Global Warming big issue is Rain Forests

Why can't we get more attention to the link between rain forests and carbon? Today's NYTimes editorial, "Forests and the Planet" hits the spot. Why don't we see more of this?

It leverages the rainforest campaign of the 90s, the species/extinction problem, and does more to offset carbon than erasing China's emmissions.

HR2595 Texas E-waste Export Ban

The bill, filed by Representative Greene of Texas and Thompson of California, could be a lot worse. BAN is lobbying to make it worse (are they allowed to lobby? I thought 501-c3s could not?)

The problem with the bill is the same as the problem with the new Dell policy, and BAN's e-steward policy. They explicitly go after repair and reuse. They go above and beyond the text of the Basel Convention, which explicitly recognizes that repair and reuse are not considered wastes in many countries, and which explicitly allow techs in developing countries to buy and upgrade computers.

Environmentalists are getting duped into taking sides in a war between major brand OEMs and the "white box" market. The factories which assembled monitors and PCs on behalf of OEM brands ten years ago have gotten into the refurbishing business. They are saving by reusing parts like power supplies. Did you know some people still ask for floppy disk drives (often because they have stacks of backup documents on floppies)?

If you are buying a PC with an FDD, it is probably a refurbished FDD, rebuilt and retested in a factory in Kunming, China. They don't make those any more, but the factory found a niche market buying and refurbishing used floppe A: drives. This bill may ban us from shipping to them.

It also puts USA companies in the uncomfortable position of a "silent veto" from a protectionist country. If a country wants to put a tariff or ban on commodities from the USA, normally the USA can challenge that through the WTO. Under this bill, we cannot ship certain products unless the country we are exporting to says "yes". If they don't say yes, and we ship there, the USA government hits us with criminal penalties.

There are a lot of ways to improve the trade of used electronics, and there are certainly a lot of sham recyclers abusing that trade. But the factories that made the CRT monitor on your desk are the factories trying to buy the monitor back. There is not a Dell CRT monitor factory. It was always subbed out. If the company was good enough to assemble the monitor, maybe they are good enough to re-assemble it.

I really like the techs in Senegal, Egypt, Cameroon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Peru, India, Pakistan and Mexico. I think they kick ass. I think that they are chomping at the bit to improve their standards and practices. I think they are so good they are going to become like Korea and Taiwan, which rode the tide of refurbishment and assembly to become major manufacturing societies. The portrayal of these importers as shirtless wire burners is insulting, paternalistic, white man burden crap.

We need to export MORE computers, not less, so they have the option not to buy from the jerks who don't test and remove the bad apples.

Sunshine on "E-Waste" exports

There are finally more rays of sunshine coming through the noise and clatter of "ewaste" protests.

In addition to the two positive NPR stories on TV recycling in Mexico, there has been thoughtful argument posted on blogs, questions about motives (war on refurbishing) of export bans, and some chestnuts unearthed from the New York Times. has a very timely article connecting Dell's "advanced" ban (adding repairable to the list of waste electronics) to a previous NYTimes piece on applying wealthy nations hopes to scavenging jobs in developing countries.

In the New York Times, Op-Ed Columnist Nicholas Kristoff: Where Sweatshops Are a Dream drew several thoughtful comments from people who have lived in developing countries, and who see the wisdom of not interfering with the 'free market' without offering an alternative way to make a living. Kristoff's commentary actually defends even the barest form of scavenging, picking apart metal from plastics. His argument, that adding value through work is an "escalator out of poverty" would be amplified if he actually saw the value added by repair and refurbishment.

Fair Trade is not only possible, it is the best possible solution, and probably the only solution which protects both the environment and improves lives. Through fair trade, we will be better able to advance the case made in WR3A's video, and not throw the babies out with the bathwater. Here is a sharper version, by the way.

NPR Living On Earth - Vermont and Mexico

Marketplace (American Public Media) broadcast a very personal story about Ms. Vicki, one of seven recyclers from Mexico who lived and worked and ate and slept beside Good Point Recycling staff in Middlebury.

Yesterday, NPR's Living On Earth reporter did a story about her 5 days at Retroworks de Mexico.

People are calling to offer financial assistance, one person has offered to purchase solar electric panels for the factory in Mexico.

If you want to meet the ladies yourself, we don't have very good quality film, but we are really happy with our experience hiring Ken French to edit what we had of Africa and Asia film into a short documentary, and when we get some income we'd like to do the same with Las Chicas Bravas (the tough gals). Here's a brief shot of Lidia and Dolores cutting up with Dale and Jimmy in our Middlebury warehouse.

We really want this to work out. The problem with all the Greenpeace anti-export videos are that the people they are filming would be poorer without the e-scrap. It's like filming desperate coffee farmers and then running a tagline "Help these farmers. Boycott coffee". What we need is hands on action. If people in the USA are afraid of corruption in Mexico, they should meet the Retroworks de Mexico women's coop. This is about living wages, working standards. And the cooperativa co-owns the profits.

Here is some film of our training and an interview with the TV repair and resale technician (in Spanish). We have hours of footage, maybe we can find someone to finance another round of edits.

We have longer and more boring film of the women working in Middlebury. We also have film of the ladies training beside Mr. Frederic Fahiri Somda, from Burkina Faso, who is a lawyer now living in Canada, and an expert in Basel Convention law and the laws of Africa. I will write up something all about him another time. It was a hoot cooking and translating and working together, the Mexicans, the Africans, the South Americans, Tito Santiago and me in 2008.

Taipei vs Tokyo

Japan became a huge electronics manufacturing island.

Korea was a dumping ground for Japan and the reuse and remanufacturing business turned Korea into a major competitor. But there was enough wealth to go around.

Japan real estate is extremely expensive, and USA labor is expensive, and manufacturers in both countries began outsourcing assembly and other "non technological core businesses". This created "Electronic Contract Assembly" companies which might assemble a device - such as a TV - for many different brands.

Like many 'displaced' peoples, Taiwanese who had fled Communist China were more willing to travel and to invest in education rather than land. The Taiwanese became big developers in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Pacific Rim. Taiwan also became a natural outsource for circuit board manufacturing. I think by the end of the 1990s, the pieces were in place for Taipai to control printed circuit board production for almost every "commodity" (like calculators and clock radios vs. high end servers).

As the cathode ray tube became 'mature' technology (recall it had been considered very high tech in the 50's and 60s), that is one of the things that got outsourced. China was eager to take over the CRT business in the 1990s.

To make a long story short, there are Electronic Contract Manufacturers and circuit board factories all over Asia, some with hundreds of thousands of employees, that none of us could name. Since many of them already manufactured several different brands inside their own factory warehouse, the concept of "copyright" has been blurred.

Just as Korea and Singapore and Hong Kong developed rapidly into countries with living standards and engineering factories rivaling anything in California, China and Malaysia and Vietnam are poised to do the same (huge sections of Malaysia, like Penang and KL, are already there... and Shanghai is probably there by tomorrow evening).

Sure we want to protect brands and copyrights, but keeping Africa and Latin America in the dark means the USA is spending AID dollars to finance a dispute over Asian manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile, eliminating the recycling outsource work makes recycling more expensive. We are allowing the outsourcing of mining new raw materials out of rain forests and coral reefs, meanwhile. We need to stop some madness, and not many environmentalists over the age of 40 seems to get it.

The environmental community needs to wake up and behave like grown ups. We have to study the "big secret factories" and not get pulled into dogfights between Tokyo and Taipei, or between Dell and Tiger Direct. Probably our best bet is to concentrate on extraction policy like the General Mining Act of 1872, and reinvest in rain forests, rather than study our landfills and garbage cans like they are a hippy's naval. This scatological period of environmental health study is so 1990.

The images of Guiyu China are real, but that is a big metals and plastic recycling dump for all of Guangdong as well as for the USA. There are much worse places where they are mining metals. Metal production is basically something city-folk don't go near. Sometimes I feel like I would if my children were being shown 1960s "Mothra Vs. Godzilla" movies in school and come home thinking they are learning prehistory and evolution. But we cannot fall into the trap of ignoring the impassioned energy of environmentalists, any more than hospitals could ignore the church in the history of western medecine. I'm sure there were times when the Church sanctioned the study of corpses and interfered with study - like it does with stem cells today. But there are a lot of "St." hospitals. Impassioned environmentalists need an outlet. It is natural for us to focus our anger and frustration on something in our own garbage can or hallway, our junk electronics are a reminder of the our money that we put into the extraction and pollution industries.

I am looking for a way forward. I think we can put together a fair trade schematic where the recycling jobs are improved, schoolkids get affordable computers, and the cost of waste is internalized through the end of virgin material subsidies.

More on Dell Recycling and Exports

Well, they mean well. Like the “boycott coffee” people meant to help the farmers in the 1980s. This demands fair trade. As a former Peace Corps volunteer, former state ewaste regulator, and current electronics recycler, it pains me to see big accounts (like the whole state of California, and now Dell) try to “one-up” the EPA, Basel Convention, United Nations, etc. by bandwagoning their anti-reuse policy. It’s like obsolescence in hindsight. Every major institution which has looked at this had ruled that export for reuse and repair is legal, ethical, sustainable, and beneficial. The problem is the junk mixed in by companies who don’t screen the loads.

What pays for $5000+ transport fees overseas? The good repairable and working stuff in the container. That value is also what is most likely to pay for a living wage and environmental health and safety. The problem isn't "export", its that exporters who care about nothing but price. Here’s a short video which explains’s approach.

When t-shirts are imported, or coffee, or other manufactured goods, and we care about nothing but price, that creates sweat shops. But the idea of growing coffee here in the USA is not gonna work, and t-shirt manufacturing probably won't either. The Fair Trade concept was created to make a healthy competition between overseas business partners - we'll buy more coffee from you, or increase prices, if you pay your workers better, provide health care, etc. It is cheaper to make life better in a poor country than to cut the poor country off, do the work here, and then send international aid packages.

The real irony?

The monitor refurbisher (ISO14001, described in previous blog and focus at the end of our video) is located in the same part of Malaysia that Dell manufacturing is located. Dell and other computer makers learned to sub out assembly of computer monitors there more than a decade ago. "Electronic Contract Manufacturing", or outsourcing of assembly and "non-core competencies" is credited to IBM in 1981. "Manufacturer Take-back" for TVs and monitors is a difficult idea because the assembly of those has not been with the brand company for decades.

It was done by companies which are now refurbishing. So Dell (in this case) is saying that the company in Malaysia can assemble or manufacture the monitor, but cannot disassemble it, or repair it. When the outsourcing was questioned in the late 80s, OEMs defended it as bringing good jobs to low wage countries. Now the factories are already built, and want to "take back" the monitors. First they were told to get permits, so they did. Then they were told to show end market audits, which they did. Then they were told to get ISO14001, and to recycle incidental breakage. Now BAN and Greenpeace and SVTC seem to applaud cutting them off at the knees.

Dell likes our idea of moving the Malaysia operation to Mexico (an OECD country). Here is a recent NPR story on an individual in the “nameless faceless” international recycling community, one of "Las Chicas Bravas" of Retroworks de Mexico. Can’t we improve Ms. Vicki’s life more by trading with her women’s recycling coop, rewarding them for improving work conditions, and sending them some good stuff? Do we really want to send her back to the copper mine?

Wouldn't Dell be a perfect partner for Ms. Vicki? Or her counterparts in Malaysia, who used to manufacture CRT monitors for Dell and now rebuild them? But the fear now is, if we invest all that energy in Mexico, as we did in Malaysia, will it be in time? And if we do it, as we did in Mexico, what is to keep the next Bandwagon from saying "No Exports" to Mexico, just as they now say "No Exports" to the factories where the monitors were made?

Break it unless it is under warranty? The only places that are set up to do that have ZERO monitor repair. So this is a game, "our policy is to reuse, but we only allow monitors to be processed by companies with zero repair on-site". It is so depressing to see so much positive coverage when EPA, United Nations, and the Basel Convention group all REJECTED this policy in international discussions.

Fair Trade Recycling Video

Meet the Evil "eWaste" Importer is hands on. Fair Trade Recycling is not just an idea, it's working.

In 2006 we toured a CRT factory in Malaysia. They used to manufacture monitors for big companies, but as those companies switched to LCDs, they kept the factory alive by purchasing good used monitors from the USA and completely repairing and refurbishing them for reuse.

The Malaysia WR3A partner originally purchased monitors for $5. WR3A renegotiated for them to pay only $3.50 in return for the following:

1) They get ISO9000 certification
2) They get ISO14001 certification
3) They document each and every monitor (whether it was acceptable, what grade, end use) to meet EPA 3 year reuse documentation
4) They charge us back $5 for every unacceptable monitor and produce a reconciliation report on each shipment
5) They recycle any "fallout" as glass-to-glass CRT recycling, and submit documentation
6) They allow independent professional auditor to visit and document all end markets for "incidental breakage" etc
7) They allow a USA auditor to document them for EPA R2 Standards

The company not only met every objective by 2008, they are now working closely with WR3A members in the Mid-East and Latin America to advise and help them improve their standards! We hope Dell and other manufacturers will see people for what they can do, rather than for what they once did not do.

This is more than just opinion, WR3A is working and improving the lives of overseas recyclers. This factory is the one featured at our youtube video. Please visit it (this one is under 3 minutes) and vote on it.

Come meet the factory owner at the W
R3A-sponsored Recycling Today Electronics Recycling Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, June 7,8, and 9.

Fair Trade Electronics Exports Video

Greenpeace took pictures of waste left on the ground in developing countries, and called for an end to exports. The Planned Obsolescence industries seized the opportunity, and are introducing federal legislation to stop all exports of used electronics.

Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater! This would put Ms Vicki (see NPR Marketplace coverage from last week) out of business. Stop the madness. How do people suppose countries with less than $3000 per capita earnings are increasing internet access 100-fold every year? Do we really want to stop that? Or is it "let them eat cake" (buy new $500 PCs)?

Here is a film WR3A produced to try to present an alternative model, Fair Trade Recycling.

Two Stories

One is in today's International Herald Tribune. In Senegal, the poorest slums are in the lowest, flood-prone areas. They accept garbage (delivered free, unlike earth or stone) to put in the floors of their homes. As a modern westerner, I'm shocked, but as an amateur historian, I recognize this is the way Back Bay in Boston was built.

The other is our story, about the ladies of Las Chicas Bravas, or Retroworks de Mexico. It aired on NPR's Marketplace last week, and is downloadable, with photos. The reporter, Ingrid Lobet, spent five days there living in Ms. Vicki Ponce's house.

Ingrid gets it.

Superficially, the electronics recycling work we want to bring down there is akin to the garbage dumpers in the first story. Westerners sending TVs to be taken apart down south. But why would a former Peace Corps volunteer embrace that? And why would the sparky ladies in the NPR story be so grateful for it?

They could be working in the metal mine 20 miles away. Hard rock mining generates 45% of all toxics released by all industry in the USA (where it's measured), surely it's a higher percentage in developing countries with copper mines. They could be working as illegals in the USA, at ewaste recycling plants, taking apart the same TVs.

Here they are co-owners.