E-Wasted Decade: List of 10 Winners, Losers

The Conclusion of the last "E-Waste" Decade sees a number of Dynasties created by the stories, real and imagined, underplayed and exaggerated.  Who came out ahead and who lost?

1.  Basel Action Network:  Winner

BAN.org went from being a very obscure NGO working on an even more obscure treaty.  They had a very small budget for travel, and no budget for science.  But despite their meager assets, they manage to craft a story that was widely accepted as fact, and in the process became recognized as important experts in the field of waste, recycling,  pollution and international development.  They tried to "capitalize" on their success by branding a certification program, which they named "E-Stewards".  Mainly it is insurance that if you pay for it, they won't attack you.  But it was successful and BAN created a dynasty.

2.:  Journalists:  Winners

Jerry Powell and company had a magazine, Resource Recycling, which was competing with Recycling Today, Waste News, Scrap, Recycling International, Waste Age, Waste Dynamics, etc.  The company used the controversy surrounding E-Waste to build a huge conference with built-in controversy and word-of-mouth sales. Being one of the first to recognize the hot-buttons and controversy BAN.org was churning, Resource Recycling was able to turn that into money, but was not the only one.   Other trade publications sold more "data wiping" and "shredding equipment" ads which were not likely to be paid for by Taiwanese reuse factories.  Other journalists, from CBS 60 Minutes to Businessweek to Audabon magazine were able to write "gotcha" stories with a uniquely exotic flavor.  Recycling exports are bad was a "man bites dog" shark attack story that just kept on giving.   So journalists are winners - financially.

3.  Recycling Trade Associations:  Tie

IAER was a loser.  ISRI gained.  Regulations and proposed regulations tend to make membership in an association of experts more attractive.  The ISRI annual conference grew, and they got to demonstrate their lobbying prowess.   Bob Johnsons NAID also expanded into electronics, a shot in the arm for a tiring papers shredding association.   But in the end the trade associations must represent a diverse group of companies in different niches.   A recycling company in a rural area will tend to be a "generalist" recycling both televisions and laptops - a recycling company in a metropolis may be very specialized, managing cell phones or laptops or commercial lease equipment.  The trade associations, therefore, will have trouble embracing a "Platonic Idea" of electronics recycling.  Which is a good thing... a prescription for e-waste recycling which dictates the same standard (e.g. "tested working") for trade between a French University and an Ghana academy, or between a curbside television recycler and an original equipment manufacturer (Samsung), or cell phone donation returns for out-of-warranty repair... it's just not a good idea in the first place.   And making the associations more important in holding that ground is, again, good news as it makes them more relevant.

4.  Shredders and Shredding Companies:  Winners

Hand disassembly preserves reuse and parts value, makes cleaner scrap, preserves rare earth metals lost in shredders.   And there are millions of cheap hand-disassemblers in the emerging world.   A campaign which convinces people that exports are bad forces hand-disassembly to occur in a high-wage nation.  So it doesn't  occur.  Shredders benefit (and shredders pay for the trade press, so that's a huge amount of influence).

5.  Corporations:  Winners?

The Anti-Gray Marketing Alliance of corporations saw the fear of exports as a big opportunity to shut down sales to the secondary and refurbishing (and yes, counterfeiting) markets.   In the short term, OEMs slowed the rate of growth of refurbishing, counterfeiting, and knock off product.   OEMs like Samsung and HP which are making cutting edge new product are focused on each and every sale, and anyone who cannot buy a used display represents a possible market (if they can afford it) for a new item.   They also made ground on the "patent extension" doctrine in Asia, which is now a bigger market for electronics than the USA and Europe.  The software companies, like Microsoft, Intuit, Oracle, etc. were also able to sell a "department of defense" standard for hard drive erasure and a shredding policy to owners of billions of dollars of software.

But they will be losers in the long run.  The barrier to entry created by removing refurbished goods as a stepstone to contract manufacturing will work for a little while, but the other contract manufacturing jobs are still there.   And in the long run, as Ford said in response to "Planned Obsolescence" claims in "The Waste Makers", creating an affordable product (a used product) creates a new driver, which creates a new customer.   The OEMs will have more sales today in nations like Egypt which skirted the import bans than they will have in nations which dammed the imports.  And by the time Africans are able to afford new, it will be a new product made by a no-name company in China.  In other words, OEMs won the decade, but lost the century.

6. Scrappers in Asia, Latin America and Africa:  Tie

This is somewhat too close to call.  On the one hand, the light shown on the poverty and practices of primitive recyclers has led to reforms, improved standards, and the international attention of millions of well meaning rich people who are eager to help them.    There will be less pollution, some day, because of the "E-Waste" story.  However, there are also horrible stories of geeks of color who invested life wages to improve, but were ignored and their factories shut down without a single stitch of evidence that anything they did was toxic in any way.   Geeks in Egypt had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of working material seized by dictators wanting to put the internet genie back in the bottle.   But in the end it's a tie because there are just as many used, good-enough, and cheap computers and electronics traded within the "non-OECD" economy, and in the end, the USA and Europe just don't matter a whole lot.  (Note:  the correct thing to do here is go down a list of a dozen different "emerging market" players, some absolutely losers and some winners, rather than lump "The Non-OECD" as 6 billion people in a single dynasty.  But this is written for generators.)

7.  EPA and Regulators:  Losers

EPA was stuck in an awkward position of answering yes or no, have they stopped us from beating our wives?  EPA tried to put together a very well thought out policy, matching Basel Convention obligations with actual commerce practices and limiting pollution.   However, they were branded as do-nothings by the environmentalist "watchdogs"

8.  NRDC, Greenpeace, other NGOs:  Losers

They were asleep at the wheel.  The amount they got from embracing the poser-child benefits of the campaign is not worth the scandal.   They broadcast widely that 80% of USA's electronics were exported, and that 80% of those exports were managed in horrible ways under horrific conditions.  It was a lie, it was misreported, and when we wrote letters to them they did not react or correct themselves in any visible way.  This will tarnish donations and trust in these organizations, which have reputations which are worth more than the benefit they gained by jumping the gun.

9.  Consumers in Wealthy Nations:  Losers

On the one hand, proper recycling of the junk electronics is free where it didn't used to be.  Few Americans really need the reuse/secondary market value.   And the most valuable items, cell phones and laptops, are managed pretty much the way they would have been before the "e-wasted decade".   Where consumers lost is that the money that pays for "free" recycling comes out of their pockets in other ways - either added to the cost of goods sold to us, or from reduced competition from new electronics sellers who are delayed in selling goods in a system with more environmental red tape.   In the net, California shows it to be more of a loss than a gain, as computers Californians should have felt good about being reused in Arab Spring and bringing internet to the emerging world were shredded up noisily, at huge taxpayer expense, and the state lost about a billion dollars and somehow sees itself in the mirror as an environmental model.  California gets an F in e-waste reuse and recycling, it's a laughingstock, and most consumers in the USA are being offered the same tax-us-to-break-our-stuff model.  You got free recycling in exchange for paying more at the register and in the end, trying to do better, you destroyed the environmental benefits of reuse and all the carbon and avoided mining and manufacturing pollution.  Sorry, you lost.

10.  Consumers in Poor Nations:  Losers

You wanted to buy a $30 display device that withstands heat.  The best option?  A used CRT monitor from Europe or the USA will last another 15 years - five times longer than an LCD.  And it would cost you 20% of what an LCD costs.  You wanted to buy it from California or Europe.  See #9 above.

This needs more editing but I've sat on it too long.  Someday I'll get an editor or partner, for now I gotta spout.

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