Top Ten Myths about so-called "E-Waste" (Update)

by Robin Ingenthron- (Originally Published on Earth Day 2010 via Greenwala).  Updated May 2014, as a reminder that the "Great E-Waste Hoax" continues to accuse geeks of color in many countries.
'It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." - Mark Twain
Ranking the 10 Myths requires a definition of what the term "e-waste" means.   In the dictionary and in the courts, "waste" means the material that is discarded or disposed of… stuff that didn’t get recycled, but was dumped.  If two computers are exported, and one is repaired, and the other is thrown away, only the second one is "ewaste".
Definitions aside, the "E-Waste" scare was probably the biggest environmental hoax of the past decade.  Protectionists, alarmists, and gray market regulators bandied the term loosely.  Two Chinese officials told me that any property once owned by anyone is considered "discarded" if it changes possession... the entire used car economy is "waste" business by that definition.   I asked a Hong Kong regulator at an Interpol conference - what if I used a laptop for a week and then sold it to my friend?  "Definitely e-waste" was his response.  
So I always put the term "e-waste" in quotes. Many myths stem from the confusion between waste, reuse, and scrap commodities (like steel and plastic).  Many Myths also have a kernel of truth.  But too often there is no data to support them.  There may be a photo of a poor child, and a fictitious statistic, or a stereotype.  

Some of Myths amount to "green" propaganda produced to sell "cures" like shredding.
As economist Roger Brinner said, “The sum of anecdotes is not data.”   Myths feed cynicism, which generates reaction AGAINST recycling (see #1).   We need scientists and engineers, economists and lawyers,  more representatives from importing businesses, and fewer megaphones.

 10.  MYTH:  "There is a growing tsunami of ewaste."
The Pitch: "Electronics are more disposable, with shorter useful lives. There is evidence [Franklin Associates] that obsolete electronics are the fastest growing segment of the MSW stream. Changes in analog TV broadcasts make old "rabbit ears" TVs obsolete, unless they are connected to cable or satellite. The pile is just getting bigger and bigger."

These facts are true, but they do not describe production of electronics. 

Generation is faster.  But the units themselves are getting smaller. There is more computing power in a cell phone today than in a living-room-sized computer at NASA in the 1970s. The increasing tonnage is made up of "legacy" equipment.   Most of the products collected at "ewaste recycling" events (think projection and CRT televisions) is coming out after decades of storage. 

The more recently a state began collecting used electronics, the higher the pounds of "ewaste" per capita. So,  there actually has been a wave, but the wave was created by states that waited for "ewaste legislation" to pass the legislature.  Collections have already crested in places like Massachusetts and California, as the old "old growth" TVs have been cleared out. 

The tonnage is only "growing" where the collections just recently started. This is the "lawnmower effect" - the  longer you wait to mow the lawn, the heavier the bag of clippings. In more mature programs, most of the mass is still older units, but most of the count is from younger units. The wood console TVs which showed Super Bowl X, and the 80 pound Kaypro "laptops", are finite. What we see is not more and more "e-waste" generation, but more "ewaste" collections in more places.

9. MYTH:  We won't recycle “ewaste” unless it is free.
The Pitch: Widely advertised "free" recycling events, like the one Sony held at the Patriots stadium in MA, draw lines of cars and piles of TVs and computers. It is easy to conclude that these people kept the old TV in their garage because they couldn't pay $10 to recycle it on a normal Saturday.

We call this the "Ben and Jerry's" effect, after the long lines for Vermont's "Free Ice Cream" day, held every spring at Ben and Jerry's ice cream parlors. How many people in the long line don't otherwise eat ice cream?

Imagine a free STARBUCKS coffee event. You can bet on a long line. But you will not find a single tea drinker.  As George Washington said, "Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder..."

Recyclers recycle, non-recyclers don't. The free "ewaste" recycling events do show that people will suffer irrational inconvenience to save a buck, especially if it makes the news and they can talk about it at the water cooler ("I was there at the Small Dog Event"). But imagine if another event PAYs people $10 per junk TV, right across the street from the free event... The paying line would be longer, but it wouldn't prove that people "won't" otherwise recycle a TV for free.

 The important thing is to establish a sustainable system. People recycle TVs because they have a TV to recycle, something that happens every decade or two. Compare the burden of the fee to a bridge toll on tourism. Whether people pay the toll depends on the options they have, and the frequency of the trip, not on the burden of the toll.

8.  MYTH:  “E-Waste” Recycling wastes energy.
The Pitch: Looking at the recycling trucks, the shredding machines, and the cars full of "ewaste", it's an easy hypothesis that recycling wastes energy.

"Ewaste" recycling definitely saves energy.  Metal mining and refining always takes more energy and pukes more pollution than recycling.  It's a fact.  The same is true of forestry... If you eliminate the newspaper recycling trucks, you'll need two logging trucks to drive up a mountain, because we can't give up toilet paper.

As a matter of fact, the free market loves recycling. When oil prices go up, demand for recycled paper, metals, and plastics all skyrocket. In a gasoline crisis, or in times of war, you will see even MORE recycling trucks, as mills pay to avoid the energy costs of mining ore and cutting trees. Even though junk PCs and TVs are made of plastics and metals and stuff arrive welded together or attached with 20 different screwheads, demand increases when energy is in short supply. E-Scrap recycling thrives in the poorest countries because of the value of the energy entombed in the refined metals. Copper, lead, tin, aluminum, etc. are only thrown away in societies that drive gas guzzlers.

7.  MYTH: Electronics Repair is a Lost Art.
The Pitch: Repair shops are disappearing. You may have had your RCA TV repaired for $50 in 1988, but try to find someone to replace the tuner or flyback today.  Fixing is dead.

First, there is a difference between an art which is "lost" and an art that moved to another neighborhood. Seventy years ago, there were auto repair shops on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan... car repair didn't disappear, it moved to Hoboken and Queens. Techies are generally smart people, and they pursue the best opportunity available to them - including rent.

Second, the opportunities change. The repair guys in Boston didn't forget how to repair your 1980 RCA TV. But why fix a TV worth $10 if you can repair a laptop worth $200? The repair economy gravitates to the highest value item from the wealthiest client. A good used car salesmen buys cars in the tawny neighborhoods and sells them in the strapped neighborhoods. Electronics repairs flow the same way.

Overseas techs would much rather repair rich country electronics than the ones discarded in their ghettos.  In those poor countries, electronics repair is the equivalent of an engineering job. If you have a cell phone you want repaired in New York or Paris, it will probably be a foreigner's shop, and if you choose not to pay for the repair, the technician will probably repair it anyway and sell it - perhaps at his parents home in Taipei, Mumbai, or Mexico City. Your ability to get a Pentium III repaired is affected by the other available repair jobs. The fastest way to interrupt a Pentium III repair is to put a Pentium dual-core on the table. The tech, and his/her skill, remains the same, but the opportunity changed.

6.  MYTH:   Electronics are dangerously toxic.
The Pitch: Five pounds of lead in an average CRT. Cadmium phosphors found in piles of CRT glass. As described in King/McCarthy's 2009 publication Environmental Sociology, "E-waste today contains a witches' brew of toxic substances such as lead and cadmium in circuit boards; lead oxide and cadmium in monitor cathode ray tubes..." HowStuffWorks, Wikipedia, and many other reputable sources have beaten the drum about toxics in TVs and computers.

It's safe to say that the TV is in its most dangerous state when it's turned on in your living room.  It has a live electric current, and the programs - oy vey!  TVs are big and heavy, and the biggest risk is to your back.

The presence of toxics in computers and monitors, as compared with toxics in automobiles and white goods, has been exaggerated. Virtually no TV or computer monitor has cadmium, and there is no liquid mercury switch in a TV or computer. The lead in CRTs is "vitrified" (chemically bound up, solidified in the glass), the same as in leaded glass crystal dinnerware - a stabilization process (vitrification) reserved for plutonium waste. CRTs of 40 and 50 years ago used cadmium for yellows or greens, but manufacturers got rid of cadmium by the early 1970s.

What about the poisoned waters in Guiyu China? First, the poisons emitted from primitive circuit board recycling don't actually come from the circuit boards, they come from the highly poisonous "aqua regia" acids the boards are soaked in. Burning plastics and copper wire is also a polluting process, but it's anecdotal - the plastic scrap is worth too much.   And scrapping risks should be distinguished from disassembly and repair economies, and from properly performed recycling.

More importantly, the water samples taken by Basel Action Network, showing Arsenic in the river by Guiyu, failed to measure the pollution upstream.  Guiyu is home to a gigantic textile dying industry, and the samples show the same pollution from similar industry in Bangladesh, India and Brazil.  There is also virgin copper mining upstream.  But there's no arsenic in e-waste.

There are risks in e-waste recycling, but the toxics have been dramatically overstated as compared to, say, the exposure from pumping gasoline at the self-serve. If you take 50 years of experience from TV repair industry, you find hurt backs, busted toes, a rare electric shock, and occasional cuts from incidents of broken CRT glass. You don't see much lead poisoning, silicosis, or other banes of mining raw materials.

Oh, one more thing: Computer viruses are also not contagious to humans.

5.  MYTH:  Manufacturer Take-back leads to design solutions
The Pitch: If Original Equipment Manufacturers are handed back the problem of obsolete electronics, they will have have an incentive to design, produce, and sell items that avoid those problems. 

Baloney.  Hardware design can't do much to stop obsolescence.

CDs made the cassette players obsolete, and MP3s made the CD players obsolete.  No VCR engineer at Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Sharp JVC could have done anything to extend the VHS's life.

It's the media. Windows 95 made the Pentium I, obsolete, Windows 2000 made the Pentium II obsolete. Digital broadcasts made the rabbit ear TVs obsolete. There is no way that the engineer of the CRT could have anticipated the LCD or plasma screen. Making the manufacturer of VCR pay for its recycling will not change the tide of DVDs or blue ray players. Obsolescence is dictated by media, and by invention, not by shortcuts in hardware design.

The takeback theory is also based on a somewhat quaint image of manufacturing. If you take my computer desktop apart, the hard drive is made by Seagate, the motherboard by Intel, the video cards by NVidia, the screen assembled by BenQ, the CRT tube by Trinitron, the RAM stick by Corsair... I don't know what "Dell" made besides the logo. Forcing all these assembled parts back upstream is certainly going to make a lot of noise, but it's not likely to affect the engineering.  And by the way, who were the biggest importers of 17" CRT monitors in Asia, the ones importing hundreds of thousands per month?  The same contract manufacturer factories which assembled the monitors originally for Dell, HP, and IBM outsource (e.g. Proview).  Most of the "exports" were to the same factories you send warranty returns back to, purchased back for remanufacturing.  We have met "takeback" and labelled it "e-waste exports".  Environmentalists reactions may have more to do with racial profiling and "poverty-porn" than we'd like to admit.

4.  MYTH:  Most of the junk electronics found in developing countries are discards from wealthy nations.
Pitch: (If) 80% of the "E-Waste" collected in the USA is exported, and (if) 80% of those exports are useless, it follows that the electronic scrap scattered in the streets of poor areas like Guiyu, China, came from imported loads from rich countries. The people tearing down the ewaste are too poor to have generated it themselves.

Actually, China is the number 2 generator of scrap electronics after the USA. Reports from Malaysia, from the United Nations, and from researchers at Arizona State University all confirm that most of the scrap electronics found in places like Guiyu actually originated in the home country.  According to the World Bank, Nigeria had 6.9 million households with television in 2006 - mostly in cities like Lagos, which also have waste dumps just like Vermont does.

Is this something we should panic about?  Consider that the biggest area of growth in internet access is in developing countries.   You can predict demand for new and working product every time a new electricity utility comes on line.   Over 75% of humans have electricity today... and they want to hear music, watch football, and get online.

Countries with average per capita GDP of $3000 increased internet access at ten times the rate of USA growth (USA's GDP per capita is $47,000).  The lions share of the discarded electronics observed at the landfills in Africa were purchased decades ago.  Yes, they are finally becoming obsolete, as even new products do.  How will these countries develop the capacity to best recycle their own scrap electronics? In the USA, it was techies, geeks and repair people who started the "e-waste"  recycling industry.  When Interpol arrests African importers, they are actively hindering recycling (as well as distracting enforcement from endangered species and illegal forestry, etc).   No country advances by being denied technology.

3.  MYTH:  Most electronics will be repaired or recycled if you send it to a country poor enough. 
Pitch: The free market works perfectly. Anything can be repaired, anything can be recycled. Even the screws are made of metal. If we export e-waste to a poor enough country.

This was presented to me by a notorious e-waste exporter. There are a lot of e-waste generators who choose recycling companies based on the lowest price. Many think that the free market works and that importers wouldn't buy the stuff if it wasn't good.

The first problem is that the shipping lines and sea containers are a "bottleneck" - a sea container holds 40,000 lbs., and the buyers are somewhat hostage to the efforts of willing exporters.   Poor countries cannot recycle broken CRT glass unless there is a smelter (like in Mexico) or CRT furnace (like in India and China), or there is enough "fair trade" rebate by the exporter to pay for the recycling of bad units. Left with a repairable TV, an African will repair it, but left with a cracked CRT screen, they can only strip the copper and leave the leaded glass on the ground... at a penny a pound, they cannot pay to ship it to another continent. And a country has to at least afford electricity before they can repair used computers; the poorest billion people cannot really benefit from junk computers of the wealthy. If there is a single high-value item - such as classified submarine tracking equipment, some laptops, or a nice Harley-Davidson motorcycle, importers will look the other way when obsolete equipment falls out. But just because you ship something doesn't mean you recycled it.

The second problem?  If you are an importer, "stewardship" is boycotting you.  Finding a better supplier gets harder in a "prohibition" economy.  The number one reason exporters give us for junk is the unwillingness of most collectors to sell to them.  We are forcing them into "back alleys" to buy affordable working product.

2.  MYTH:  80% of electronics exports are illegal end-of-life product.
The Pitch: BAN and Greenpeace claim that 80% of the ewaste collected in the USA is exported, and that 80% of that is junk for disposal. American companies export the junk to avoid the cost of proper recycling. Photos show that "80%" of what is thrown on the ground is junk.

When I originally published this, I was far too polite.   The manufacturer of the "80% statistic" made it up and admits it.  Interpol's "Project Eden" is still arresting Africans despite numerous studies proving that only 7% of African imports aren't reused.

Junk burned by kids in photos?  Mostly collected from inside cities like Accra and Lagos after decades of use.   Used imports?   Despite the prohibitions, Africans do a better job of reuse than brand new product!!! (based on warranty returns and electrostatic discharge damage to new product).

What about China?  Most of the imports of used computer monitors are to the contract manufacturing companies, the assemblers which originally made them.  These factories were buying them back and refurbishing them into brand new TVs and monitors, importing them as "cores" for a process called SKD or semi-knock-down.  The monitors shown in the Hong Kong segment of CBS 60 Minutes "Wasteland" were NOT headed to Guiyu, they were headed to a factory, a manufacturer takeback program.  And it's a good thing.  Then the Chinese refurbishers sold them to places like Egypt and India, where electricity was coming and people were getting online and watching soccer matches on affordable CRTs.  The only loser is brand new CRT production.

Importers report that, at most, 30% of the exports of uniform loads may be junk (barring a new motorcycle, guns, or other "sweetener" in the load).  Numerous studies now prove this.   In a study by ASU of used computers sold to Peru, more than 85% was repaired and resold.  A Kenya report commissioned by Basel Action Network in 2006 estimated 90% reuse.  Basel Convention Secretariat studies found 85%-93% reuse in Ghana and Nigeria.

While it saves the USA recycler money to toss a junk, imploded, ancient, Apple, unrepairable monitor or TV on top of a stack of good ones, the importer who pays for transportation cannot survive on "avoided disposal fees".   But it costs thousands of dollars to send a shipping a container across an ocean (dumping it in the Atlantic would achieve the same cost savings). A uniform load of monitors earns the USA shipper another $3000 on top of shipping. Overseas buyers cannot pay that for unrepairable CRT monitors with a dollar's worth of copper. As for the pile in Guiyu, or the landfill in Ghana, of course it's 80% junk - its at the landfill! The good TVs and computers are sold, they are off in use. The junk does accumulate, like orange peels in a monkey cage. But finding empty soda cans doesn't prove that people buy empty soda cans, and finding dead people at a hospital doesn't mean the injured should stay away.  That is why Interpol found that most African importers employ their own families to screen loads in Europe prior to export... a process Interpol described as "organized", and therefore, "Organized Crime".     Racist, Malpractice, Environmental Injustice - call  it what you will - it is continuing in 2014, five years after the "habeus corpus" exam determined the geeks of color to be innocent.

As for Legality, the Basel Convention is available on-line. The proposed "Ban Amendent" is actually language to change the Basel Convention so that legal activities would - if passed - become illegal.   As ro international law, here and now, used electronics exported for recycling and repair are LEGAL - and specifically addressed in Annex IX, B1110. Annex IX is the list of what is legal if it does not result in a toxic disposal. That means that the export is illegal only if it is a polluting process. It does not prohibit factories which made monitors from buying back their old monitors for refurbishment if they properly manage the residue.

1.  MYTH:  E-Waste Recycling isn't worth it.                      
The Pitch:  Freakonomics authors postulated that if recycling costs money, it shouldn't be done by the free market.  Are e-waste programs just an expensive boondoggle?  Clients cannot see the difference in service between a recycling company that charges them for the same pile of computers that another company pays for.  It's all a cynical ploy to get you to pay to recycle something that does no harm in the dump.
This is the most dangerous myth because it stabs recycling programs in the heart - by reducing participation.   EPA, USGS, the Department of Commerce, and state and county governments have studied recycling.  We have weighed the costs and benefits, and set up programs.  Convincing people NOT to participate creates a double waste - the material that gets thrown away as well as the cost of driving past a non-participant.  By not participating, the cynics make recycling slightly less affordable and practical than it would otherwise be, and cause environmentalists to be frustrated and feeling green whiplash.  Many of us, including myself, have addressed e-Waste Hoax gingerly, out of fear of blowback against climate change and other important environmentalist "beliefs".
Cynicism hurts the companies which are investing in doing a better job of managing used electronics.  It undercuts the refurbishing and repair industry, which has been the best path of development (far better than drilling and mining and plantations) for the developing world.  As clients get cynical, the recyclers competing for the smaller pie might be tempted to malign each other's reputations, insinuate foul play, and charge higher margins on the declining volumes.
In the last decade, my company managed about 30 million pounds of used TVs, computers, printers, VCRs, laptops, keyboards, oscilloscopes, monitors, copy machines, cell phones, stereos, surge suppressors, and other surplus, working, repairable, junk and anything else you might label "e-waste".   If you took all that material and put it in the dump, you'd avoid our fees (about 12-18 cents per pound after collection), about $600k, and create one job for one day, pushing dirt on the electronics that the landfill.  By recycling it, that we generated $3M per year in county payroll, multiplying the fees is multiplied with reuse and scrap revenue.

Recycling is great.  It shouldn't be sold as a "cure" for hoaxes, it stands well enough on its own.
Most of the environmental harm from a disposable society is wasting the precious materials.    Gorilla extinction is tied to the mining of coltan/tantalum for cell phones.  Conflict metals are going into electronics as well as jewelry.   Even non-toxic elements in a computer, such as tin, are mined at the expense of coral reefs in Indonesia.  The copper production at the OK Tedi Mine in Papua New Guinea produces a green plume of cyanide tailings which visible from outer space.    Hard rock metal mining produces 45% of all toxics generated by all USA industries.  14 of the 15 largest Superfund sites come from virgin metal mining.  Even the worst forms of recycling produce less pollution than the cleanest form of mining.

The worst form of recycling is better than the best metal mining.
I suspect there are many more myths about e-waste.  Is hard drive destruction demanded because Chinese paupers are booting up hard drives?  Or is it the value of computer programs (MS Office, Photoshop, etc.) behind the legislation which drives shredding?   Does a printer run through a shredder in the USA wind up in a different country than a printer exported for disassembly?  Or does the fluff plastic and the steel just go into separate containers to the same place?   Are cameras and ink cartridges refilled or burned?   Do “green” products matter?  Does just the promise to act green matter as much (through brand exposure and commitment) as the ecological footprint?   There are many other sacred cows roaming El Rancho del E-Waste.   I don’t know, and am not ready to declare something a Myth if I’m not pretty confident in my facts.   But that just means there is plenty more to research, study, and write about in the coming years.
(This post was republished by Greenwala in July, 2010)

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