Chestnuts on E-Waste Exports

How did the E-Waste Debate get where we are today?  Containerloads of working Pentium 4s seized as "e-waste" by dictators, Technicians overseas forced to buy computers in back alleys, good USA E-waste recyclers withdrawing from international trade, under fear of being tarred as a polluter?  Legislation introduced, making it illegal to sell computers back to the same factory that made them, to be refurbished for hospitals in Africa?

Here are some links to articles I wrote for Recycling Today, going back to 2002.   Back then, I was disturbed by the idea of breaking off trade with recyclers overseas.   The urban recyclers of Cairo, Jakarta, Guangzhou, and Lima are poor.  But that doesn't make their top Geeks stupid, or their recycling worse.  When a poor person works for me, am I "externalizing?"  According to BAN, and Karl Marx, it is obviously so.   IF a rich person trades with a poor person, it is exploitative.  Ban, close the SBA.  [Postscript see 2010 interview with Adam Minter in Planet Green - not even about reuse, the recycling alone may be worth the cost of exports].

Newest Discovery:  Angola
What attracted me to electronics recycling was that the repair and reuse markets add multiple values - in other words, a win-win relationship which brings honest wealth, green good, and development to emerging markets.  A kid in Accra or Luanda or Douala can, with his education and willingness to replace a transistor, turn an "e-waste" laptop from a negative externality into a month's pay and an affordable internet appliance.

Over the years, I've been less successful in promoting the idea of fair trade recycling than anti-globalization activists (in Seattle) have been of promoting a ban on the trade.   I continue to write and promote my cooperative fair trade vision.  And of late I've been frustrated by what I see as the advantages of the adversaries.  And I'm proud to say that the most thoughtful people in the debate, if not the loudest, are listening.

The loudest, trying to all-capitalize the debate, and to drown out other prespectives with a scourge of dittos and re-tweets, have several advantages. (LIST)

1) They have a century of white Euro-guilt to leverage.   Poster children tug at our heart strings.  We want a solution to make the pictures go away.

2)  They have found "Planned Obsolescence" industries with billions of dollars anxious to take used goods off the market.   If someone in Egypt wants to get online, they want them to buy flat screen monitors.  The affordable old CRTs are competition.  Pass laws to "cancel" the CRTs, and the competition (or "market cannabalization") goes away.

3)  Having built a vision of a solution, they have politically correct momentum.  I have seen first hand how advocates who get legislation passed become defensive of it.    People who have invested in black-box no-intact-unit shredders get worried if it turns out that exports may be ok (under the right conditions) after all.

During those ten years, while I haven't had the success of E-Waste Prohibitionists in the mainstream press, I do have the following:
  • We have friendships with people in on five continents, who have lived in my house, broken bread at my table, and shared their visions for their own lives.
  • We have built businesses (one of which I own 100% of) which employ people, creating real jobs (my business having brought $6M into Addison County Vermont).  Though most - by far - of what we bring in is broken down and recycled in the USA, our hands on experience in overseas trade of the (22%) product which can be reused gives us hands on, in-the-trenches knowledge that ivory tower activists lack.
  • We can count in tons, and extrapolate in carbon and toxins, the avoided disposal and avoided mining and avoided energy costs from recycling we did with our own hands.
  • We can add friends on Facebook in countries which use "good enough" refurbished computers which they could not otherwise afford - and celebrate their victories in creating democracies, blood banks, film, and art.
Capacitor Replacement:  Tantamount to Murder?
The (self-)importance of "e-waste" policy can be exaggerated by either side.  We need to take our causes seriously, without taking ourselves too seriously.   But I know this for sure.   My friends like me and they don't like the people who use pictures of them, and call them names, and describe them as polluters.  And our friends overseas and in Mexico are all ages, nationalities, educations, genders, and races.

Globalist like myself are on the right side of history.  NPR, Motherboard, PBS, Germany's, Recycling Today, and others have documented the truth we tell.  And we are enthusiastic that EPA, MIT, and StEP are looking more closely at what we have been telling them. is doing more for humans in impoverished nations than Lenin or Mao ever did... and time will tell a story of how fair trade is better than prohibitions.

The Joe McCarthy campaign against Geeks of Color and Recyclers of Language is walking a tightwire between altruistic perfection and cynical obsolescence.  E-Stewards, certain of their re-tweets and legislated shredding solutions, are on the wrong side of the Awakening.  If you trade fairly with people overseas, they can properly recycle the devices that wear out (or the parts they electively upgrade and replace before sale).  The names they have been called will make them rebound better when Oprah Winfrey sets foot at Las Chicas Bravas.

The Stewards refusal to Compromise in California will prove a harsh choice.  Instead of owning the sale of the goods, they threw salt in the eyes of women and men who make their living in repair and reuse.  They have turned away the best and brightest minds in the emerging markets.  But they'll be back.

In the end, the new-found friends in OEMs (who were attacked by BAN a decade ago) are not stupid, and they are investing in refurbishing and recycling partnerships in emerging markets.  I hope they will realize that reuse in those markets helps them, like used cars help people learn to drive and to buy new cars.  Five years from know, they'll be looking for vindication that their own overseas recycling plants (with the loopholes they have open in the Green-Thompson e-waste bill) are "fair trade" and "friendly".

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