E-Waste Export Ethics: Tropical Possibilities (Part II)

In Part I, I complained that whenever there is a "big story" about exports, no one talks to the people who paid to import the material.  When I talked to them, I learned a lot.  Why aren't they better at getting their own stories out?  They are scared to death.
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 the developing world... (likely an original manufacturing factory).

My foreign friends are stung by events of the past year.  No matter what they invested, no matter what recordkeeping they undertook, no one asked them what their processes were or what their permits said;  they were accused of bringing containers of "hazardous waste" into the country.

They believe that E-Steward Certification position is #1, that their best aspirations cannot exist.    R2 at least holds open the possibility #2, that a good location overseas might exist, and it's worth checking the place out before hammering it with propaganda bombs.  BAN replied to this question this week, saying they have a right to exist - if they only refurbish and resell computers they buy from within places like Indonesia, or until they become OECD.

This is of course a ridiculous predicament for a contract manufacturer.  They can mine, they can refine (both far more polluting activities than recycling), they can manufacture, and they can take back under warranty.  But they cannot repair, take back, refurbish, electively upgrade, or recycle the products they make for us?

There are places in the world, in Africa, which are today as poor as Indonesia was 30 years ago, or as Korea was 60 years ago.  Those places in Africa do not have the wherewithal to completely remanufacture computer display devices, or to buy new ones.   The choices today are to buy fully functioning computers from the USA - except most E-Stewards listed have zero-reuse, no-intact unit, even if they are "allowed" to test for full functionality.  Their other choice is to buy refurbished units from the factories which made the computer monitors in the 1990s, and now buy and completely upgrade them to like new status.

Attacks on the refurbishers and take-back factories are boiling over.

  • This is a recipe for Indonesia (which did not get the LCD/LED/Plasma investments) to slip backwards.
  • This is a recipe for Africa to do without.
  • This is a recipe for Americans to waste a lot of money that could have done something good.
  • And none of it is required by the Basel Convention, which explicity describes what Indonesia does as legal under international law.

WR3A gave the Indonesians and Africans the advice to negotiate with better suppliers, ones willing to offer them incentives and rewards for cleaner processes.  BAN told the USA suppliers that this was illegal unless the USA performed a dissection of the monitors (removing parts). We tested the BAN method, and it resulted in a net increase in toxic residuals (and also ruined the ones ready for direct resale without refurbishing), compared to elective upgrades at the factories.

As this negotiation over the Compromise was going on, BAN told the government of Indonesia, or at least the government of Indonesia heard, that this was all hazardous waste, as described in Part 1, and in the "Clubbed to Death" blog from last year.

We shouldn't have to make this choice.   This is driving the reuse economy back underground.  It punishes the factories who took WR3A's invitation and obtained ISO9000 and ISO14001, and punishes the Africans.  BAN poo-poos ISO, and it's not perfect, but its an effort towards transparency, accountability, record keeping, and progress.

Meanwhile, BAN takes 1% of the grosses from the companies that shred.   They would have us believe that they didn't need to talk to the buyer before accusing them of "hazardous waste imports" because they are really sure that shredding is legal and that refurbishing isn't (or, if it isn't illegal, Basel Convention should be Amended, because it should be illegal to repair).

I was enough of an environmentalist, an impassioned environmentalist in my 20s, to make a very difficult choice.  I went to business school.  I got an MBA.  Would have loved to chase whaling boats at Greenpeace, but I saw that this was our environmental community's blind spot, that we needed to understand the marketplace for recycling to succeed.  BAN's recipe is a recipe for rare earth europium magnets to be shredded into steel bales, for revolutionaries in Cairo to be accused of "illegal" imports of 5 year old display devices, and for Indonesians to refurbish 15 year old products rather than 5 year old products.  The decision tree they designed and are selling is going to mean more mining, more pollution, and a tax on the poor.  They even assume they are immune to payola - accepting money from shredders and then attacking companies that underbid those shredders through reuse.  You don't need an MBA, you need a mirror.

So, when the same organization attacks Intercon, I am not declaring Intercon innocent.  I'm only declaring that BAN has demonstrated in the past a willingness to shoot first and ask questions never.   They do not know what they are talking about, and make it up as they go along, and never showed any interest in meeting the people whose lives they have sacrificed to some sort of anti-globalist utopian idea.

The overseas Geeks say that Jim Puckett makes his position clear in the interview about Gupta on Frontline.  After the engineer describes the state of the art e-waste engineering program he plans for India, Jim is interviewed afterwards basically saying these efforts to improve the developing world are destined to fail.

To be fair to BAN, they have reached out to us on occasion, looking for a way to partner, as in the California Compromise, which I put major effort into a year ago this month.   Under the California Compromise, BAN and I would have jointly positioned California to allow testing for reuse - to BAN's E-Steward Standards - to WR3A vetted facilities overseas.  But as soon as the first overseas company introduced itself, they were contacted by their EPA. Chinese expression:  Do not be a crane among the chickens.   (The farmer is tempted by the longest neck).

Should we try again?

My friends and I would first like E-Stewards to publicly admit what we are trying to do is possible. If Jim, who so many in the community believe is the go-to guy on exports, is personally invested in the failure of non-OECD refurbishing and recycling, then ISO14001, downstream accounting, and fair trade are futile.  

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