Export Ethics: Topical/Tropical Possibilities III

Every time I cut a long post up, it takes longer to re-write it, which isn't proper blogging as much as it's job security for Google staff.  This is the third segment  about how Environmental Stewards' callousness to collateral damage in the developing/emerging world harms people and the environment.   As the Watchdogs try to monetize their model, use it to produce income, they are at risk of losing any ethical advantage over the people they accuse.  Sadly, they have allowed themselves to be the primary tool in the war against reuse.

I used the controversy over the Intercon Solutions recycling certification to raise again what happened in February of 2010, when one of the largest and best display device refurbishing factories was at the wrong end of a containerload accused by BAN.org of being "hazardous waste".  This is the third segment.

The Crime:  Recycling While Brown

When we raise the possibility that there is a kinder, gentler, greener side to the E-Waste story, where hand-disassembly out-performs shredding, and where boards are not burned or soaked in acid or dumped on the ground, BAN says that the lack of systems and safeguards in those countries makes the claim uncertain, even if they did meet face to face with the Geeks of Color.  I guess the question now is, whether the USA certifications are any more sure.  The solution offered by BAN is to pay them to monitor it.  The way they monitor is, take a photograph of sea containers and tell the foreign enforcement office that it contains hazardous waste, and then report the recycler to the news media as a bad actor. 

And how exactly does that determine if the boards were burned after all?   The business model is based on the Geeks having no right to exist.

BAN should get their asses sued off.  But I'm not going to do it, and the Geeks of Color can't do it.  Is there another way forward?

One way forward.  We can allow BAN to visit and investigate these large scale factories, or we can move one of the factories to Mexico (where we work in areas poorer than Indonesia, but yet have OECD status under the Basel Convention).  We don't have funding for the latter (having struck out at Investors Circle).  So compromise requires BAN to recognize the Geeks right to exist in principle, if they are clean and non-polluting, as I maintain.  

We received a copy of Waste and Recycling News, and also discussed ways forward with Jim Puckett personally.  Jim was nice, he was reaching out, despite my having recently used the controversy over Intercon to focus on BAN's earlier accusations of containerloads shipped to Indonesia.  But in my hand was an article describing an congressional effort to make export for repair and upgrade a crime.

Check out the photo to the left, provided to the magazine by BAN.org. "A man hauls electronic waste to a burn pile in Ghana in 2009."   I look at these photos closely, since they have been used in the absence of data to convince Americans that "alter globalization" is impossible.

What I see is a photo of a barren landscape.   A study of the "E-waste" trade in Ghana, released in April, funded in part by none other than the Basel Secretariat, tells a different story than the photo.  The Report describes the import of WEEE into Ghana, data collected in 2009 (same year as the photo) as follows:  Electronics Imported:  215,000 Tons.  Percent which was new:  30%.   Of the Used, percent discarded as non-repairable:  15%.

When I look at the photo, I see a 20 year old monitor being carried to an isolated dump.  I do not see evidence that 150,500 Tons are being managed there.  (See "Wrong, Wrong, Wrong..." post for more abuse and misuse of photographic evidence).   What our friends overseas see is an ugly American stereotype of the geeks, techs, and recyclers in other countries.

When I think of Ghana used electronics imports, I think of Meltwater Academy, I think of Muhammed Wahab, I think of Frederique Somda.  I think they need funding to properly recycle the 15% which is not repairable, or help from E-Stewards to replace it with newer, fairly traded product.

Take a closer look at the photo.  The white kitchen TV case is from the 1970s.  The kid is burning wires because he doesn't have a job.   It looks nothing like the material filmed in Ghana by Greenpeace (See "Wrong Wrong Wrong" photos of containers being unloaded).  The purpose of this photo?   Ask Michael Dukakis.

The implication is clear.  1% of your gross proceeds as an E-Steward does not get BAN to follow your containers to the buyer, and to monitor or survey or audit or discuss the buyer's process.  1% pays for BAN to show ten year old posters, which my friends consider racist in effect if not in intent, and to call the foreign nation to tell them that the container is full of hazardous waste - so that it is returned unopened back to the USA.

I've already described the disproportionate role photos like these play in development of E-Waste policy. What I'm describing today is that they drive a wall between the USA Environmental Community and the Geeks of Color, the people creating internet and creating environmental solutions.  The irony is that BAN, and increasingly USA EPA, are describing the "e-waste" trade as an "environmental justice" issue, but basing the policy on NO INTERVIEW, NO MEETING, NO VISIT to the factories like WR3A befriends in Africa, Asia and South America.

Same TV, Nigeria, 1977
The certifications - both R2 and E-Stewards - are new.   The auditors are still learning on the job.   As I described in Part I, so little data and information is being presented that certification, and stories about certification, center around competitive business interests.

If Indonesia and other rapidly emerging economies are not allowed to trade in repair and refurbishing, and can only purchase "tested working" and "fully functional" used computers, then the large scale refurbishing factories they have already built are sidelined.   Defining "repair" to be the same thing as "disposal" is not fair, not the language in the Basel Convention, and Jim Puckett's "interpretation" of the Basel Convention language on repair and refurbishment is part of what earns a nickname of "ayatollah of e-waste" in the refurbishing industry.

California is a place wasting so much money destroying reuse, allowing those funds to be used for testing rather than shredding seemed like a good idea.  Jim at BAN cautiously embraced it, and as I said last fall (when I declared it dead), he did more than the bureaucrats in CA to "carry water" to the fire.

For most of the folks investing in best practices overseas (and if BAN does not even recognize investment in CRT glass washing as an ATTEMPT or INVESTMENT, scre* them), the Possibility 1s, are placing their bets on R2 Certification, not on E-Stewards.  When BAN's leadership really believes it's possible that a Geek of Color can also be a good environmentalist, they should let me know.. it is a green light to green investment.

If e-Stewards denies Possibility 2, it is a red light for green investment.

Until then it just seems like a forgone conclusion that BAN will consider our efforts the way Jim pooh-poohed Guptas on Frontline.  BAN and SVTC and ETBC haven't shown much interest in doing diligence whether Semarang was good.  I agree with with questions about ISO14001, the fact is we never did not ship there, while waiting for proof of pending major improvements.  We visited after the "Indonesia dumping" story broke.

It's a nightmare.  Just as the Indonesia technicians had made the promised improvements, established takeback inside Indonesia, and put in CRT glass processing equipment for incidental breakage, Stewards with a competitive interest against PT Imtech's suppliers got BAN to write to the Indonesian government, declaring the sea containers full of "hazardous waste".  Wordsmithing by BAN about what the letter said aside, I have a copy of the Indonesia government letter turning back the containers - unopened - back to the USA.  They state in the letter that they have received information from BAN that the containers contain "hazardous waste".

Indonesia had, at the time, issued import permits, and allowed the refurbishing of CRTs in the factories (like the ones in this slide show).

My point in defending Intercon is not that I've done extensive diligence beyond CRT Glass test.  I don't know what the outcome of the investigation into the mysterious Hong Kong containers will be.  But I have seen unopened containers attacked in the press before.   The E-Stewards did not seem the least bit curious whether they did harm.  Would it have failed, like Jim predicted Gupta's will on Frontline?  They never got a chance, and there appears to be too little curiosity on BAN's part why I'm upset.  If you've already dropped a bomb, I guess doing the intelligence on collateral damage AFTER the bomb is "a thankless task".   We'd like them to investigate end markets before they set off these publicity bombs... Just in case, you know, Possibility 1, Environmentalism in the developing world, Life on Mars, exists.

For now, all WR3A Geeks are to BAN is:

  • a foregone conclusion of erosion and failure
  • collateral damage
  • a threat to E-Stewardship's business model.
Elective upgrade is generation of waste, not transit.   Can BAN really argue that an elective working part upgrade is "dumping" because of the resulting part being in the foreign land?  By that logic, so is brand new product, since it will eventually fail, or a new product accidentally left in the rain.   The geeks see more evidence of "white man's burden", of the "noble savages" that they are supposed to play some role in a play from another century.  Could empowering them lead to a loophole that creates more dumping?  Definitely a possibility.  Could empowering them lead to better e-waste recycling in the nations which are now generating more surplus electronics than they import?  Probably.

Uncertainty about whether my fair trade efforts will succeed does not immunize E-Stewards from committing collateral damage to environmental efforts to bring computers overseas.  When BAN attacks an end market with no investigation of it, and fails to make any effort to follow up on Possibility 1 - they recklessly endanger good people. 

Whether WR3A is real or a fraud, if there is Possiblity 1, a good end market somewhere overseas, these attacks based on race and nationality of the traders is reckless.  It will eventually hurt someone.  Whether or not E-Stewards take my earnest word for it that they already have set back the environment in Indonesia, if they accept Possibility 1, and do not check out the end market before going public, then logically it's an eventuality that someone good will get hurt.  I'm not saying Intercon is necessarily that company, or the human being in Hong Kong they allegedly shipped to, but BAN did drop bombs without looking at the possible collatoral damage in Semarang, and that's the basis of my critique.

I've lived in these countries,  these people have lived with me, and in the past 2 years, under Jim Puckett's leadership, BAN achieved the unbelievable.  The technicians and environmentalists overseas now all hate BAN worse than they hated the worst exporters whom BAN and I helped expose.  They believe BAN's questions about their processes and end markets are just an excuse to continue to denigrate their aspirations.   They don't think BAN wants the answers, because BAN's business model limits the possibilities above.  

"The perfect is the enemy of the good."   No environmentalist likes the phrase applied to their efforts.  But my warnings are not an ad hominem attack.   I saw the collatoral damage in Semarang, Indonesia.  I saw, for 17 months, a complete lack of interest in how the letters to Indonesia EPA were translated, how Indonesia EPA put in writing that they were "informed by" BAN that the containers held hazardous waste, how the containers were sent back unopened, and how the factory's permit for refurbishing was taken away based on what was (or was not) in the containers.

If e-waste exports are defined as "bad" because foreign importers are defined as "primitive", and a law is drafted based on that, then we will have no more Cairo Revolutions and the environmentalist narcissists will have committed the ultimate bomb, with the ultimate collatoral damage.  Give Africans, Asians and Latin Americans the chance to externalize value, and compete in sustainable recycling jobs.  Prohibition usually sucks.

In Santa Clara County, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, 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.
When Jim is presented with the possibility or claim of a top shelf, eat of the floor, environmentally sound e-waste refurbishing facility overseas, he explains that his interpetation of the Basel Convention law is that Annex III trumps Annex IX.  That's bullshit, but anyway the determinating party are the Commerce (for reuse) and Environment (for disposal) departments in the importing country.  Those countries are explicitly allowed to make the determination that refurbishing is a commodity management, not waste disposal.  Jim cannot possibly say that refurbishment is illegal under Basel, only that it is possible to interpret Basel not to allow it, and he wants everyone to interpret it that restrictive way.

Which e-waste philosophy is the more ethical?   I have spent a lot of my life trying to do the best thing I can do, be the best person God could want me to be, and I fail daily.  But the relationships I've built with Geeks of Color overseas are at least one thing I got right.  We may fail.  But there is the possibility that Americans can upgrade from a 15 inch display device to a 21 inch display device and do good - donating the other one to a med school student who could not otherwise have afforded it, and save someone's life when Lagos finally has a computerized blood bank at the maternity wards.  The very best people to refurbish that monitor?  Isn't it just POSSIBLE that it's the same factory in China, Indonesia, Thailand or Singapore that MADE IT?  Isn't it POSSIBLE that upgrading the boards to make the monitor newer and to last longer will save someones life, and that the electively replaced parts won't be dumped into the soil...?  Fair trade is not about wishful thinking, it's about taking the steps to bring about the best outcomes.

I'd like to invite the University to study the Ethics of the town's decision to exclusively use E-Stewards, and the State of California's decision to destroy all display devices which might be used overseas, based on the theory that they might instead be burned or improperly recycled.

Most importantly, that the leftover materials in places like Guiyu, were residuals, or "toxics along for the ride", from materials which were effectively and beautifully recycled and reused.  The material at the dumps in Ghana was imported years ago, that no one is importing anything that old - meaning the material being burned is at the end of its second life, not imported to be burned.

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