What Happens to Reuse Exports "Eventually"?

Test in VT, Refurbish in Asia, Sell w/ warranty in Egypt
We were recently asked this question, again, by an environmentalist.  She expressed doubt or concern whether the completely refurbished computers we help to provide were really an answer to "the e-waste problem".  Eventually, she said, the computers would go obsolete.  What happens when they become e-waste some day in the future?

I think we've answered the same question about a half dozen times.   For the record, before I repeat my answer (in GREEN below), here are the four questions I asked back but did not get a response to yet, but may.. eventually.

(To imagine the conversation a little better, first watch the John Cleese and Manuel duet, from BBC's Fawlty Towers, at bottom)
  1. What happens if I shred this computer?  Will the African get a new one eventually?
  2. What eventually happens when a brand new computer is donated to the poor country?  Should new computers be banned too?
  3. What happens if people in the poor countries cannot get online?  Will they sooner have a recycling infrastructure ten years from now?
  4. Would the USA live by the standard that you cannot sell technology (think of plasma TVs) until there is a recycling system in place for them?  Doesn't supply always precede the recycling investment?
Now, here is OUR ANSWER.  In the countries we sell working and reuseable CRTs to, we pay our partners to properly recycle any accidental breakage.  And the partners now take back an old junker for every piece they resell for reuse.  It's a "Monitors for Clunkers" program, and it resulted in a proper end market where none would have existed had Fair Trade Recycling been stopped.

She said it was a good answer.  I hope she remembers it eventually.  How about the answers to my questions?  Is breaking down working and repairable equipment a higher standard, more moral, more ethical, more environmentally sensitive?  What have YOU done for the developing world today?

When people get online, they get information.  Like that it is safe to reuse umbilical cord fluids after birth... one of the projects underway at the hospitals our partners provide repaired computers to in Africa.  Getting this information out is going to save lives, banning the partner from putting hospitals online until there is a recycling infrastructure... not to put too fine a point on it... has a life or death effect..

So what happens to working used computers "Eventually"?  Like John Cleese, I could spend the rest of my life having this conversation.

But it's true these don't last forever.  We need to use the reuse value, while it is still there, as an incentive to get the demanufacturing and recycling started within these emerging markets.  It is BECAUSE they don't last forever, and won't have value much longer, that we need to use the trade NOW to create the infrastructure the developing world needs.  It is AS important that our answer in green means we are setting up e-waste recycling programs INSIDE the developing countries.  Watch Attero Recycling of Bombay... but also imagine the strong ladies of Retroworks  de Mexico, who did a stellar job without even electricity.

As Cleese's Basel Fawlty says, "Please, Please try to understand before one of us dies..."

1 comment:

Adam Minter said...

Robin - This is a great post.

I think I might be able to add some visuals to help out with your answer soon. Fact is, developing world recycling - that is, post re-use - is ramping up. The facilities that some of the multinational OEMs use in developing countries are just as good, if not better, as what you'll find in the US and Europe. The trick is to get the consumer flow into that system. I am an optimist, and what I've seen recently tells me it's a-coming.