A Legitimate Concern over Reuse Exports

Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, talked with me about reuse markets in November, at a conference in Las Vegas where we were both making presentations.  To paraphrase William Munny (Clint Eastwood's character in Unforgiven), "It's a hell of a thing," shooting a man's reputation.   So if you'll bear with me in re-tracking the conversation, I will give you legitimate concerns about the free market exports of used CRTs to Africa.   And no, it's not what the press thinks, and the solution is not to ban the trade.

First I'll defend the exporter.  Then I'll say what is really going to go wrong with the exporter's business model in the not distant future.

After Jim's Vegas PowerPoint presentation, I raised my hand and asked him a question about this photo (and accompanying article) in his slide show (artified below).  Jim said he had taken this photo himself, in Lagos.

The UK article he had shown describe the arrest of Joseph Benson, the Nigerian "waste tourist" who purchased TVs in England and shipped them to Lagos (at an average cost of about $10,000 per container).

First, I told Jim that these uniform size TVs did not look like "80% of UK E-waste".   It was actually pretty difficult to put together a full containerload of this size of TV.  I told him the demand for these were the urban ghettos, which often had spliced electricity too weak to light up a (more common) large TV set, and living spaces too small for larger televisions.   I also told him (as I did in 2006 when we spoke following the Charles Schmidt NIH article) that the amount of copper in the 600 or so TVs in the photo would not pay for the $10,000 cost Mr. Benson paid for the container.   At about $3 per burned TV (scrap value), the 600 TVs would only get Mr. Benson about $1,800 of his $10,000 back, and I didn't see how "avoided recycling costs" or "externalized pollution value" would be transferred to him.

Second, I reminded Jim of this result from the 2012 "e-Waste Country Assessment Nigeria"... That of the 600,000 tons (estimated) imports of used WEEE:
Approx. 30% of second-hand imports were estimated to be non-functioning 
(therefore need to be declared as e-waste): half of this amount was repaired 
locally and sold to consumers and the other half was un-repairable. "
You may remember Jim's first response was "Who is Joseph Benson?  I don't know that name".   I told him it was the man's name in the news article he had just shown (arrested) and the likely supplier of the TVs in the container Jim had photographed.   It was not a good response.   I told Jim that according to the math above, that 85% of the container was reused, just as predicted in my 2010 Blog "Monkeys Running the Environmental Zoo", and precisely what I predicted to Mr. Schmidt based on the financial calculations.

Jim's second response was that 15% was too high.   Strike Two.  Brand new items (e.g. sold at Wal-Mart) have an 11% return rate.   Also, the importers like Mr. Benson complain to me that they are FORCED to buy from lesser recyclers because of Mr. Puckett's boycott and defamation of their industry.  They say that if 15% is too high, allow them to buy more TVs from more people.

Jim's third response was that Africans don't want CRT televisions, they want flat screens.   He said that even if the TVs were working or repaired, they don't sell, and eventually wind up tossed out in the African dump.  Strike three.   The UN report found what I'd always said, Africans generate their own E-waste, and bring in 1980s TVs to the retail shops to trade them in for newer ones.  The retailers accept them as trade ins, and might discount the sale of the new WEEE by the copper value.   The photo BAN circulates of the burning TV is white Prince Nico Mbarga Style, the photos he and Greenpeace show of Mr. Benson's containers are newer, black plastic, and even stretch wrapped.

Jim then conceded that Mr. Benson may have been "collateral damage", and left the batters box.  I wrote about that.  If BAN's ready to concede that, we can cooperate, but in the mean time TAKE MR BENSON'S BODY OFF YOUR SALOON'S PORCH.   To continue to parade his unfair arrest, from false "80% waste" profiles, is immoral and an apology would go a long way.

If Africans don't want CRT Televisions - and they won't someday - they'll stop buying them.  The price Benson offers British recyclers for their televisions will fall.  He'll stop spending $10,000 to ship the container.  And indeed the price HAS already fallen, the value of a similar container in 2006 was about $18,000.

The free market is a beautiful thing.

The history of reuse holds the correct reason for concern about the continued export of e-waste.

The problem is that as the world gets richer, it allows scaling up of cheap, affordable, "good enough" product.   The Chinese will over-supply flat screens.  While the CRTs may last 25 years, the collapsing costs of flat screens is already astonishing to watch.   The "light-bulb" ization of flat panels is a force to be reckoned with.  

The problem with original old light bulbs that lasted forever is that they have so much metal in them that poor people couldn't afford them, they didn't scale.  The "disposable" light bulb was not simply a matter of "planned obsolescence", it was also a matter of making the incandescent bulbs cheaper.  But for whichever reason, the repair of light bulbs ended a century ago.

It happened to razors, and to pens.  And the energy-saving fluorescent bulbs are no longer made in the USA because China is producing them so cheaply that you could afford to repair light bulbs, much less produce brand new ones.

What is happening in Africa is the "Flush-toiletization" of commodities.    As I wrote in "The Great Stink", cities like London and Baltimore responded to cheap, mass-produced flush toilets by flushing first and asking where the poop went later.   They deluged the Toshers 1.0 who scavenged poop for jewelry and fertilizer.  As Africans become richer (as they will in a tinkerer-blessing economy), they will use goods for shorter periods of time.

Years ago I wrote that the fastest way to stop a technician from repairing a Pentium 3, even after 45 minutes of sunk costs, is to put a Pentium 4 on the table.   The tech - African, Chinese, Columbian, Indian or Scot will stop work on the P3 and begin working on the P4.

China will probably saturate the emerging markets with cheaper and cheaper LCDs.

So the question is, do we deny Africans the right to purchase CRTs in the meantime?  Do we deny them the right to repair Pentium 3s when they cannot afford P4s?   The shelf life of second-life WEEE is going to get shorter.  I not only "admit" that, I'm the first to make the darn point.

It's a legitimate concern over Reuse Exports.

And my answer is, this is why we have to ACT NOW to promote Fair Trade Recycling.   FTR uses the value of the reuse to incentivize the proper hand disassembly of used electronics in emerging markets.

Instead of taking the share of $10,000 Mr. Benson pays out for working and repairable TVs, FTR gives the money back to Mr. Benson on the condition that Mr. Benson establish take-back of the TVs generated at home in Lagos.

Again, from the WEEE in Africa Report:
"Locally adapted recycling technologies for Nigeria should make use of the abundant labor force instead of deploying expensive shredding and sorting machinery. To ensure a maximum yield of valuable recycling fractions, Nigerian recyclers are encouraged to interlink with international recycling companies and networks for developing market outlets for their pre-processed e-waste fractions for a maximized return of value for secondary raw materials."
I have been trying to do this since 2001.  Our problem was that Jim Puckett started a poverty porn campaign of ghetto children and told Americans that the piles of residue those kids were sitting on was 80-90% of all exported e-waste.  It was a lie that keeps recirculating, most recently in the CAER Report on "Jobs" released last week.

It's a racial profiling lie that puts people like "Hurricane" Joseph Benson in jail instead of working with the Techs and Geeks in Lagos to study hand-disassembly and takeback.  Let's just admit it.  We see used cars at Toyota lots because people trade their used cars in, not because Japan is "externalizing" it's car-waste to the USA.   The retail and tech sectors in Africa accumulate junk the same way car dealerships accumulate trade ins.

Collateral damage may be forgiveable.  But not lynching.  That's Unforgiven.

Little Bill Daggett: Well, sir, you are a cowardly son of a bitch! You just shot an unarmed man!

Will Munny: Well, he should have armed himself if 
he's going to decorate his saloon with my friend.

15% of WEEE exports are waste.  Let's not waste the reuse opportunity by wasting the techs reputations.

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