E-Waste Export Ethics: Topical Possibilities (Part I)

Possibility 1:  There is not a single impressive better-than-USA facility in a non-OECD nation.  
Possibility 2:  There is a possibility of an impressive e-waste recycling facility, somewhere.

In 2010, there was a computer reuse and refurbishing factory in Indonesia which created hundreds of sustainable jobs, took junk computers back from residents in the tsunami-ravaged country, and sold affordable refurbished units, not just in Indonesia, but exported them to places like Cairo and Damascus.   It might have taken a thousand Peace Corps volunteers ten years to create a success like that, and millions in USA AID.   But this factory paid for itself based on trade, and was responding to fair trade - offers to sell the used USA equipment for less if the factory got ISO14001 and put in CRT glass processing for incidental breakage and home-country scrap.  Or at least, based on my investigation, there was the Possibility of such a company.

The company used to buy from another Steward company, which "saw the light" and stopped shipping to them a couple of years ago.  When that company was accused of being an exporter (under the Pledge), they were criticized as hypocrites.  It was difficult for me to defend them as an exporter when they were distancing themselves from my friends, who are NOT wire burning monkeys.

These buyers were forced to buy from someone else, who was a competitor of the Steward.  An attack on the "e-waste export" ensued.  Basel Action Network of Seattle, Washington, led the charge, writing letters to the Indonesian deparyment of environmental protection.  I do not have a copy of the BAN correspondence, but I do have copy from Indonesia, which stated that they were returning the sea containers because they had been informed by BAN that they contained hazardous waste.   The containers arrived back in Boston - UNOPENED, seal still intact.

I have copies of letters from Indonesia which, on June 23 of that year, changed the importation policy for refurbishing.  The factory had had a permit, but it was revoked.  

Whatever the truth was, the collateral damage is done.  In corresponding with Jim Puckett about this recently, he raised questions about how could I know it was really a good facility.   Looking at the slide shows, it AIN'T Guiyu.  Still, there's the possibility the factory isn't good enough.  I have pretty nice photos of the place, I spoke to the USA engineer who put the CRT glass washing equipment in (moved from Behai China), and they had ISO14001.  But we hadn't completed our diligence.  So I cannot prove that it wasn't a front, as I can for other facilities we do ship to.

Still, I think they were treated like crap by the American press, by the E-Stewards, and by the environmental community.

This is the context in which I consider the accusations against another firm in the press last week, which appeared to us to pass the CRT glass test, and I've recently shipped several loads to them in Chicago (no PCs or monitors, just TVs, bald CRTs, and a sample of printers).  Like the steward before, this company made a lot of noise about never ever exporting.   I shake my head.  Why doesn't anybody ever ask the importer at the other end, find out who they are, treat them like a person?  By doing this, I found out all kinds of things about all kinds of companies in the E-Waste business.

But let's leave these cases, Brockton, ERI, and Intercon aside for a moment.  We need to start with a general point.  Is it POSSIBLE that overseas refurbishing, or indeed recycling, companies can do a BETTER job than the USA?  Without proving my specific suspicions, that there are cases of collateral damage to good Geeks of Color, we can explore the Ethics via the Hypothetical.
What about the POSSIBILITY that the exported container was going somewhere GOOD?   This is how we tease away the immediate competitive slant, the bias in all the USA stories.  Companies are spinning and interpreting next to no information in order to position themselves competitively.  Criticizing and attacking and s**t-mouthing the competition, its common in new fields, less common in mature industries.  Should we pass a law banning trade before we have eliminated this possibility?

People who compete in business with ERI assumed the worst about ERI's shipments to Advanced Global Recycling.  People who compete in business with Intercon naturally assume the worst about the end market in Hong Kong.   People who assume the worst about CRTR of Brockton assume the worst about shipments to PT Imtech.

My concern is that Basel Action Network is posing as a non-biased, non-profit.   But through the licensing fees on E-Stewards, they are financially rewarded by competitors of the people they attack.  Worse, they have absolutely no incentive to find out what was IN the container, of if the container went SOMEPLACE nice, to good geeks, who are doing something good.  Imagine BAN following the containers to Indonesia, and finding out that their supporter's biggest competitor was underpricing their benefactor by GOOD REUSE, or that, having shut the factory down, that they have done something environmentally wrong.  It takes courage to admit mistakes, I've been told (last night by email).

Competitors of my company criticize our exports (22%) to my colorful geek friends, who have lived in my home, and I've broken bread in theirs.  I will not say I 'saw the light' and I will not say 'it was someone else's stuff'.  If something goes wrong, I'm responsible.  Unfortunately, the most likely thing to go wrong is that someone will write a letter to their authorities accusing Geek Friends of importing hazardous waste for primitive wire burning.

My biggest contribution, through this blog, is probably giving voice to the buyers overseas, who never seem to get their views represented.  The Hong Kong Intercon case is the latest example.  No one talks to the buyers.  (Had CBS tried to do so in their 60 Minutes episode, they would have found out the CRTs in Hong Kong don't "follow the trail" to Guiyu.  They did not see a single CRT, but the journalistic faux pas was not trying to speak to the buyer.)

I must cut this post into at least two parts.  The goal is to define "E-Waste Ethics" not based on the accusations, topical gossip, propaganda or snapshots, which I've demonstrated can be politically or business motivated.   I want to ask whether the hypothetical possibility of INNOCENCE has a burden of proof.  Certification is intended to provide third party insight.  If the container is never opened, and the importer never questioned, how is this news?  We can ethically demand the Recycler provide that information truthfully, and if the Recycler insists that they have a no-interracial-marriage policy, then discovering an interracial tryst becomes a legitimate measure of character.

In Part II, I'll talk about legality under the Basel Convention, legality under civil contracts (including handshakes and verbal representations), and the ethics of accusations.  The factory I have photographed is gone.  I am angry, seething angry.   The CRT recycling line is closing.  The Island will no longer have a domestic end market for the electronics they themselves generate, as it was financed completely by reuse value, which is found in wealthy nations that discard new stuff, and not on the streets of Jakarta.  And they were never given a free trial, or a break of any kind.

Jim Puckett and I try to simply "agree to disagree" about Basel Convention Annex IX, and I hoped that opening a plant in Mexico would help with that (but our grant was cancelled by EPA).    But beyond the letter of the law, I want to make that case that it's unethical to shut down a factory like the one pictured via a campaign that shows much more primitive operations - at least if you later say it was a "technical disagreement in Basel".   One of the best sources of reseach on business and environmental ethics?  In none other than Santa Clara County, the latest "Americans Only" recycling law, there is an ethics think-tank.  The University of Santa Clara Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara Universit describes ethics this way:
Being ethical is also not the same as following the law. The law often incorporates ethical standards to which most citizens subscribe. But laws, like feelings, can deviate from what is ethical. Our own pre-Civil War slavery laws and the old apartheid laws of present-day South Africa are grotesquely obvious examples of laws that deviate from what is ethical.
I read this to mean that if the Basel Convention really does mean that good, environmentally sound, sustainable factories are  being "Clubbed to Death" by American Stewards, that the law deviates from ethics, and that failing to document when the law has resulted in injustice is a moral and ethical failure.  Fair Trade is about accountability.  This blog is about accounting for our own accountability.  Since I profiled the closure, lockdown, letters from Indonesia citing letters to BAN in August 2010, BAN has never responded.  There were no ad hominem attacks, no name calling.

We simply pointed out that they did not see in the containers, they went to the press, they informed the Indonesian government that the containers had hazardous waste (according to the Indonesia letter, BAN denies having said it that way), and the containers came back to the USA with the seals still on.  From my conversations with the factory owners, I know what they think of the shipper and I know what they think of BAN.  They'd prefer to buy even nicer product, for less money, from more people.  It has been 12 months since the California Compromise, and one year later BAN is accusing someone of exporting three containers somewhere without telling us what's inside them.  I don't know what's inside Intercon's containers.  I do know what was inside the containers reported on route to Semarang.  I do know the ethics of calling my friends, technicians and geeks, primitive, and the ethics of a Willie Horton campaign which burns into American and European minds a savage Sambo-image of technicians and geeks in emerging markets.

If BAN's defense of their role in closing down Samsung Corning, PT Imptech, and others is the "letter of the law", then they should say so.  They should publicly state that this may or may not have been a good, fair trade facility, but that their interpretation of the Convention does not allow for the possibility.  Jim made this case actually, in the Frontline documentary, following the interview with R. Gupta (the Indian engineer planning a state of the art e-waste facility in India).  More on that tomorrow.

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