The Basel Convention: Bayesian Soup Nazi Episode

Ok, Another E-Scrap Conference, and another allusion to an American comedy.  I hope my international readers will be patient.
R2 or E-Steward?  Who has the best recipe?

Yesterday's E-Scrap 2012 Conference in Dallas had two sessions worth writing about.   John Lingelbach of R2 and Jim Puckett presented on the two certification programs for Electronics Recyclers (along with auditor Kelley Keough of Greeneye).   Later, Travis Reed Miller of MIT presented on the use of Bayesian predictors to refine data, and Laura Bloodgood of US International Trade Office reported (without data) on the survey work on 900+ e-scrap firms.

The session with BAN E-Stewards and R2 was very amicable.  Sitting in the audience, I couldn't help but feel bad for having taken Puckett tiredly to task the day before in the blog.  They seemed to narrow the "disagreement" between the two programs down as follows:

  1. E-Stewards is expensive.  And R2, while cheaper, is unsustainable (it needs to be more expensive).
  2. BAN - a little unclearly, I thought - described their belief in evolving WITH a Basel Convention group.  The Basel Ban Amendment - not passed - should be incorporated in the standard because they are confident it will be passed.  The E-Steward position on export of goods for repair, while CLEARLY on the list of Annex IX "non-waste" activities, is that they should be held to a standard of a recent committee at Basel Meetings... ie not to International Law, but held to the amendment of the international law which the non-profit NGO promotes for a living).
This "adherence to promoted future law" of course is what frightens the USA away from Ratifying Basel Convention.   The USA Congress might agree with everything in a convention as written, and then Jim Puckett may make a presentation in Jakarta or Columbia, and the non-elected international group of attendees may vote that repair, allowed in the Convention, should no longer be allowed.  In that case the USA has passed a law which gives a non-elected international  interest group, effectively, regulatory power over USA companies.  UN Treaty 101.

Lingelbach agreed that a chief disagreement between R2 and E-Stewards is over R2's potential to evaluate overseas recyclers and refurbishers based on their talent and sustainability, so long as the import is legal NOW.  If the Ban Amendment is ratified, then it may not be legal any more, but advocacy is separate from law and R2 does not conflate a future amendment with today's certification.

R2 thus allows the exporter to prove that the importer is doing it right, rather than forcing that importer to wait until their national average earns OECD.  Until BAN succeeds in changing international law, the law we have today allows two nations to consider repair not to be waste.  Until it is waste, R2 allows a USA recycler to prove that material shipped overseas is managed well, and if there is a really great factory in a rapidly emerging city, and the city is in a country which has poor states that keep the nation from achieving OECD standards, you can trade with that good company in that emerging city.   And that's good, because the money made in those cities is the only way that nation can ever hope to achieve OECD status.

The Basel Ban amendment, by contrast, says this:  You cannot repair a device until everyone in your nation is as rich as we are.  No matter how talented you are, no matter what you manage under warranty repair, no matter if you made the device, you cannot repair it until every city in your nation has running water etc.  Oh?  The nations which achieve OECD did so through repair-tinkering-economies?  The BAN amendment will make illegal the best way you can think of to become OECD?  Too bad.  No Tech Soup for you.

It's kind of like "no child left behind", the actual overseas importer doing the actual repair work may be qualified, but the whole nation has to be OECD for him to earn money.   Under E-Stewards and a future "Ban Amendment ratified" R2, we won't sell to the most qualified technician based on the best outcome and lifecycle, we will refuse to sell based on the non-OECD-ness of their nation.

Under this Ban-Amendment/E-Steward recipe, a perfect, immaculate refurbisher in a modern city overseas must wait until their nation's overall achieves OECD economic status.  This split between R2 and E-Stewards, over Trade with a Savvy Green Geek in an Emerging City, was the biggest barrier to merging the two certifications.  Lingelbach also made several other distinctions on the value of a transparent multi-stakeholder process, vs. the power of a single NGO, to set standards which companies buy into.  In other words, he made the case that a democratic standard is just better because participating people buy into it.

Again, I was left asking myself why I had to be so militant (what Jim claims to be ad hominem) in my criticism of the E-Steward standard.  Their soup is so good.   I should stand quietly in line, and shuffle my feet in tandem, hungry for the delicious sweet compromise.
HR2284:  No Used PC for You

Oh, yeah.  The people not present at any of the sessions...  The Geeks of Color, the technicians, the factories which actually make electronics and do warranty repairs, but would be forbidden to bid on government contracts to repair the goods they made and do warranty repairs on... based on their ethnicity, and their nations "wild west" areas which have yet to achieve OECD standards.  Sao Paulo Brazil may manufacture more electronics than any other city in the Western hemisphere, but so long as western Brazil remains Amazon rain-forest, the democracy does not have "OECD" nation wide.  The city is held back until the rural areas catch up economically.

Good for city-state Signapore (which broke off from Malaysia, and could earn OECD if it wanted), bad for Penang (which remains with Malaysia and therefore tied to the OECD progress of Papua New Guinea).   The USA should boycott Penang, until Penang's cousins in the mining towns of New Guinea are as rich as Penang is.

The other big difference between the way Lingelbach presents R2 and Puckett presented E-Stewards was the use of images of children in dumps.   I object to more than just the prohibition illogic of the "Basel" solution, boycotting cities who can do the best and most sustainable recycling.  To me it's also about the way E-Stewards is marketed.  It's a Willie Horton-esque campaign of ten year old photos of 10 year old children, snapped at dumps which look like dumps.  It is a very ugly, offensive, and callous campaign.

My beef is that Jim Puckett never honestly says, "Look, I acknowledge the factories in Singapore, Penang, Sao Paulo, etc, look nothing like the photos of Guiyu and Agbogbloshie, but here is the economic theory that the Basel Convention must be amended so that they can no longer repair electronics as they could under the original Convention".  He clearly accuses the technicians of poisoning children.  If that be so, he is guilty of buying the products they made in the same factory, I'd say... new manufacturing, and mining, and assembly, molding, refining, engineering, etc. is all allowed under Basel Convention and its proposed amendments - just not Takeback and repair.  But it ain't so.  It's as if the "no child left behind" advocate actually accused the best student at the failing school of being stupid.

So I'm left looking like a loudmouth extremist.  I'm unpleasant.  But not John Lingelbach.  He, Jim and Kelley make a case for peace between the white environmentalists, and we are left with a sense that R2 could compromise, cut the strings with Asian, Latino, and African electronics firms, especially if Ban Amendment passes.  If the Ban Amendment was ratified by other nations, if it does in fact ban export for repair, but it is not ratified by the USA, R2 will have a choice to make about merging with E-Stewards.

Since most people at the Conference see the white environmental groups and certification professionals more often than they travel overseas, we are left with a warm feeling that Henry, Jerry, Cara, Dylan, Jef, etc. may have done our community a great service by bringing R2 and E-Stewards closer, and giving us all hope for the convenience of a single certification.  Lingelbach even announced he was departing... with the OEMs being solicited for money for R2, it's easy to imagine they will pay for a replacement who puts more controls on the grey market.  Perhaps someone who will do what HR2284 (which Jim Puckett applauded), and give OEM brands the exclusive right to send goods to contract manufacturers to repair.  Under warranty and manufacturer takeback programs would be allowed, but the same geek at the same indepenendent Taiwanese assembly line could not replace the capacitor unless the OEMs make money on it.

I smell a growing consensus about American and European Soup Dealers on how used tech should be sold to a hungry market.

Supply and demand
The other takeaway from the session was BAN's data.   Today, the BAN estimate is "50% to 80%" of all USA e-Waste is exported to primitive recycling operations overseas.  That differs from 80-90%, a statistic they have used before, or "up to" 80%.   You may get the sense they are getting new data somehow and updating the numbers.  Jim disparaged data generally in his opening remarks, claiming no one knows, that all the studies are unreliable, and said the most reliable source of information was Basel Action Network.  An organization that changes the statistic by fatwah, without disclosing why it's changed.  Yet the original data, and the new changes to the data, remain a mystery.  Oz has spoken, Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

This brings up the second session, where Reed Miller and Laura Bloodgood spoke about real data.  Reed's MIT work showed how you can weight opinion research based on the ability of some respondents to give more "expert" opinion than others.  If someone can predict the average results of your survey ("Most people will say that man over there is 7 feet tall"), their own estimate is given greater weight ("But I'd say he's only 6 feet tall").  The man in question is more likely to be 6 feet tall than seven feet tall, ironically, if the survey averages 7 feet tall estimates.  The person predicting the 7 foot survey estimate has given evidence their opinion is more knowledgeable, or they are better in predicting heights, and the man is probably closer to 6 feet tall.

WR3A/Fair Trade Recycling would say that the key problem is that no one is surveying technicians and geeks in China, Brazil, Nigeria or India.   If you take a survey of male white golfers, you wind up with the very best estimate of the most qualified male white golfer.   The Golfer's opinion on red wine is more likely to predict the red wine than the average opinion of the other golfers.

And that's ultimately the problem with the E-Scrap Show.  Too many American experts on what Ghana's used electronics traders are doing with Pentium IIIs.  The Ghana tech may tell me that he prefers CRT monitors because they are less likely to get stolen, they last longer, stand up to heat better.  He may say that people do cloud computing and the  PIII is a better buy than the dual core.  But white opinions on what other white people sell to Ghana Tech, and why they sell it to him, are heavily weighted in our conferences.   If 9 people say that I export CRT to Ghana because they are expensive to recycle, and not because those are what the Ghana buyer stood in my plant and asked for, and one of those people guesses very closely the average guess or reasoning of the other 9, then I am more likely to be exploiting Ghana man.

That's why I made a mess of the WR3A-Recycling Today trade show.  My speakers were from Egypt, Senegal, Malaysia and China.  Their English was poor, and the audience's patience was challenged.   I'm sure the white English speaking audience finds American speakers easier to listen to.

I'm not attacking Reed's approach.  It makes sense, and would better empower the doctor of Plato's Republic, the one selling bitter medicine when the other doctor is selling candy to the democracy.  But I hope that Laura, and ITC, understand that the world economy is being asked to be a party in a boycott.

The share of USA automobiles sold to the world market is shrinking, it has been for decades.  It's easier to measure the USA's share of the USA automobile market, and 20 years ago the USA's share of all auto purchases was close enough for that to be the thing to watch.  It's certainly easier to ask Americans what percentage of American cars, vs. Japanese cars, they have bought, than to ask the percentage of car sales in India and China.  But as ITC knows, the USA's share of all autos purchased is also declining, and that will compound the declining share of USA made autos in our own market.

The USA's share of used computers sold in the world computer market was also good enough to measure ten years ago.  If someone in an emerging market wanted to buy a used computer or TV, we were the wellhead.

But I'm remembering my trip to South America.   Most of the used TVs my friend had for sale in the used electronics shop were Haier.  She was now buying used Chinese TVs for sale in South America.

The USA has never turned on its own export with such bias and vengence.   Under Basel Convention, the world is somehow better if Jinex buys a used television from China... it's non-OECD on non-OECD waste trade.

China's got the recipe for used intact units
My prediction is the same as the California Compromise Soprano's episode.  The world market is growing, and we are Soup Nazis.  At the end of that Seinfeld episode, Elaine found the Soup Nazi's recipe, and laughed, taunted him.  China has found our recipe for used goods sales, and if we are going to be Nazis about the sale of used laptops, computers, televisions, etc. to people of color, the people of color have other places to buy them now.


The sales will quietly slow from the USA, as they already have with used CRT televisions.  Our Bayesian expertise will survey Americans, who will say that South America is less interested in buying used TVs from us.  And the most expert of the exporters will have his survey weighed strongly, and we will say that R2 may as well merge with E-Stewards since the brown people aren't buying our used TVs any more anyway.

Americans will agree that the export market for intact whole units is sunsetting, just as we might conclude that overseas markets don't buy as many cars as they used to.  We used to sell a lot more cars overseas.  That market must have dried up, since we asked other people like us and they all agreed that we are selling fewer cars.  India, Brazil, China, and Russia must have stopped driving, just as they are stopping watching TV and stopping getting onto the internet, based on my declining exports.

Couldn't possibly be that America made it harder to buy from me, and I have more competition supplying it.  Nah.  To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.

What was the post I wrote the morning after E-Scrap 2010, two years ago?

World Market:  "Get back get back you don't know me like that."

I look forward to having a much smaller conference, a summit at a University, where people listen to skilled technicians explaining what THEY want to buy, and collaborating together on a new recipe, purchase order by purchase order, meal by meal.  Listening to chefs describe what the hungry want misses the point of TED Talks on tomato sauce recipes.  Watch the session on Malcom Gladwell, Choice, Happiness, and Tomato Sauce.   The export market has a lot of different tastes in functionality, and meeting the demand with a single Stewardship recipe, horizontal segmentation of the overseas e-waste market, may not be America's best entree.

In embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a sure way to true happiness.   A single "functionality test" for all display devices, or the Platonic Ideal of "tested working", is perhaps not arrogant.  Perhaps I should put less "ad hominem" adjectives to describe a common business mistake.  But it's the wrong recipe for the environment and social welfare.   BAN found in the SKD market a huge demand segment which did not fit their prescription for reducing the number of junk piles to photograph poor children upon.  So they tried to kill it, creating more poor children in the process.  And that's something Howard Moscowitz could explain to the Soup Nazi better than I can explain to our E-Scrap community.

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