Sobering Next E-Waste Decade

The "e-waste trade" was mis-characterized from 2000-2010.  While about 15-30% of exports were scrapped, the scrap was not particularly dangerous (not found to cause the water pollution in Guiyu, and most lead poisoning comes from burning heavy insulated electric cable, not lead solder or CRT glass).  There was a lot of fodder to write about, in a debate whether the export glass was 80% empty or 80% full.

There is a change I can report on, from my trip to South America.

da pond ain't so small, eh?
During most of the past decade, the USA, Europe and Japan represented "the only game in town" for large scale refurbishing factories.  Contract manufacturers (takeback) operated 3-shifts per day, refurbishing and upgrading white-box computers and displays for "good enough" markets in India and China.  They depended on wealthy nations with 10 years of surplus in order to operate at scale and meet demand, just as they had depended on those nations as consumers for their scale of manufacturing in the 1990s.

When California took itself off the market, it had supply-demand effects on NJ and VT, because there were only so many places a buyer could go for the supply.   Forced to buy from less reputable suppliers (as during any prohibition), quality of imports actually suffered due to the West's anti-export campaign.

During that period, China and India did indeed have their own e-waste and surplus, but it wasn't enough to actually export out of country.  What was generated domestically was used or recycled or disposed of domestically, in Dharvi or Guiyu.

That last part is changing.  We are not the only game in town.  My trip to South America really brought the changes home.

Compared to ten years ago, South Americans have 10 times more money (7-10% compound income growth over 10 years), and LCDs cost 10 percent what they cost ten years ago.  That is a dramatic, dramatic change from both directions.   The places in Lima which sold 500 CRT display units per day in 2005 were selling 75-100 per day during my recent visit.  And trucks were arriving from collections right in downtown Lima, something unseen and unheard of when I sent my first shipment there ten years ago (with bicycles).  And the used TVs for sale in the shops?  I saw used Chinese CRT TVs.

Reuse exports from China?
The contract manufacturing facilities no longer depend entirely on demand from USA, Europe and Japan for production at scale.  And they are less dependent on us for scrap and used product.  Wistron's plant in Chengdu is aimed at consumers in China and India.  And the proposed TCL e-waste factory in Guiyu is designed for Chinese generated e-scrap.

The next decade is going to be less about refurbishing, and more about "good enough" recycling, about making the "informal" markets into crackerjack disassembly programs, off the streets and out of the landfills, perhaps into ISO certified plants... perhaps not.  Perhaps just recycling facilities which are good enough to be better than mining.

The same voices which protested "good enough" electronics (calling for emerging markets to "leapfrog") will probably protest "good enough" recycling.   Emerging markets will be urged to leapfrog to high-volume, highly mechanized shredders.

Hand dis-assembly will be good enough.

The best way to have funded that would have been earmarks and incentives on fair trade reuse shipments.  It will be harder now that we don't have the value of USA surplus to leverage.  And it will be harder to convince Americans that recyclers are heroes, compared to geeks of color / repairpeople.

Time to re-read "The Battle for China's Good Enough Market."  Except replace "China" consumers with another word to describe 83% of the world living in "non-OECD" nations.  If we label reuse and proper scrap recycling as "hazardous waste" activity banned under Basle, we'll repeat the mistakes of California, which went bankrupt while destroying a billion dollars of reuse value from 2001-2011.

I predict that yesterday's April Fools blog about BAN will be the last that they are the focus of.   The page has turned.  It's going to be about survival, ISRI style.

No comments: