EU E-Waste Policy: Disarming Friendly Fire & Environmental Malpractice (Part B)

In Part A, I gave RecyHub the review they asked for, suggesting they are trying to place themselves in a halfway point between fallacy and fact.   It's a slippery slope, being cozy with a fallacy.

Why RecyHub thought we'd applaud the webpage?  Probably because in Part B, they call for "improving the informal sector".  Sounds a lot like what WR3A called "E-Waste Reform" eight years ago, when we too tried to compromise with the Ayatollah of E-Waste.
B) E-waste is a source of income and an incipient local industry. Metals and plastics can be scrapped out of old electronics and be sold in local markets for smelting and recycling, closing the materials loop. In Ghana families from the North send their kids to work in the dump because they value more the scarce but regular cash they get for the metals recovered than the irregular income from agriculture. For some Western countries it doesn’t make economic sense to manually remove the metals from e-waste, because it’s labour intensive, while for countries with lower wages it’s more suitable. In contrast, components like printed circuit boards can only be recycled in a handful of factories in the global North (and now in India too, by Attero) and therefore could be exported back, following a philosophy called “Best of Two Worlds” (PDF, 1Mb.). Improving the informal sector, including its workers’ health and safety conditions, could result in a local industry of e-waste recycling.
What about the "worst of two worlds"?   In part A, @RecyHub implies that the worst is when Europe fills boats with toxic waste electronics and dumps the waste on primitive beaches.   I don't think that's the right diagnosis.   How about an alternative diagnosis?

The worst of the West is its willingess to assume the worst of the blacks.

The "White Knights" of E-Waste reform accept a comic, rude, and insulting premise.

With less of "the right tools" we can stop shredding value to begin with.  Below is my modest proposal, our proposed model at WR3A:
  1. Start with carefully assessing the situation.   Start by asking questions, get a proper diagnosis.
  2. Sell Africans what they want to buy - working and repairable displays and computers.  They prefer a 3 year old they can repair to a 6 year old "tested working".   The point is, give African buyers exactly what they want. Ask them why they want things if you are confused, but don't be condescending.
  3. Once a price is agreed to (about $7,000 per container), offer the Africans a deal.   Give them back $3,000 of the containerload if they take back used electronics from African cities each time they sell one.  This creates a takeback infrastructure at the used retailers, just as used auto yards are connected to the auto scrap yards.
  4. With the other $4,000 buy tools, buy better used equipment, do something to incentivize the proper management of used electronics.
  5. Fly your Western staff to work in Africa (as Vermont does with its staff sent to Mexico), and fly African scrappers to cross train with your staff in Europe (as Vermont does with partners in Africa, Latin America, and Asia).
This does not presume a "best" or "worst", or even the geography of "two worlds".

This takes the $7000 which is WASTED in EU WEEE shredders and uses it to finance the simple hand-disassembly which you've already recognized is a darn good job for many Africans.  I don't label this as "inside the box" because the rest of the world doesn't live in the Basel Action Network's box.  This is the same "secondary market" economy that automobiles, ink cartridges, ships and airplanes "waste" comes from.  Waste is almost never generated from the first purchaser in the chain, unless a conscious decision is made to "obsolete" it.  Wealthy people tend not to drive their new cars into the ground, or their cell phones or PCs.

WR3A's Model Improves not just the environment (reuse saves more carbon and toxics than recycling), but the entire Social Progress Index in Africa.  Africa doesn't have to make a choice between barefoot-and-pregnant backwater and brand new product.  They should be encouraged to tinker their way through the same way that Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea did, achieving economic growth by repair, recycling, knockoffs, counterfeiting, reverse engineering and contract assembly.   Africa's got Terry Gous and Simon Lins and Rowell Yangs all over their cities.  They are in their 20s and 30s now.  Give them a chance.

The poor nations growth in internet outpaced the USA's by a factor of ten - using "discarded" CRTs

I mean this in a friendly way, reminding readers that RecyHub requested this review.  I'm certain their hearts are in the right place.   I'm just suggesting you start with an open mind, and don't take photos of crouching children as "evidence" of "e-waste Chernobyl".   Don't be in a rush to label sea containers as "waste" (like Greenpeace did) if they contain something uniform (hotel televisions, or 17 inch kitchen TVs that are favored in ghettos).  And don't label pollution from auto yards as "electronics pollution".

See people for what they can do, not for what they cannot do.  Don't form impressions of inner city Americans from a Willie Horton photo, don't form impressions of Egyptian youth from Al Qaeda news.  If you assume the best, you may find that "used goods" buyers are not "e-waste primitives" after all... just as Wistron, Foxconn, Samsung, JVC and other companies which started out buying used product turned out not to be.   Read Harvard Business Review's "The Battle for China's Good Enough Market", and the History book "Japan:  Network of Tinkerers", and ask why this model (which I built my own $3M company with) should be off limits in the Southern Hemisphere?
I started with used good enough

We love a good debate, and I hope @RecyHub, comes back with a critique of the 5-step model above.  It has been proven in Malaysia, Mexico and Peru.  It's a good model for Ghana.

Interpol's heart is in the right place, too.  I don't want to offend people.  But if the patient is still living, I'm just screaming not to bury them.

Interpol's based in Lyon, France, and is participating in the StEP program. In 2009, Interpol put out the theory that Payment for the televisions shows organization, and so is "organized crime."   Since Interpol accepted Basel Action Network's phony and disavowed "80%" statistic in the same report,  "wastecrime" is committed by African "crime families".   The UK Guardian and Independent report it, and Hurricane Joe Benson is ruined financially.

Why should WR3A's postion, that the illness was misdiagnosed, be considered hostile?  It's hostile to Groupthink, but only in the small bubble of E-Stewards and Planned Obsolescence in Hindsight financing.

In the USA we recognize a problem called "racial profiling".   And as far behind the EU as the USA may or may not be, we have largely improved our racial divide by admitting to it.

Here's where America does well.   As much negative press as our "illegal immigration" saga gets, as much as we replay the guilt of our civil rights history, we are better at integrating Central Americans than Europe is at integrating Central Africans.  An immigrant, legal or not, who is in the USA to do business is presumed to be acting rationally, in his or her own economic self interest.  The entire Western Hemisphere is better at incorporating foreigners as individuals than the Eastern Hemisphere.

That's a massive generalization, I know, but it's more accurate by far than "OECD vs. Non-OECD" stereotypes.   OECD and the Basel Convention need to be blown up, and we need to start over with definitions that incorporate the differences between urban and rural development, and recognize local democracy - Mayors  and Governors - as more important than colored lines and bars of nations on maps.  As trade becomes more free, we don't have to sacrifice altruism and conscience and improving the world.  But to engage in that, we have to drop big oversimplifications like "OECD", and to entertain policies that reward an African city that is making great gains, despite the child labor in the cotton plantations in its northern rural unwired religiously intolerant backwaters.

 The Fourth Revolution - Patrick Snow
Boycotting Egyptian techs out of fear of being accused of toxic exploitation is a cowards approach.  This issue is too brief, and development too fast, to waste time in a "middle ground" with a false accusation. Consciences, like brains, improve with use.  Reducing interaction with other societies in order to reduce the risk of shame dished out from bullyboys isn't going to bring progress.

We have argued in this blog that the gravitational influence of environmentalist guilt has distracted policy from more important dynamics, such as the education of girls.  Girls are more likely to get educations in nations which import used computers than in nations that don't import used computers.  Is that a direct causal correlation?  Of course not. But the education of women is much more important to peace and sustainability than the relative environmental difference, if any, between shredding and burning electric wires.  Kids who grow up in e-Scrap junkyards become tinkerers and cell phone jailbreakers, and listen to music online, and create green revolutions and local democracy.

Too complicated for us environmentalists?  So is rocket science.  Either add value or get out of the way.

Yes, Europe is a great place to argue and debate policy.  Today I have deep friendships with people I had raucus philosophical arguments with when I was a teenager in Switzerland, our kids are friends.  The challenge in Europe is the inclination to put policy so far up the ivory tower, so far away from dirty hands, that you get "Cloud solutions" (in Aristophanes sense) like "Marxism".  Marxist theory was supposed to trigger revolutions in industrialized cities, according to the doctrine.  But Communism only succeeded in feudal countries like Russian and China, where uneducated peasants could be made to believe that dividing up all the "spoils" of a nationalized factory would be divided fairly by "government", and make a positive difference in the lives of farmers.

Europeans have rich history, which they tend to analyze to predict future social outcomes which rarely work the way they are supposed to (see Patrick Snow's book "The Fourth Revolution").  The countries which tried Communism ruined the growth of their urban industrial centers, and most of their population struggled for electricity for decades... trying to build more last miles of track with less industry to capitalize it.

When the electricity finally came, it was the most unsafe, brutal, and toxic form of delivery, as compared to "capitalist" cities where people owned personal property, and don't want Chernobyls and Coal plants in their backyards.   NIMBY had a force to externalize (away from the "backyard"), but also to create power people could stand to live beside, and which reduced impact of real estate value.  That's an ongoing theme here, how environmental policy is enforced according to land value, and how it's both an environmental justice issue and, when planned obsolescence corporate interests take the reigns, an environmental malpractice issue.

Communism meant well, but was social malpractice.

Export bans mean well, too.  But they are environmental malpractice.

Tomorrow:   Finding Africa's Bobby Fischer (or Steve Wozniak)


boronat said...

Thanks for the proposals and for outlining your vision. I will take your invitation to produce a critique of it.

The approach at Recyhub is not that of creating a business in the EU. I understand that WR3A is based in the US and sells devices to be reused/refurbished/recycled in other places, is that correct?

There are some issues in my mind that I think are not cleared out by your model:

- Child labour. In Agbogbloshie there are kids working with the e-waste, burning cables. Somehow, they should be considered in a model that takes into account human development, not only economical development.

- Non-recyclable parts. Not 100% of the components are recyclable. There are hazardous parts that need to be removed and treated separately, and there are plastics that don't have any secondary market value. Those parts will be travelling together with the reusable electronics.

How do you approach these two issues?

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

In a nutshell, the child labor and difficult to manage components are mostly generated in the emerging nations themselves and a trade ban does nothing to address them.

On the contrary, the WR3A / fair trade recycling model uses the value of the goods to create incentives to address these problems. Instead of paying $7,000 for a containerload of televisions, the African trader could pay just $4,000 in return for a contract to eliminate child labor, recycle the plastic, etc.

This is the only model which creates $3k (or 4, 5k, 7k) to fund proper recycling. African traders import from wealthy countries because the scrap is so much higher in (reuse) value, and OECD nations are foolish to shred that value. Keeping it out of the hands of African techs is a lose-lose proposition.