|Poster Child, Toxic E-waste|
When certifications compete, it's a bit like warring doctors or feuding priests. Both certifications were set up less than 18 months ago, neither has really been tested in the field. Either may have unintended consequences. It's only the second inning.
Both certifications are overseen by professional auditing bodies - ANAB and ANSI, the same which authenticate ISO, RIOS, and other standards and practices. These bodies are designed to check on whether the standard is independently verifiable, legal, and can be implmented via PDCA - Plan, Do, Check, Act. The standards are so similar in many respects that the auditors can use the same pages of verification interchangeably to ensure that the companies applying for the standards meet the same environmental, health and safety laws. None of the standards have an in-house auditor playing Catcher in the Rye, catching children from falling into toxic fields. PDCA is better than nothing, but it is weaker than a civil law contract.
How then do the certification advocates differentiate between them? Marketing.
The groups which are invested in the term "e-waste crisis", the ones who would use prohibition in trade with techs of color as a solution, are using drama, guilt, innuendo and poster children to attack the other groups best efforts to promote best practices. They treat companies seeking R2 as the new evil exporters. Seeking to do good without the ayatollah's blessing leads to ayatollah cursing.
In describing "responsible recycler" practices in their Wikipedia article on "E-Stewards", Basel Action Network tries to poison the well on the term:
Jim Puckett, director and founder of BAN, said: "Sadly not all of those companies that call themselves responsible recyclers are truly responsible and many are not recyclers at all, but are just exporters. We have been to the techno-trash dumping grounds of Africa and Asia and seen the children being poisoned. This is why we created the e-Stewards Certification in the first place."Jim made a similar accusation, in an editorial he published in 2009 E-Scrap News, that "fair trade" recyclers were "poisoning people". He claimed to have knowledge that containers of refurbishable equipment imported into Indonesia was "hazardous waste" (same claim we are still waiting to shake out from his accusation against Intercon Solutions of Chicago Heights).
The marketing against a standard developed to improve e-waste trade is obnoxious at best. The R2 "Responsible Recyclers" program represents a two-year consensus document approved by regulators, NGOs, and industry, not "just exporters". It is the association with possible exporters which poisons all the other R2 certifications, according to BAN. "Exporting" according to BAN, simply means poisoning children, not creating internet cafes in Africa.
Poisoning the well for alternative certification standards does not just affect the exporters or users of a particular practice. Consider the effect on R2 companies which do not even export. If you are R2 certified, even if you do not export, you may share a certification with someone who does export. And that exporter, while they have been certified for proper and legal exports, BAN implies may be poisoning children... You may be R2 certified and use no prison labor (most do not), but because a prison program can seek R2 certification, wham! You are not the same as a prison program. Someone who goes to a church which allows gay marriage is the same as someone married to a gay person... at least, that's the same logical thread.... Joe McCarthy reincarnate.
Just how big is the risk that an exporter "among" the R2 may be poisoning innocent little babies? BAN is silent about the major study released on Ghana's imports of used computers, showing 85% reuse. Why? Why do professional AID workers, Peace Corps volunteers, and development officials applaud the same fair trade recycling importers in Africa which BAN says are poisoning children? Why would stakeholders from NGOs, EPA, and industry "collude" on an R2 standard which kills children with e-waste? Nevermind the fact that almost all the exports come from Europe and not the USA (BAN applauds the EU's higher standards).
When someone is promoting something, marketing it in this way, there's one common denominator.
Follow the money... the difference between R2 and E-Stewards is payola to BAN... not a dime of which goes to help a single African baby.
E-Stewards Certificate promoters regularly attack R2 Solutions, impugning the consensus of NGOs, the recycling industry, and the USA EPA. BAN earns 1% of gross profits from any company they allow to be certified. R2 Solutions does not. That is the main reason my company is seeking R2. Even if Vermont mandates an E-Steward standard, and our company is 100% compliant with BAN, we expect to be blamed and attacked until the Ayatollah gets his dough.
BAN uses the money not to improve lives, but to fund a campaign attacking altenative solutions. Part of the money comes from the certified "no export" shredding companies, and is used to promote legislation like the Green-Thompson bill banning exports (... how a 501-c3 IRS non-profit gets away with that is a mystery to me).
BAN "earns" a share of profits from companies like Redemtech, ERI, and WeRecycle. R2 certified companies don't pay shares of revenue to EPA. BAN in turn uses that money to lobby for passage of laws which make their competitors illegal. BAN's selection of companies to attack, such as Intercon, appears to be based less on the percentage of units Intercon allegedly exports, but more on whether existing Stewards like Intercon's bidding practices on their "turf". Its really no different at all from any other industry lobby, except that they wrap themselves in pictures of children, and attack people who do fair trade business with the childrens families.
Other than that, how big are the remaining differences between the standards? Was Santa Clara California right to force recyclers to use just one of the standards? Here's an independent blog from University of Illinois, Amy Cade, who looked at R2 vs. E-Stewards for her own university. Published in April 2010, it was just months after either standard had been launched (I think both standards are still in demo or shakeout mode).
Note the critical comments below Cade's fairly level headed critique. Everyone making a comment criticizing Amy's fair and objective comparison is involved in the payola scheme.
Some at the California Sustainability coordinators conference were like Amy, trying to learn and compare the advantages and disadvantages, but mainly the differences, between these two standards. Some of the apparent differences are subtle. Why does E-Stewards requires a "closure plan" and R2 does not? This came up in Vermont. I recall this discussion from R2 stakeholders. The issue is that under RCRA, different states have different closure plans. R2 developed a consensus that the words "must be legal" under state law automatically encompassed the closure plan requirements. Generally, duplicating standards already in place by state law is unnecessary - the certifier needs to check that all the legal documents are in place, not to copy the documents and replace the regulator. R2 members simply voted that any export or activity the company engages in must be legal, and the auditor must verify that the closure plan is registered and enforced at the state or federal level as required, rather than duplicate the rules of OSHA, EPA, and DOT on a new document which must then be changed every time a law changes.
The "export for repair and refurbishment" seems to be the real key distinction. The surprise is that R2 follows the Basel Convention, which allows export for repair and refurbishment (despite NGO protests against it). EPA recognized the legal option for refurbishment, both under Basel and under the "cores" negotiations at Doha Round of WTO treaty negotiations, so long as the recycler keeps proof and documentation for three years that the goods were legitimately repaired. So while "tested working" is indeed a different standard than "key functions", most regulators in most countries decided that banning elective upgrade and reuse would be a mistake.
Use of Unicor, a prison program, is another distinction. Again, few if any R2 companies USE prison labor, and if Santa Clara CA is really worried, it's fairly simple to find a California R2 company which doesn't use prisons, without requiring them to pay percentages of gross revenues to BAN. A compromise might be to require company to meet E-Steward standards (using the contract or civil law, arguably a stronger enforcement than certification)... but BAN won't publicize the standards. If BAN wants everyone to use the best practice, then why do they charge money to see of the practice? Money.
All the ANAB and ANSI accredited standards, R2, E-Stewards, RIOS and ISO, operate on a PLAN, DO, CHECK, ACT model. The fact is that any of these certifications is a "snapshot". The CEO of a certified company could have a gambling problem, or go on a 3 day drunk, or hire someone going through a nasty divorce. Shit happens. The PDCA model means that a PLAN to follow a standard is in place. The company is, during the snapshot, DOING what the plan says, and the company has a system to CHECK whether employees and equipment comply with the plan.
None of the certifications claims to monitor actual compliance on a month to month basis. The auditors themselves are from the same firms, and they are often the same identical people auditing both standards. Ultimately, civil law (suing the errant recycler) and government enforcement, and not payola or watchdogs, are the enforcement. I prefer my enforcement in a court, in a representative democracy, and not to be tried by someone earning 1% of the earnings of my big competitors.
When there is a mistake or error or accident, and the company checker finds they are not compliant, the company must ACT. The best evidence of ACT is that the company has records of FAILING a standard. When the next visit or certification occurs, if the company has no records of accidents, then you don't really know there were no accidents. If the company has records, then at least you know that some of the time they are Acting on the plan and correcting their mistakes.
It's still too early to know which certification will emerge the stronger. The number of people seeking R2 reflects a lot of people's distaste (certainly mine) for paying 1% of the company's gross revenues to a campaign to make other people, especially people overseas, look bad, to accuse competitors of poisoning children, and use photos of the children to earn salaries for people in rich countries.
I have a major problem with a small NGO telling people that my friends in Egypt are illegal when they buy "bare bones" Dell or HP PCs (key functions working, not "fully functional" - look up bare bones on Ebay). I've got a major problem with people creating an extra-governmental agency that charges me a percentage of my company gross profits for use in a legislative campaign, waged from a 501=c3 office (you cannot lobby with charitable tax status).
I'd rather get R2 and spend my !% on my friends in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, on places like Las Chicas Bravas. If Jim says I'm not an E-Steward because I'm poisoning children, understand that I simply DON'T WANT TO PAY HIM one percent of my company gross revenues. That's it. What makes an R2 company different from an E-Steward is, above all else, our willingness to pay money to the Ayatollah of Ewaste.
That's all it is. He doesn't deserve it. If my state, or my university, uses my tuition to pay him, I'll PLAN to move out of state or see them in court. I prefer my regulators to stay in the public sector, not to be cutting deals in back rooms and accepting money from shredding companies to make repair exports seem illegal when they are not.
Ok, I'm being a little tough on BAN in this blog. But any search of the internet shows who the bully is. Touche Pas a Mon Pote. I support R2 Solutions because they are not bullies. I was willing to compromise and be nice a year ago. Zealotry can be gallant. But if you are going to crusade, be truthful. The descriptions of export technicians, Basle language, and now the descriptions of R2 Recyclers standards have not been truthful. Someone has to speak up. Might as well be me.