Geography Baiting 6: Granular Images of Recycling in Asia

My response to BAN's report "Scam Recycling" is not a criticism of tracking technology as a methodology.  And I'm not a critic of MIT or the Basel Convention.

Basel Action Network, using funding from The Body Shop Foundation, successfully added a lot of granularity to the discussion about exports of used electronics internationally.  The Data is interesting.   A peer review process, using scientific method, could have produced a great report, and could have protected the privacy of unwitting and unwilling test subjects in all the countries involved.  And to the degree that data is released rather than "obscured", it can be assessed by professionals like myself, and academics, and policy can evolve.

And that's happening. Josh Lepawsky of MUN's Geography department has repopulated many of the data points that were obscured on BAN/Monitour (though not all - Foshan is missing, as is EcoPark).

Is BAN playing games with the data?  If so, MIT Ethics office should recognize that its students (remember we have the names of the ones who placed a device in Somerville) are pawns.

I'm a critic of one thing.  Environmental Malpractice.  For a decade, this blog has attempted to offer an "anti-defamation" defense vs. Basel Action Network's game of tokenism, profiling, geography-baiting, race-baiting, and slander.  The people I'm most concerned about today are the Chinese printer technicians who make repair and reuse of laser printers as commonplace in China as automobile repair in the USA.  Or, put another way, as common as repair of laser printers was in the USA in 1995.  Because of the history economy printer cartridges - which cost as much as ball point pens to make, but sell for over $20 - printers are a specialty business which has been under attack since I first visited China's Nanhai/Foshan district in 2002, the year BAN visited Guiyu and Adam Minter arrived in Shanghai.

It's extremely difficult for Fair Trade Recycling to defend a printer economy which is kept in the "informal" sector by forces which defy Americans understanding of reuse economies.  Fifteen years ago, I assumed that anyone paying double the price of scrap for laser printers, but who refuses to buy inkjet printers, knew what they were doing, and had to be in the reuse parts business.  When I visited those markets, I was uneasy. They were very small, dirty shops.  Sometimes the work was outdoors. But you saw clearly that the sandaled brown and yellow people were sorting the printers by size and brand.  I found out that the reuse markets for certain LaserJet 4s had more to do with industrial machine repair (using the same memory cards) than it had to do with Laser printing.  And I found out about, and Arizona Cartridge Manufacturers, and Jazz Camera.

I also found out that these markets are virtually untraceable and impossibly unaccountable. If I met a printer scrap buyer in person, and managed to communicate in Chinese, I learned that from his perspective scrap was "liquid". If he found the same printer I sold him closer to him, he felt he'd fulfilled his obligations and what happened to my physical printer was irrelevant.  From his perspective, it was as if I was trying to track the serial numbers on a hundred dollar bill I'd used to transfer money by Paypal.

As R2 and other certifications became legislated (in Vermont, it's mandatory), my company mostly gave up on directly exporting printers in 2011.  We knew there was a market... but it was like trying to explain to your wife that you only ordered a soft drink and watched the NFL game - at a Gentleman's Strip Club.  Surrounded by alcohol and barely dressed ladies, it's possible to follow fundamentalist callings.  But the appearance of impropriety is likely.  Try explaining it, and you'll understand the printer repair market in Guangdong.  It's just too kinetic to certify.
Add the R2 requirement that the import itself must be legal, and you find yourself (as BAN admits) trapped in Viet Nam or Hong Kong.  I disagree with why China makes printer import for reuse illegal - it certainly has nothing to do with Basel Convention - but the legal question is hard to answer.

Last fall, after 5 years of crushing and destroying almost every working and repairable printer, a Chicago copy machine refurbishing company offered to take our laser printers.  And they had a system, they said, for properly recycling any printer scrap that wasn't found repairable.  It seemed to us like the SKD recycling factory in Penang, Malaysia which we worked with proudly from 2005-2011.  How could we say no to testing it out?

"Eco Park" is not about putting a legal umbrella over the discursive informal recycling narrative.  It is real.

The main reason to say "No" (Geo-baiting #5) is not environmental, it's the risk that a Big Shred competitor, or their E-Stewards Hit Man, will find out and impugn our company.  But I've called the NGO case "Malarky" and so it's no surprise the NGO Basel Action Network was apparently willing to delete coordinates in order to make us, and our client, appear to be the direct exporter.  And they had to delete data and invent a "chain of custody" to imply that outsourcing our printers to a USA R2 Certified company in Chicago was intended to disguise trade with Mr. Lai's Printer Farm.  BAN's report goes to great lengths to imply that we knew or should have known about the outdoor scrapyard based on the languate and race of the geographic location.

Boil it down... is nationality (or skin color) a basis of reasonable suspicion?

The choice of responses to BAN is unpleasant, given we believe them - that the printer was scrapped outdoors, not at an R2 certified company (which we believed possible until the data was released August 16).   The possible responses are between 1) push the Chicago exporter under the bus (as sadly friends in Seattle did to their downstream, despite clear evidence their LCD did in fact go to the Eco Park and is now in apparent re-use in Tin Shui Wai), or 2) to explain how the right thing to do - trading with new state of the art recyclers - carries risks, or 3) to claim that had BAN not scrambled the innards of the device, it may well have been repaired (which seems speculative).  The challenge is to reduce these risks without defaulting to racist profiling during a withering defamation campaign by Basel Action Network.

Since the report (MIT Web Page) first came out, I've tried to defend our export with integrity, and provided BAN and MIT a lot of information about our investigation of Tier 2 and Tier 3 recycling downstreams and our criteria for which kinds of printers we destroy and which kinds we believe can be used for parts.

What emerges are two Western Characterizations of Hong Kong.
  • "Wishful Thinking" is the bias of USA recyclers who see the press releases about huge new SoTA (State of the Art) recycling facilities (WEEETRF) for legally imported scrap. 
  • "Smearful Thinking" is the bias of USA recyclers (like E-Stewards who finance BAN) to denigrate or report the worst examples they can locate to "profile" as "primitive" the recyclers in "un-American" places.
You have to get all the way to page 57, but BAN ADMITS that the state of the art facilities are there.   State of the Art Recycling has been in Asia before, and in a matter of months, I have no doubt that the Eco Park will be an irreproachable destination for e-scrap.  When that happens, even 40%  export (which is a nonsense statistic) will be as acceptable as the 6% we've actually seen exported.  And as we continue to populate BAN's actual map with actual destinations (as we have the Faisalabad University DANY TV shop and the Eco Park LCD repair), we'll be left without a racial litmus test for recycling.

Perhaps I was guilty of "wishful thinking".  But in the Scam Recycling text, Basel Action Network performs a textbook case of "smearful thinking".

In our eagerness to support USA companies willing to use the State Of the Art ECO-PARK in Hong Kong, our diligence was insufficient.  We can't say what MLPF is doing wrong, but we can definitely say that it's not the destination we were given, and not the destination given to the Chicago recycler.  The destination we were offered is something we want to support - state of the art recycling overseas.   We obtained proof of the investments, certification, proof of downstream recovery of printed circuit boards, and signed a conditional PO for 2 loads to be assessed in Chicago before being exported.  But BAN has provided important, granular, information that the diligence wasn't sufficient.

The logic of supporting SOtA recyclers overseas, addressed in the last blog, "How Can You Say No?" is sound.   But we must accept as a given that Hong Kong's recyclers will continue to be racially profiled and judged as "primitives", and we can't risk a couple of bad actors ruining Hong Kong's plans for SoTA recycling. We cannot allow the undeserved reputation assigned to all technicians based on 60 Minutes trip to Guiyu to threaten these investments.  To make our case that recycling markets should not be judged based on nationality, language, or race, we need to make sure our scrap really is going to the best markets.  We are trying to operate via "color blind casting".

I might hire a black country music artist who can't carry a note and gets booed offstage.  But compared to someone unwilling to listen to or talk about African American country music, I am much more likely, in the long run, to meet Charley Pride (or Dion Pride).  I've been travelling overseas for years, and trading with Arabs and Chinese and Peru Indians and Indonesians and Pakis and Jews and Africans and Mexicans for a long, long, long time.  And taking a picture of me at a restaurant dining with another woman isn't going to bother my wife, and taking pictures of me trading with geeks of color isn't going to scare many of my clients.

We are who we say we are and do what we say we do.  How about you?

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