Exporting Power Supplies

Needle Top right:  tiny green board in power supply

Responsible Recycling Certification is a big topic here at ISRI.  This is the first of three posts about three exports which are up in the air:  PC power supplies, optic drives, and hard drives.

The cost of certification is somewhere between $8K and $18K, assuming you manage TVs etc..  It is not the cost of the certification, however, as much as the added expense or sacrificed profit from activities you may have to add or curtail.

There's a lot of buzz over a small number of items - DVD Roms, CD Rom drives, floppy disk drives, and power supplies.    These are parts that in the past were harvested and accepted as exportable under the Pledge of True Stewardship (at least, according to several Pledge signers I spoke to, who knows what the Imam said at any point in time).  They were acceptable by many countries interpretation of Basel Convention, but not by all.  Today the question is:  Are power supplies "focus materials"?

"Focus Material" is the term R2 stakeholders used to describe components which have an environmental concern associated with their management.   Steel casings from the outside of a computer are not "focus materials" as steel is commonly exported all over the place and there are no Annex III releases associated with steel recycling (assuming it's a clean load without radioactive or oils hidden inside).
Focus materials are: cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and CRT glass; circuit boards (unless they have had batteries and mercury-containing items removed and are lead free); batteries; and items containing mercury and/or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), both in EOL equipment and when separated as components;
PC Power Supply Exports:

The old rule, when I got started, was to separate power supplies by ATX and ATX-2 Standards. Those brought us $0.75 apiece in 2002, and were sold piece by piece to Chinese companies in Kunming, who were refurbishing them.  They would only buy the ones which would fit on an Intel "Advance Technology Extended" motherboard.  If we sent an Apple power supply, we got downgraded, those were considered "scrap" because Apple was changing the design of their units so frequently that no two power supplies were interchangeable, and "repair" of the Apple power supplies was "incidental" at best.

Circuits for Primitives
So we exported these, separating out the ones that didn't fit the PO (purchase order), and it created a job in Middlebury.  We felt good.

Later, the Chinese buyers figured out that it was a lot cheaper buying these in a load of scrap.  They could pay $0.45 per pound instead of 75 cents each.  They would demanufacture whatever they got, and use parts or scrap value them for copper, capacitor, aluminum heat sink, etc.  The question is, what became of that tiny little green board (the only component with visible solder)?

There's really not much in the way of solder in these, and they are not boards which are soaked in toxic aqua regia for gold.   The power supplies were re-graded in China, and are either reused, or pieces separated by hand, component by component.  Heat sinks may be harvested and resold as heat sinks, resistors as resistors, capacitors as capacitors.   Pins and clips.  Transformers.  Relays.  Potentiometers. Oscillators.  [The blog "friedfly" is an American blog which had only two posts in 2010, seems shuttered... but there is some intensely valuable Geek-o-script embedded from 2008-9].

After all these pieces are harvested, that tiny board may be discarded, which is a problem but not necessarily a toxic problem or an un-solvable problem.   Fair trade agreements which offer more money to overseas recyclers who properly dispose of any leftover residue seem a reasonable approach.

However, there are e-scrap recyclers in both the R2 and E-Steward camps who would make it mandatory to stop these exports.  These companies have shredders, which have new eddy current separators and optic readers which supposedly get the copper bearing components out.

The question is whether it's better for a woman in China to earn income from the component level recovery, or flat direct reuse of certain drives and power supplies.   Under R2, you would have to first get consensus whether the board (pictured above) is "de minimus", or "non-toxic disposal", or "focus material"?  If the power supply is left on the steel frame and baled (see photo) as scrap ferrous, it would leave a very clean bale of steel with a very small fraction of "transistors"... De Minimus is latin for "the solution is dilution".

Shredding these up... has anyone actually measured or done a mass balance to see if those little circuit boards will be handled better in the downstream?

peek a boo
Does the board inside a power supply have lead solder in it?  Less than in a toaster.  But a power supply comes out of a de-manufacturing operation, out of a computer, and it "looks" electronic.  Those capacitors and resistors "look" like "e-waste".   And Chinese ladies separating these, either into working ATX or ATX-2 dual voltage working power supplies "look" exploited.

If I bale the power supplies in the steel and send it through a shredder, I look all domestic.  If I test the power supplies to see if they are "working", I'll test some that may still be electively scrapped for the resistors, capacitors, copper and steel (e.g. working Apple power supplies - Apple constantly changed the shape of its power supply, they may never have made a desktop with an interchangeable power supply component, by design).

de minimus haystack?
Selling the power supplies as "intact units" will bring the company 3 times the scrap value - about 45 cents per pound compared to 15 cents (very roughly, FOB price).  But a recycler who shreds them up into auto fluff will defend their practice as "more domestic".

So if the export of intact power supplies is stopped by either E-Stewards or R2, the result will probably be the same as California SB20 "cancellation".  It will reduce supply, and prices will go up.  The price of the power supplies will increase proportionately to the volume shredded.  That's the cost of certification... lost revenue.  And for the environment - lost rare earth metals, added carbon, and fewer jobs.

The percentage of our material which is "power supply" is small - less than 2% of 22.% (export).  But the cost to do a full downstream audit on those powers supplies is just as much as "downstreaming" exports of display units.  The more different types of export you entertain, the higher the up front cost of certification, the less leverage you have on that export market to live up to their own documentation, or - if you feed them to the shredders for the "easy" 15 cents, less labor (jobs) in the USA and less income.   We could easily lose more money annually from lost power supply sales than the entire R2 certification would cost us.

The criminalization of hand disassembly is something new.  John Henry was a steel driving man with a hammer in his hand, but he needs a lobbyist and a lawyer.

Tested Working?
But this is no ordinary trial.  John Henry is being accused of exporting a "witches brew" of toxic substances.  The language of the "e-waste" watchdog is full of "white man ju-ju" words, from toxics to brominated to leaching to solder.    No legitimate company wants to be accused of pollution, and since no one has measured whether more "toxic releases" emit from hand disassembly or from machine disassembly, people are left with photos.  What "looks" toxic?  What "looks" processed?

The important thing today has nothing to do with the science or accountability for the cost of minining tantalum from a rain forest to produce the resistor in the electronics, or whether that rare earth metal is captured by the shredder, or whether the carbon fooprint is higher, or how many jobs are created, or whether America's economy suffers from raw material processing of value-added components.  We can accept more gorillas killed to mine more tantalum in conflict metal mines to replace the rare earth lost in the steel bale.   We cannot accept an Asian woman saving that gorilla by individually harvesting the capacitor, resistor, or relays.

It's not whether the 75 cents each demonstrates more free market value than 15 cents per pound in scrap.  It's whether the woman weighs as much as a duck... then, she's a witch.

"How do we know she's a witch?"
"She looks like one!"

If she weighs as much as a duck, she'll float.  
And if she floats, she's made of wood.   
And legos look like capacitors.

To be continued....

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Harry said...
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