"E-Waste" Policy: NGOs Living in an RCA World

"A broken calendar is not as good as a broken clock." - Robin Ingenthron
RCA Emblem - Nipper ponders Obsoete Victrola Waste Stream
Catching up with electronics trade publication reading.  In Slashdot, I saw this article about the possible deathbed watch for Sharp Electronics.  Sharp is still a big producer in the display device field.   From ComputerWorld:
"Japan's Sharp, a major supplier of LCD displays to Apple and other manufacturers, has warned that it may not survive if it can't turn around its business, an admission that caught few off guard.
"The Osaka-based manufacture said there is "material doubt" about its ability to continue operating in its earnings report filed Thursday. Sharp added, however, that it still believes it can cut costs and secure enough credit to survive. Its IGZO technology for mobile displays is likely to be a key element of its business strategy.
"Companies with credit trouble must warn about possible concerns over their survival as part of their disclosure requirements."
Intelligent observers generalize on the decline of Japanese "Big E" - Sony, LG, Sharp, Panasonic, etc., and the rise of Samsung and Korea.  Korea is feeling its oats, in car production and electronics and music.  But how significant is this?  Time for a history lesson on Japanese and American transistor manufacturing.

Here's a snippet from the Wikipedia "history lesson" on Sharp.  When I see "metal workshop" in Japan, I know it's about recycling (Japan never had a "resource curse" for ores).
In 1912, Tokuji Hayakawa (早川 徳次) founded a metal workshop in Tokyo. The first of his many inventions was a snap buckle named 'Tokubijo'. Another of his major inventions was the Ever-Sharp mechanical pencil in 1915, from which the Sharp Corporation took its name.[3] After the pencil business was destroyed by the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, the company relocated to Osaka and began designing the first generation of Japanese radio sets. These went on sale in 1925. In 1953 Sharp started producing television sets.
Two years earlier, RCA bought the phonograph division, Victor Talking Machine Company, and began work with JVC of Japan.
In 1929, RCA purchased the Victor Talking Machine Company, then the world's largest manufacturer of phonographs (including the famous "Victrola") and phonograph records. This included a majority ownership of the Victor Company of Japan (JVC). The new subsidiary then became RCA-Victor. With Victor, RCA acquired New World rights to the Nipper trademark.  
File:RCA original logo.png
"Radio Corporation of America", or RCA, had been formed a decade earlier, when General Electric (still a very real company) bought out British Marconi radio, essentially taking over the monopoloy on radio signal controls at the end of military control from World War I.  That's how far back RCA goes.  The development of modern Japan goes back to RCA cleaning its shelves and sending older tech, and for-repair radios, to Japan, which had a "network of tinkerers".  RCA had come up with an alternative to "mend it or end it"... it was to export it.

Thirty years after that, the rise of cheap and high quality Japanese televisions in the late 1960s allowed my family to watch the later moon landings in color on a Sony (my dad on the roof, turning the rabbit-ear antenna, in the direction of the TV broadcast tower, while I shouted "Better, Better, Worse, Better, GOOD!" up the chimney.

- - -

Today, RCA and JVC exist in name only, like Polaroid.  People speculate whether Sharp will be next, or whether a new generation of consumers is becoming less loyal to dinosaur brand names.  Sceptre, Vizio, Apex... If you veer away from unfamiliar names and buy Westinghouse, RCA, or Polaroid, you are kidding yourself.  Contract manufacturing has evolved past adolescence.

At the NERC conference last week, meeting old chums from state government, hearing about the lastest at R2, Product Stewardship Institute, NRC, E-Stewards, etc., I had this feeling that stuff I was sharing about my own business was like summarizing the Island of Doctor Moreau to people who haven't read it.  It's a Brave New World, it's 1984... I struggle to find 50 year old references to explain to Americans who set their policy clocks in the 1980s, reading 25 year old books.

Or, in the case of RCA, eighty year old books may add insight.  From Brave New World (1931), by Aldous Huxley, we find these gems about what I've called obsolescence in hindsight.
"Ending is better than mending."
"The more stitches, the less riches" 

At environmental policy meetings, Americans my age think "manufacturer takeback" is a solution to yesterday's victrolas.  But they still think RCA is a significant company to talk about.  Here's a snippet from Wikipedia... look at just how long ago RCA was a player in the business:
On 17 September 1971, NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report read a news bulletin issued by the RCA Board of Directors just minutes before the broadcast, announcing the Board's decision to cease operation of its general-purpose computer systems division (RCA-CSD). This marked a milestone in RCA's move away from technology and into a diversified conglomerate. (The introduction by IBM of the 370 series required RCA to make a substantial new investment in its computer division, and the Board decided against making that investment.)
But policy makers still name RCA as a company to take back the RCA "e-waste" we are receiving.  American "take back" people are not using a broken clock - it's a broken calendar.

In 1971,  RCA was taken over by GE, which ran the TV network NBC (and RCA company) but eventually sold it to Westwood One (the talk radio guys).  GE had sold off the trademark rights to "RCA" televisions to Thomson, a French company, by 1987.  Thomson's main manufacturing is now in India, selling almost exclusively a declining percentage of a rapidly growing India consumer pie.  They re-branded as "Technicolor", one of RCA's film ventures from the advent of color cinema.   Thomson, or Technicolor, is now the primary glass-to-glass end market for CRT recycling.

Thomson aka Technicolor stock since 2001
When I took over "e-Waste" policy at Massachusetts DEP in the mid 1990s, I was surprised to learn that RCA was completely liquidated.  It helped me understand what had happened when "Polaroid" products started showing up on shelves.

The last profitable RCA division in the 1980s, I learned, was the warranty return factory RCA maintained in Mexico.  RCA had still been taking back store returns and sending them for repair at the Mexico assembly plant.  The Mexicans were repairing the sets, selling them to reuse markets, and making a profit.  The plant started taking back Sears returns of other products, like Sony and Sharp and Panasonic.  It was back to the future for RCA, using Mexico technicians the way they had used Japanese tinkerers fifty or sixty years earlier (it gets difficult to count decades on the fly).

My challenge in 2012 is to refrain from the complacency of comparing myself with my peers.  Yes, my knowledge of electronics manufacturing, markets, reuse, repair, takeback, etc. is decades ahead of other policy folks.   Places like Basel Action Network still market images from Heart of Darkness, and R2 feels it's ahead of the game by understanding a newcomer like "Apple" or "Acer".

Foxonn is actually past its prime.

Taking our actual lessons from the 1980s and applying them in nations which are 30 years behind us in economic development isn't necessarily a bad approach.  But if we think that the nations are 70 years behind us, because we exoticize them with Pieter Hugo photos of saddled hyenas and children in witches cauldrons of ewaste voodoo sludge, and we pretend that RCA was king just a few years ago, and Foxconn is tin-shack sweatshop, we are going to miss the ball.  Our late swing is not just a strikeout, we are going to be accused of throwing the game.

I'm 50, and what I learned in the past year, from my trip to South America, where I saw Shanghai CRT televisions resold in neighborhoods which used to buy used American, and twenty year old computer monitors being brought in by truck from Lima office buildings and scavenged for copper... I saw that I'm not immune to setting my clock ahead of an idiot's clock and telling myself I'm "on time".

Don't break the compass.

Geographically speaking, using a compass to find a place where your calendar works is a tricky business.

The battle for the world's "good enough" markets needs brand new policy approaches, newer than mine.   I have learned enough to realize my own ignorance.   When I stand around people so damn sure of themselves, using 1970s infant formula boycott policy approaches to a non-sustainable graph of growing populations, growing wealth, growing consumption, and finite resources, I mostly think I need to get out of the room and get some fresh air.  Being surrounded by morons makes me think I'm smart, when I'm still running towards a sunset to keep out of the dark.

Once we are completely surrounded by dark, the academics will come out and ponder theses in various directions.  Some of these will be the right direction.  Some of these will be obtuse tangents.   But one thing for sure:  A BROKEN CALENDAR IS NOT LIKE A BROKEN CLOCK.   It's not even reliable twice a day. The dates fall on different days, and the year never returns...

I'm more and more certain of how right I have been during the past 15 years of my own e-waste policy, but I'm feeling less and less certain of the future.  Fair Trade Recycling has a risk.  Just as my techs stop working on a Pentium 4 if a dual-core falls on their desk, the emerging markets cannot be held to "reuse only" or "repair only" export policy.  They are generating their own e-waste, and they are mining our tin, lead, copper and rare earth metals.   They need employment.  Recycling has to be ok.  Ten years ago I was convinced that reuse and repair were ok to export, but the recycling must be done here to be safe.   I have been warned by several e-waste companies that if I go back on that line, that WR3A will be ostracized.  And looking ahead, I don't know how soon Africans will be getting their Al-Jazeera from Dick Tracy wristwatches.  It's a brave new world.
“Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.” 
― Aldous HuxleyBrave New World

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