The Problems with WR3A: Dirty Business

The fair trade recycling ideas, started with WR3A in 2006, have been steadily growing in recognition.

We hit a bump (as everyone did) during the recession in 2009-2010.  Our WR3A model of cooperative marketing continued to be successful at funding end-of-life recycling at the back end of contract manufacturing (takeback) factories, ie using leveraged supply agreements to win improved processes overseas.   But we ran into three problems:

First, the primary recognized NGO in the field, Basel Action Network opposed the most economical re-furbishing process (as they consistently did, going back to their letter of protest to the Basel Convention Secretariat themselves over Annex IX, B1110, which explicitly sided with the right-to-refurbish).  BAN was wrong about the "SKD" or elective upgrade refurbishers.  But they influenced non-trade journalists like CBS Scott Pelley and NPR Terri Gross, to convince the majority of laypeople, even many in the trade press, that Basel Secretariat had agreed with them (rather than disagreed) and that export of monitors for repair and refurbishment was actually illegal under the existing Basel Convention.  Meanwhile they worked on getting member states to ban refurbishment (Indonesia) and recycling (Malaysia), using local domestic laws to do what Basel refused to do for BAN.

This compounded our second problem.  Brokering actual loads (hundreds of thousands of CRT and LCD computer monitors) to real life refurbishing factories was difficult.  The people most willing to export were the people who had exported all along, and were not keen on changing their process.  The people who had not been exporting were intimidated by BAN.  The end markets made changes, improved processes, etc., but transparency was punished.  When one of the largest CRT refurbishing factories in the world, PT Imtech of Semarang, Indonesia, made a multi-million dollar investment in CRT glass washing of the incidental breakage and internally generated Indonesian TVs (solving both the residue from refurbishing and the concern that "eventually" E-waste would result as TVs eventually failed in Indonesia), they were "Clubbed to Death".  The NGO watchdogs followed BAN's lead, and even the respected NRDC released horribly ignorant and racist statements about the factory.  I will never donate to NRDC again until the acknowledge the attack, which closed the factory.  It was brutal environmentalist collateral damage, and it has never been apologized for.

The final problem was just a conflict of interest in the cooperative model.  Getting larger and larger loads of higher and higher quality was good, but it affected the pricing.   The founders of WR3A knew this going in.   But members who joined found themselves competiting for limited markets and wondered why the econmics were worse in WR3A than they were exporting directly.  They understood the "big picture", that our sacrifices in dollars were paying for the improvements overseas.  But it was a recession.  The de facto position among WR3A members was that they'd continue using WR3A to sell, but that we should not bring in more members and flood the limited market until we had more demand.  It was a catch-22, which other cooperatives will recognize.

Still, no one else seems to be carrying the water to the geeks on the sustainability battlefield.  I feel like John Adams, and the other New World revolutionaries, especially as he is depicted in the musical 1776.

John Adams: [singing] 'For I have crossed the Rubicon, let the bridge be burned behind me, come what may, come what may!

John Adams: Tell me, Mr. Thomson, out of curiosity. Do you stand with Mr. Dickinson, or do you stand with me?
Thomson: I stand with the General. Well, lately, I've had the oddest feeling that he's been writing to me.
Thomson: [reading from Washington's letter] I have been in expectation of receiving a reply on the subject of my last fifteen dispatches. Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody care? 
They, too, were out classed and out-gunned by the interested, moneyed parties.  But they occupied the ground.  They were in better touch with 83% of the people in the former colonies... American colonies... as WR3A is in better touch with the former colonies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

WR3A is changing its name to Fair Trade Recycling, and will continue to assist USA and overseas reuse and recycling companies in the four principles:

1) Transparency, reconciliation, and contract enforcement
2) Cooperation in sharing actual information about reuse and recycling overseas
3) Support USA companies which make the investment to remove "toxics along for the ride"
4) Support overseas companies which improve their processes

The latter is where most of my time has been spent during the past 2 years.   It's amazing.  When I chose environmentalism as a career, I did not imagine just how much of my time would be spent protecting Peace Corps like, sustainable, fair trade investments by geeks of color from ignorant, stupid and self interested stewards who are trying with every breath to blow the geeks' goddam  heads off.

After awhile, I personally abandoned the cooperative communication I tried to establish with Jim and Sarah at BAN earlier in the last decade.  Where I used to give them inside knowledge about best practices, when they destroyed Mowgli's family and refused to admit it, I had to say to hell with them.  This has a cost to both environmentalist groups, like a political negative campaign within the same party.

My organization has been stunted by turning our fire away from the worst exporters, the ones exploiting the refurbishers.  The technicians and recyclers trying fair trade practices are more at risk from E-Stewards and legislation like HR2284 than they are from "toxics along for the ride".  We are about to get some major new wind in our sails, however, from one of 4 sources.  We will be reinviting all past members to rejoin, we will be opening a chapter in Europe, and we will continue to gain share of the environmental electorate.

BAN could have avoided all this in 2007.  They chose to insist on a position that "elective upgrade" - the removal and replacement of a part (working or non-working) to make a bigger, better, white box computer. They chose the side of the big donor OEMS who don't want Indonesians, former subcontractors, to be removing the bad capacitors from the faulty P4s and making good enough PCs for Egyptian med students.

BAN knows they were wrong about "fully functional", they had lost their position against repair at the Basel Convention in a fair party vote.  They were wrong in describing the elective upgrade factories as primitive wire burning dumps.  They were wrong in going to exisiting dumps in China and Africa - dumps which the Basel Secretariat now proves are primarily full of Africa and Asia-generated, twice-reused products which did NOT come out of boats from the USA and Europe.

They have the shredding-obsolescence industrial complex, and the dictators war-on-affordable internet, on their side.  That gives them more money.  But I think WR3A members sleep better at night.  BAN may write anonymous slaparoos at me, but they have never come out and defended themselves.  They just crank out ten year old pictures of dirty children.  Like a political campaign that cranks out photos of the worst case scenario minorities and gays to build up the base, they are earning enemies with every effort to shore up their friends.  I'm with Jim.  That's Hucks Jim.  The negative campaign against hand disassembly, geeks and recyclers, is a negative campaign against 83% of the world.  A campaign to shred working computer monitors which everyone knows are good for 20 years, to take away affordable supply from blood banks in Africa.

It's a dirty business.  More favorite quotes from

Dr. Benjamin Franklin: Revolutions come into this world like bastard children, Mr. Dickinson - half improvised and half compromised.
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John Adams: This is a revolution, dammit! We're going to have to offend SOMEbody!
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Dr. Benjamin Franklin: As you know, the cause that we support has come to a complete standstill. Now, why do you suppose that is?
Richard Henry Lee: Simple! Johnny, here, is obnoxious and disliked!
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John Dickinson: Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Lee, Mr. Hopkins, Dr. Franklin, why have you joined this... incendiary little man, this BOSTON radical? This demagogue, this MADMAN? 

[on the anti-slavery clause]
John Adams: That little paper there deals with freedom for Americans!
Edward Rutledge: Oh, really. Mr. Adams is now calling our black slaves "Americans!" Are they, now?
John Adams: Yes, they are. They are people, and they are here. If there's any other requirement, I haven't heard it.
Edward Rutledge: They are here, yes, but they are not people sir, they are property.
Thomas Jefferson: No, sir they are people who are being treated as property! I tell you, the rights of human nature are deeply wounded by this infamous practice!
Edward Rutledge: Then see to your own wounds Mr. Jefferson, for you are a practitioner are you not?
Thomas Jefferson: I have already resolved to release my slaves.
Edward Rutledge: Oh. Then I'm sorry, for you've also resolved the ruination of your own personal economy.
John Adams: Economy. Always economy. There's more to this than a filthy purse-string, Rutledge! It is an offense against man and God!
Hopkins: It's a stinking business, Eddie, a stinking business!
Edward Rutledge: Is it really now, Mr. Hopkins? Then what's that I smell floating down from the North? Could it be the aroma of hy-pocrisy? For who holds the other end of that filthy purse-string, Mr. Adams? Our northern brethren are feeling a bit tender toward our black slaves. They don't keep slaves! Oh, no. But they are willing to be considerable carriers of slaves to others. They're willin'! For the shillin'.
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