is now being rebuilt.

On Saturday, the city is holding a public forum at the Convention Centre downtown to discuss the future of garbage and recycling in the city.

Story Lines: Social Myth Pollution

The diagram below traces the storylines of different mythologies, from the ancient Greeks to the Romans, etc.  There probably never was a "Cyclops", but once you get enough people to retell the story, it can take much more than decades to relegate it to myth buster bins.  Greek storylines are NOT a schematic diagram.

Environmentalists are on this dangerous edge...  We want awareness of our concern, about rain forests, pollution, extinction, and unsustainable growth.   The rate of change of all of these fields is alarming, and we are desperate for any news story that boosts momentum for our cause.

Environmental Health, or Ecology, is definitely a science.  But it is a young science.   We have not been able to measure the earth climate and biosphere for as long as we've been able to measure mass and volume (physics) or chemistry or biology.

When there is a new science, the field is open to people declaring themselves "experts".  I would postulate that you get some really good scientists who recognize an emerging field and get into it with great contributions.  But it would be tempting for a scientist who was weak in their chosen field to change games.  And there would be a less mature group of peer reviewers to catch the "Tiggers" (A.A. Milne character, a new stuffed animal who attracts a lot of attention by making lots of pronouncements... it takes a little bit for the other animals to figure out Tigger's angle).

What is especially dangerous is when a non-scientist, e.g. a "social scientist" (I got a degree in Poli-Sci and International Relations, so I'm outing myself here) jumps into the void.   What is incredibly dangerous is when the social scientist or poser gets funding based on headlines.  They become a "headline generator", and this propagates myths.

The best social scientists will explain that Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Shenzhen - all the areas which have seen the fastest social progress in human history - did so by recycling, then repairing, then grey marketing, then contract manufacturing, then... becoming Acer, Samsung, Seagate, etc.

To take the same path of progress away from Egypt and the rest of Africa is major experimental surgery.  Egypt is the most likely Mid-East or African country to emerge as a manufacturing economy.  Islamic superpower democracies of the East - Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia - all began with refurbishment and recycling of electronics and emerged as economic tigers.  

Having lived in Africa, I'm very sensitive to the need to protect the environment.  But I know that mining (the only opponent and opposite of recycling) is the true danger to the rain forests and fauna.  I also know that if you take the boys away from sorting copper wire, that the real choices left to them are not to win on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire".  They are more likely to sell a kidney, or die in a field of nyams at the age of 50.

There is a tremendous opportunity for young environmentalists to study and throw out the Myths.   They are like dangerous unstable cornerstones.   The professors in the field of climate change are quickly learning to be very aware of the double-edge sword of publicity.  They are forming a united peer review front and holding "global warming" and "climate change" essays to the fire, to make sure information is tested and true.

"Eighty Percent of used electronics exports are burned in primitive wire burning operations"... This is a cancerous lie.  This myth has been wrong since it cropped up in 2002, and our field of recycling needs to be ashamed of itself for allowing this myth to hang on as long as it has.   I can name the culprits in a future post, there are plenty of people who believe it, but also many who know it for what it is but repeat it to boost their selfish interests.

My point today is that there is indeed a major need to reform and develop overseas markets.  There is a need to keep poisonous processes out of the hands of children and desperate parents.  But placing a false cornerstone will ultimately undermine the entire field.  E-Steward Certification, Responsible Recyclers, and Environmental Justice are going to be set back if they take the easy path and publish a fake number.

80% is a completely fake number.  Sarah at BAN told me her source was a Ghana journalist.  He told me his source was BAN.   As a peer reviewing friend, truth may sting, but you have to stop telling people that 80% is primitive burning if your actual objection to USA EPA policy is that a tiny 1/2 inch capacitor with no toxic elements is being replaced and properly recycled, and you consider that process of replacing a capacitor and recycling it to be a violation of the Basel Convention, and that therefore the 80% of computers - which yield less than a kilo of replaced capacitors - is illegal and primitive.

BAN.org objects to repair because a tiny capacitor or part might be recycled (properly), and maintains it is a violation of the Basel Convention.  The Basel Convention explicitly allows export for repair and refurbishment.  BAN even objects to the Convention.  It says neither "fully functional" nor "tested working".  And while BAN says that "in the future" Europe will require "tested working", that is nothing less in its claim (true or not) as it is an admission the Convention does NOT say so.