E-Waste Money for Nothing

Wanted:  Environmentalist with video editing software and a sense of humor.  

I was driving a truckload of computers, TVs, printers etc. from a Rhode Island "E-waste" event late Saturday night, zigging through the Green Mountains back to our recycling plant in Middlebury Vermont around midnight.  Hurting and feeling good at the same time.  And this song comes on the radio [Thank You Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits]  And I realize, hey!  This is our ewaste collection song!!



Over ten years ago I made my first speech about electronics recycling policy at the EPR2 conference in Washington DC.  I opened by saying that "electronics recycling" appears to be just like every other kind of recycling in one way - the people who make a career of talking about it earn more than you can by doing it.  (That was a reference to the gap between policy wonks and people on the scrap dis-assembly lines...)

What I'd like is to do a cover of this majestic Dire Straits "Money for Nothing" song with a few twists*.

Now look at them yo-yo's that's the way you do it
You talk about "e-waste" policy
That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Money for nothin' and checks for free
Now that ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Lemme tell ya them guys ain't dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your tongue.

We gotta haul out microwave ovens

E-waste takeback and deliveries
We gotta move these laser printers
We gotta move these colour TV's

See the bureaucrat with the necktie or the makeup

Yeah buddy that's his own hair
That bureaucrat got his own new Prius
That little brat he's a millionaire

We gotta takeout microwave ovens

E-waste takeback deliveries
We gotta move these refrigerators
We gotta move these colour TV's

I shoulda learned to make e-waste law

I shoulda learned to write regulation

Look at that mama, she's clickin' with the camera
Makin' this look like fun
And who's up there, what's that? Exporting noises?
Bangin' on the keyboard like a chimpanzee
That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Get your money for nothin' get your checks for free

We gotta deman microwave ovens

E-waste Event deliveries
We gotta move these televisions
We gotta teardown these old PC's, Lord

Now that ain't workin' that's the way you do it

You speak about e-waste policy
That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Money for nothin' and your checks for free
Money for nothin' and checks for free 


Since first posting this on Sunday, I got an eyebrow-raising comment (see "Anonymous" below") about part of the Mark Knopfler song I had not re-written.   It turns out that direct reuse of lyrics (which contained the words "that little faggot") had a toxic effect on some readers.  I've re-written the lyrics above (in the same way as I suspect a NY eco-lobbyist re-wrote a quote for the Boston Globe - spooky!).  And a disclaimer - this is tongue in cheek (I am after all a recovering regulator, and some of my best friends are bureaucrats)

Oh, by the way, some of the photos (top right) are from 2004 when we worked with Lithuanians to establish a CRT recycling operation with a scrap smelter and Ekranos (one of the east block CRT molding plants).  That year we were testing the monitors for resale, and I thought "tested working" was the answer.  I visited the SKD plant after one of these shipments and found they were throwing out the Suns, Trinitrons, and other "tested working" models.  All that's worthy of its own post.

Here's a more appropriate song... I shouldn't have to worry about offending anyone with this.  And this is played over actual footage of Good Point Recycling staff really moving PCs and color Teeeveeeeees.

Deafening Silence. E-Waste Soccer & The Accidental Racist

The California Compromise still has much potential.

But the Geeks-of-Color (the R2 Factory in Asia which offers most downstream due diligence) received a letter of enforcement days after meeting online at the E-Scrap Conference.  BAN denies having purposefully contacted their government, but they are now planning to get out of the business.  The new rule, circulating in developing nations like a bad flu, is "4 years old" from date of manufacture.

A 4 year old cell phone is different than a 4 year old CRT.   But all electronics have been grouped together by well meaning bureaucrats, and the result is an purchase order which is impossible to fill.  The best CRTs on the market right now are 7 years old (ones made in Korea, but barely used).  Working or no, the instruction to our factory partner is that a September 2006 monitor is "ewaste".  That would require an entirely new application for import, and the SB20 rewrite would become exponentially more complicated.

Hopefully they will remain in the recycling business (they are the primary CRT glass collector, supplying Samsung with CRT glass collected from within their country).

There are several other "Geeks of Color" factories we can do this with.  But how can I tell them for sure that the last vendor wasn't whacked as a result of coming out publicly?   Hard to argue against the feeling that "no good deed goes unpunished".   I would have to coin a new term to convey the understanding of the geek importers of the anti-export watchdogs... "The Accidental Racists".

The invitations to NRDC to tour the factory have gone unanswered.  The California SB20 processors seem afraid to pick up the ball, and we really need California policy to be driven by someone closer than Vermont and Seattle (the two most active people in the discussion being WR3A.org and BAN.org).  People are re-circulating the tired argument that any device which will fail someday (including new) will one day be ewaste, and it's better to leave the kids in Africa barefoot than to sell them a monitor that will work until 2020.  Even BAN doesn't subscribe to the ban on export of working equipment, but they are oddly silent when their E-Stewards tell regulators that the Stewardship Rule is "no intact unit".

The UN has a group that gets it, which could intervene.  They came at WR3A's invitation to Vermont, and seemed to understand the challenges and opportunities.  But during the California Compromise meetings, they only participate enough to say "please deliver 112 computers to Haiti on this date", not seeming to understand the role they need to play in the policy discussions.

Meanwhile, my company in Vermont and Mexico is having its busiest month ever.  We are trans-shipping CRTs from the maquila north to be processed in Arizona, and bringing the refined cullet feedstock back to the smelter, in 4 loads.  We are on a one-day-event rampage in Rhode Island, trying to meet our collection goals for the OEM programs.  We are trying to put together partnerships prior to the new Vermont S.77 legislation starting.

This morning I realized I'm in a soccer game.  Who cares about Fair Trade?  Not Americans.

The techs-of-color are in desperate communication with us.  They call weekly via skype from several nations.  They want us to rescue them from the choice they've been dealt...  Angola, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Indonesia, Peru, Mexico, Egypt, Senegal, Costa Rica, India, China...  They all know WR3A and are eager to see Fair Trade succeed.  Their other choices?

Option 1:   To be shot at by "Racists of Conscience", who depict their brightest 23-year-old techs as wire burning monkeys.  When one of their clean refurbishing factories is "clubbed to death" in 2010, there is no apology for the rough tackle from the non-profits, only a silent rewriting of their past "unnecessary force".  Allen H. at NRDC, was apparently allowed to change his quote about primitive wire-burning in the Boston Globe (the quote now has "bracketed explanation"), but nevertheless continues the cartoonish portrayal, via his blog, like another "late hit".  Like American Football, this game is played with big money for big pieces of equipment - shredders.

Option 2: To accept "Toxics Along for the Ride" by USA exporters who use the export market to dish out just enough pollution to make the transport acceptable to pay for.   Like American Baseball players, they play a game of statistics, stealing bases, calling fouls.  Mixing in just enough old stuff to be carried by the value of new stuff, sending CRTs "forced home" to factories without inspection, and without paying a fair value for those that must be dismantled.

WR3A is in a game of soccer which the rest of the world cares about, but which the E-Waste industry won't offer prime-time coverage of.   My friend in Malaysia told me the day before yesterday that they have appreciated all we have done, but that at the rate we achieve progress, the cost of LCDs falls.   We appear to be steering the ocean liner just fast enough to reform CA SB20 and have no more market for the product.  A moral victory for Fair Trade, but not enough for California or BAN to play the role open to them - to become the best possible supplier of the best possible products, creating sustainable jobs in countries offered only mining and wire burning.

Disposable Recyclable Camera Wars

Case study:  How the "good enough" market works in real life.


"In general the one-time-use camera represents a return to the business model pioneered by Kodak for their KODAK camera, predecessor to the Brownie camera; they are particularly popular in situations where a reusable camera would be easily stolen or damaged, when one's regular camera is forgotten, or if one cannot afford a regular camera." - Wikipedia defnition 10/11/10
1.  An engineer named A.D. Weir invented the "Mailbox Camera" in 1949.  They were sold by a company called Photo-pac. it held an 8-photo spool, and one had to mail it in for processing and get the photos back.  It did not make much of an impact.
"How often have you arrived at a scenic beauty spot without your camera..." the ad begins...
2.  Fuji - a Big Original Equipment Manufacturer [BOEM] - introduced a plastic  design a "disposable camera" to be sold for people who want one on the spur of the moment, for convenient snapshots on holiday, etc.   The cameras are an instant success, it seems a lot of people forget to bring their regular camera, or buy one for their kids.   The were left by the dozens on tables of weddings.  Single use camera sales (or recyclable cameras) blossomed to 20% of all camera sales by 1999.  Kodak and Fuji competed at the two top producers, a fierce competition which left Kodak bruised.  In the 90s, both Kodak and Fuji were earning about $20B a year, and there was no significant #3.  In the "single use" market, both types of cameras had film harvested, and then the shell (including lens, buttons, shutter, etc.) was discarded at the photo developer or drug store.

3.  Environmentalists in the USA, bouncing from a massively successful "Earth Day" Renaissance in 1990 and earning money in recycling jobs created out of the RCRA federal landfill closure bonds issued by many states, or by avoided disposal costs in the high MSW markets of the early 1990s, took "disposable" cameras to task.   Kodak started a recycling campaign to collect the cameras.   I remember one Kodak employee scoff later in the decade how the "disposable issue" went away so quickly, and that the market never really cared, and no one asked how many cameras they were actually collecting for recycling.

4.  It turns out the drug stores and photo developers were NOT just throwing the cameras away.  It turned out that Kodak was getting a small percentage of the cameras back.

5.  The remaining cameras were being snatched up by a gentleman who sold them to Taiwanese guys who replaced the lenses and put film back in and sold them, initially in China.  Their profits were so big that they scaled the operation up and created Jazz Camera, a disposable camera company so large that it soon ate up 25-40% share of the USA market, selling the cameras under many names.  The cameras were cheap and they worked fine.

6. Fuji and Kodak sued Jazz Camera in more than one country, claiming that their patents on the "disposable" camera extended beyond when the cameras were "disposed".  They claimed they had a right, under their patent, to the cameras they had manufactured long after the cameras were thrown out.

... Several lawsuits later (insert text here)

10.  Jazz Camera now is a major manufacturer, making hand held digital cameras in competition with major OEM brands.

If you've read this far, I'm guessing I don't need to write anything more.  If you don't get what this has to do with organized opposition to the "white box" or refurbishing market in PCs, I doubt you can read this much in one sitting, and I'll have to come back to it later.

Surgeons and Grave Diggers

An e-waste repair and refurbishment technician is not a primitive wire burning operation, no matter how "informal" you label them.

The repair and refurbishing jobs are among the best and highest paid in the developing world.  The wire burning and acid recycling jobs are not (though they are probably still better than mining).

If the successful brain surgeon (Dr. Ben Carson) fails to save a patient, it may be from improper triage (e.g. sending a patient who was too far gone).  You don't ban the practice of surgery, and you don't say that he's a grave digger.

Pain of the Incapables


This year, I've had a side interest in savants.  I was watching a program about real life "comic book superheroes" on History Channel, and went googling around the web reading wikipedia articles, watching youtube videos, etc. on people with incredible powers of perception, often limited by social skill impairment.  Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, and other mental ... er, syndromes, I guess ... are poorly understood.

I related what I read about Aspergers to the discovery of tribes and hermits.   Not an exact analogy, but I think there are similarities in approaching people who don't understand your language and don't know what you are talking about, and the history of Western depictions of "primitives" and "savages".

I was imagining what it would be like to classify an entire group of socially incapacitated people, people with autism or Aspergers, and based on the generality of their social connectivity, to decide not to let them listen to classical music... not to let them read books... just label them, as a group, of being incapable.  Isaac Newton, Henry Ford, Benjamin Franklin - the worlds they lived in were not OECD standard, either.   Would we boycott them if they lived today in a land with the medicine and environmental standards they lived with in their time?

Possibly autistic Isaac Newton
Daniel Timmet would not have learned ten languages.  Kim Peek could not have read books in an hour, independently reading pages with each eye.  Derek Paravicini would not have a piano, learning to play tunes from Mozart to Scott Joplin perfectly after one listening.

When we take an entire group of humanity, the Geeks of Color, and say that because they live in an isolated nation which has not joined the club of rich white countries (the OECD), that we cannot share with them the laptops we know they can fix, we cannot share with them the computers that they make a living on, that they must wait for the rest of their nation to meet some developmental bar (which their nation will meet much more quickly if they are allowed to enter into contract manufacturing), it is hard to prove that the people you are cutting off are not primitive wire-burning women sitting knee-deep in mud.

They speak other languages.  They are other colors.  They live far away.  They are not "noble savages".  They are smart kids who learned how to fix stuff.

Anyway, when I hand a laptop to a self-taught repairman engineer in Cairo, and he hands it to a brother who opens the boards with his eyes closed and moves his hands while his eyes gaze at an electronic schematic, it is to me like being in the room with a prodigious savant.

And it makes me think that someday, maybe in a generation, we will know as much about the brain activity of these savants that their abilities will no longer be mysterious.  The way they think, calculate, draw, memorize, and repeat will be understood, the same way as I would completely understand the magic of board level electronics capacitor diagnosis.

And then, the word "e-Waste" will go into the dustbin of our lexicon, alongside "idiot savant".  There is also a human rights organization, "Survival International", which is campaigning for the complete abolition of the term "primitive".    What would Frederick Douglas say, or for that matter, Mark Twain's "N****r Jim" say, if you told him you cannot own a book until you master the ability to read?  Did you know you cannot find this definition of "savage" in Wikipedia?

How many savants were shut in institutions, deprived of intellectual stimulation, a century ago?  How many Paravicinis never set their eyes on a piano?   While we don't want to excuse the abuse of reuse exports, relegating an entire group of repair savants to accepting only "working" items is a mistake.  Offering them only computers which kind white people must repair for them - or too more often, destroy in a shredder - reflects a bias which the interns and students and clients of the Techs of Color find denigrating.

The Anti-Reuse Excuse

During a tour at Good Point Recycling last week, someone posed the old question about "export for reuse", that eventually the items we sell to poorer countries won't work, and that at that point they will have a waste problem.   Are developing nations shifting another "eventual" environmental costs (like mining, refining, and manufacturing) to poor nations when we export for legitimate reuse?

We covered this in 2002.  The issues against reuse are Toxics Along for the Ride (items they don't want mixed in - BAN considers parts that may be removed to be TAR even if recycled), and items so old that they are obsolete (including "tested working").   No reputable environmental organization is calling for a ban on export of 6 year old working electronics, they are just concerned when it's not reused, when it's a loophole for end-of-life ewaste.  So, BAN is pro-Reuse, and has asked us to stop implying otherwise.

But for whoever planted that question on the tour (the lady said it was a criticism from a competitor), let's accept the postulate that the eventual disposal of a reused PC is a "CON".

The PRO's for export for reuse are pretty well settled.
  • Carbon production is mostly in the manufacture of new electronics.  So if the faster they are replaced with new items, the more carbon is produced.
  • Pollution from primary or virgin production is much higher than pollution from disposal.
  • The internet is growing at 10x the rate in countries earning $3k per year per capita GDP.  The difference in cost between a CRT which lasts 10 years and an LCD that lasts 4 years is huge when you earn $3k per year.
  • Breaking a CRT to remelt it glass-to-glass is also producing a CRT which will eventually be sold in a developing nation (they are still made in the millions per month, but not sold in rich nations), so breaking the CRT does not avoid the "Con".  New items also become obsolete.   
  • Fair trade programs, which require reuse/repair operations overseas to also recycle incidental breakage and take back "clunkers" when selling PCs locally, address the "eventual disposal" infrastructure (and boycotts do not).
  • CRTs are better for certain consumers than LCDs.  They are less prone to theft, endure non-air-conditioned environments, and last longer (20 years) than LCDs, and have better display qualities and refresh rates for certain applications.
  • Refusing to sell a reuse computer to someone who cannot hope to afford a new computer sentences the buyer to remain "backward, barefoot and pregnant" in the next decade.
When the CRT glass market for the CRTs we break finally goes away, and mankind stops making new CRTs which last 20 years, it may come the time to stop reusing working CRTs (good for ten years).  But if the affordable display market is going have 10 more years, not 20, then reused CRTs are better than new ones.   This is why Basel Action Network and WR3A are united on improving the reuse market, not just destroying working equipment.  

By the way, over 80% of the CRTs we randomly test today are working when collected from the generator;  most of the damage is in shipping and collection.  Working stats are even higher for units less than 10 years old.  Americans are getting rid of them because we can afford new new new LCDs, plasmas, and other flat screens.  Throwing away our leftovers in the face of a hungry market is stupid, expensive, gives the market to scumbags, and is just generally indefensible in any possible way.   The "e-waste" companies which are too lazy to test, to stupid to speak foreign languages, too disorganized to track purchase orders and sales, should not be badmouthing reuse organizations which use Fair Trade standards to create win-win scenarios, reducing carbon, reducing pollution, reducing costs, and creating internet access in poor countries.

Have I made my position clear?