Why WR3A Certification (2007) Woulda Shoulda Coulda

R2 Certification and E-Stewards Certification Growing Pains:  Been There.

silver label for working, repairable, scrap, and dumping
The crybaby e-scrap companies, the public outings of single export loads, the fees to see non-published standards, the waffling by EPA over which standard to endorse... It's a category killer.  The public already discarded ewaste once, and is bound to lose interest if we don't prioritize our goals.   This week someone I know in our business got confused and thought a company in Chicago was "under indictment" (he got confused over the Executive Recycling Colorado indictment).  No, having BAN publicly end your application to be the best company ever does not result in prison.  What my friend's confusion illustrates is the perils of using "certifications" as a substitute for rule of law. We are all attracted to the idea of a simple solution to a complex, robust, multi-niche industry.  As the developer of an earlier fail-to-thrive certification program, I know.

In 2007, WR3A took a serious crack at developing a certification standard for "e-waste" recycling companies.

We felt that the Pledge of True Stewardship (since disavowed by Watchdog groups) had become a joke (that year one "Pledge" company had 22 locations listed at BAN.org, and fewer than 10 employees, had "EPA Certified and BAN Certified" on its home page, and described their export practices (65%) in a NY Times article that BAN had on its own press page).   IAER was faltering, and would soon be absorbed by ISRI - a top shelf industry association with fees that would stagger many of the start up E-Scrap companies.

We took statistics we had developed over years of buying and brokering used CRT monitors, which had been a fantastic, sustainable business from 2000-2006... one which was being mercilessnessly defamed and libeled by "well meaning" (arrogant. racist. narcissist. wrong.) NGOs and shredding companies.  We applied knowledge of USA companies and found common sense indicators of problems.  If you say you are shipping "tested working" units, where do the bad ones go?  CRT glass is expensive, and companies who manage it don't cover for people who lie about using their services.  Employees per ton - duh.  Sea containers per ton - we were able to track sea containers all over the world (and didn't do it the way BAN does, using biased photographers).

We used the computer program we developed for certification for a major university, as a consultant to their procurement (my company recused itself from the bid).  The two companies which "failed", as it turned out, were both subject to federal enforcement.  The university procurement / sustainability coordinator was very happy with the study, saying he had "dodged a bullet" by avoiding the low bidders and having the statistical analysis to show it.

We tried to put the certification onto the internet, and to have filling out the form become a "match.com" or "eharmony" for used electronics recyclers in 2008.   It was a Digital Bridge over the River Kwai... a bridge too far.  The WR3A became popular among people I didn't know.  "I'm an exporter.  'Like' Robin."

Our organization was too immature to carry it through, though we put a great deal of effort into it, hiring a statistical programmer and developing web based analytics.  We tried to finance the growth with cooperative shipments of display units - a brilliant idea in 2005.  The display refurbishing industry shifted, demand declined, and existing WR3A companies suddenly had a conflict of interest with every new member, pushing supply into a limited demand market.  The overseas buyers loved it - quality improved and price fell.  But demand continued to decline.  Trading refurbished devices by the hundreds of thousands between multiple countries turned out to be a full time job, with no one to fill it.  Then the recession just about killed my own business, WR3A members stopped paying annual dues... and WR3A's 2007 Standard was the main casualty.

As I read more and more about the competition between the R2 and E-Stewards standards, I see people repeating some of the same mistakes we made.  If your standard is not public, pay to play, it will become an insider game.  You'd better not rely on innuendo from disgruntled employees, or single containers out of thousands, and DON'T rely on the Hong Kong EPA (which labels new in box laptops made in competing nations "e-waste").  If your standard is set by a click of interests, they will not be able to resist the temptation to raise the drawbridge.  R2 Solutions just introduced a new phrase, "state of the art", as an nominee for R2 requirements.  Is re-welding a bad capacitor "state of the art"?  Is hand disassembly "state of the art?"  It is absolutely superior to the best shredders.  But can it be called "state of the art?"

"State of the art" internet cafe, Sonora Mexico
The people who pay for the standard start to dictate who else can use it, meet it, adapt it. WR3A wisely resisted "fast friends" with cash donations with bias either pro or con to "ewaste" exports.  However, WR3A still basically committed the same sin, of protecting existing members first.    Having qualified overseas factories which could meet the standard, we stopped advertising the market... those of us participating kept it to ourselves.  We rushed out to new recycling shows, but lost key staff.    WR3A's certification program went into a coma.  It is a terrific model for cathode ray tube sales.  It will need several pints of blood before its ready for LCD screens and hard drives.

I don't know whether other industries with other standards, from car seats to fairtrade coffee, went through the same "evolved inbreeding".  I will say that WR3A's 2007 standard was superior to either R2 or E-Stewards in this way - it was based on mathematical statistics.  It was designed to disqualify the lowest common denominator, not to be used as a "category killer" by aggressive sales forces.

What I am proud of is that our standard, our certification, was based on actual analysis of actual shipments.  We identified problems and, as a group, sought to improve quality as we went along.   We didn't make up a number ("80% exports, 80% primitive", like BAN and SVTC), and we didn't pretend that numbers didn't matter by recruiting "big names".   What we have as a result is a dozen companies overseas, outside of the USA, who like the idea of buying from people who don't assume they are primitive, and don't mix "toxics along for the ride".   That means WR3A is still a player - the only player - with international membership having a voice in the "certification" and "standard".    We are not an Americans only golf club.   

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