Value Added By Reuse, Repair, Recycling and Mining

Not much value added (wikipedia anti-art)
My epiphany came sometime between my experience in Cameroon Peace Corps, my ~5 year term as a truck driver / consultant at Earthworm Recycling, and my MBA at Boston University.


I realized that the recycling I was dedicated to was preserving value once added to rocks by mining and smelting them, value added to trees by cutting and cutting the bark off and bleaching them to fiber.  I realized that the Africans I met who were fixing stuff discarded by others were, with their intellects, capturing added value.  I realized my grandfather in the Ozarks was preserving otherwise depreciating added value by fixing expensive stuff like car engines rather than discarding them.   I realized the "Hillbilly Highway" between poor places and rich cities was a two-way street, with value of labor flowing out and value of devices flowing in.

The dirtiest recycling is cleaner than the cleanest forestry/mining/extraction.
The dirtiest repair is cleaner than the cleanest recycling.

Geographical relocation of devices has to do with the value of the "value added".  In America, I could save $100 by keeping my smart phone or my CRT display just a year longer.  But at a certain point, $100 isn't worth the deferred satisfaction.  That economy is a privilege, which may be earned or may be inherited.

Someone in a poor country may not have that privilege.

The $100 I forgo is 5% of total annual household income for 3 billion people.

Here is what a printer looks like going through a shredder.

Now, the shredding pretty much ruins the plastic.  When the prices of metal is high, that's more than worth the cost of manual disassembly.  When the price of metals falls (as is the case the past 18 months), the value of the plastics becomes relatively important, and the price of labor to hand dismantle the devices becomes more salient.

Liability takes away from added value.  So NGOs are funded by industries that provide less Value Added in order to impugn reuse or recycling industries which have an advantage in adding value.  Effectively, the value of your "stuff" depreciates faster when it crosses a national border.

Shredding does retain the value added of the mined and refined ores and metals.  Recycling is good, and I'm not anti-shredding for that reason.  When a society can no longer afford hand disassembly, that's a sign the society has matured in a good way and can afford not to do dirty jobs.

But to declare that shredding is superior in a "circular economy" or more "sustainable" is false.  If another society still sees hand disassembly as a step up (as rice farming is automated, for example), they may see the hand disassembly as a step up in preserving value.  Its certainly better than exposing that society to mining and smelting - as we have already done.  Basel Convention does not mention the enormous mercury and cyanide and lead poisoning, or the deforestation, or any net environmental harms other that "waste" which is, by definition, a variable measure of "value added".  One person's trash in another person's treasure.

So I don't want to demonize shredding, not at all.  But the people who are paying cash to demonize hand disassembly workers in emerging markets know well what they are peddling.

Blame and racism and liability and fear and otherization.

What makes an Optiplex more "value added" to an Egyptian is the skill and knowledge to repair the capacitor plagued device with a new 50 cent capacitor.  A "waste" laptop goes in 45 minutes to a value of $200 per pound, simply based on the intellect and skill of the technician.

What makes a HP Laserjet 4 more valuable to a Chinese scrapper is the $75 circuit board which is still in demand and in use in industrial floor sweepers.

This knowledge and skill is a good thing.  The value these technicians add is the chief reason for Hans Rosling's good news on progress in emerging markets.  These techs provide the critical mass of users who finance cell phone towers in Africa, internet cables in Asia.

Stop impugning them with simplistic racist descriptions.

The best hope for the hand dismantlers in Hong Kong is to have rich people with a fear of liability pay them enough to do the job as they should.

We call it Fair Trade Recycling and it is better than anything offered by the bans and boycotts of the anti-globalization group Basel Action Network.  Basel Action Network ( takes money from shredding companies and uses it to impugn the best and brighest.  They call it "collateral damage" but they are aiming directly at Joe Benson's head.  It is sad to see good people sell their souls.

1 comment:

Ajsmetals Shmookiem said...

I believe another way to reuse/fix it is to take small and medium sized electronics to small, usually family owned, fix it shops. Once they have fixed an item it is usually sold at a drastically reduced priced to people they a lot of times would not otherwise be able to afford the electronic.
Another alternative to recycling is to take to a place like Good Will where again others will fix it and it will have an opportunity to get resold and used again