Electronics Scrap Exports, Scientific Method


Thesis A: Other nations have lower wages and lower living standards, and less environmental enforcement. Therefore, our (wealthier) nation has perverse free market incentives to export expensive environmental problems to the poorer nations. Therefore, this trade must be regulated.

Counter-thesis B: Our wealthy nation has a higher standard of living, and therefore people have less incentive to separate raw materials for recycling, or to repair and salvage used equipment. The repair and salvage work which is shunned in developed countries (where engineering jobs take the cream of the brains) is a lucrative and honorable profession in countries where used items are "Good Enough" to improve the lives of people who could not otherwise afford new equipment. Furthermore, the most polluting activity on the planet - hard rock mining of rare metals - has already been outsourced to poor countries under the thesis 1. If the people sourcing raw materials are less likely to be poisoned by an imperfect recycling process than by an even less preferred mining process, and if repair and recycling creates more jobs (and wealth) per ton than mining, then recycling and repair should be actively encouraged in developing nations.

I have studied this debate over a few decades now, having been attracted to recycling in the 1970s (long before "solid waste disposal" pollution was topical) as an alternative to mining pollution (well described in Lester Brown's "State of the World" publications which I read avidly in the 1970s).

I studied protectionism at Carleton College as a PoliSci major with concentration in International Relations, and I did research at the UN in Geneva on NGO campaigns (sale of infant formula) in 1983. My long-hair loudmouth do-gooder credentials were further established when I joined Peace Corps and spent 2.5 years in Africa. But in Africa I also saw very discouraging signs for my African students who would look for careers in A) Agriculture, B) Government, or C) Multi-National Corporations. Of the three, it was shocking to admit that C was probably the best available life for my students, but that most of the investments in C were in exploitation of mining and forest reserves, which for the nations' developments as a whole, fell into the "curse of natural resources" or "paradox of plenty".

The best available alternative (aka Good Enough) jobs I could see were the refurbishing jobs - Cameroonians fixing up bikes and mopeds, using repair skills to add value to items that had been discarded by the wealthy as "waste".

When I got back into recycling as a career, simultaneously getting my MBA at Boston U (concentration in Public Mgt), I also noticed that the recycling activities I was championing in the USA were disproportionately filled by immigrant labor, - just like janitorial work and agriculture. The other choice in Africa - "GTHO" [Get the Hell Out], through illegal immigration, feeds and fills these positions in Europe. Africans are the primary immigrant community in France, where my wife is from, but her in the USA it is Latin America.

So, having disclosed my background, back to the Thesis 1 and Thesis 2.

"Why do witches burn?"
"Because they are made of wood?"

To test Thesis A, you need a hypothesis. If Thesis A is correct, and we take an item, e.g. Pig Dung, and try to sell it online to Africa, would that test the hypothesis? If you have several tons of it in the USA, environmental and labor issues make it expensive to deal with. However, you will find it very difficult to pay the $7500 freight to dispose of pig shit in West Africa.

What actual hypotheses are there available to test? How do validity and reliability apply?

Perhaps we should start by studying what wastes do wind up in West Africa? One example supports Thesis A. Extremely expensive to treat, i.e., extremely toxic barrels of poison. If the price of disposing of the goods in the West exceeds $7500, there is a perverse incentive to dumping the poison on the poor. This is a godawful practice, and was the origin of passage of the Basel Convention in the 1980s. Basel Convention defined "rich" countries as OECD members. The OECD had been created in the 1970s and, in the 80s when Basel was promulgated, was a pretty decent shortcut to define developed nations.

Does this prove thesis A? Not exactly. It demonstrates the following.

Toxic A is expensive to treat in OECD A
Toxic A is cheap to dispose in Poor Nation Z
Cost of shipping Toxic A to Poor Nation Z is less than Cost of treatment of Toxic A in OECD A.

"Therefore, any export found to be toxic, and which was exported to Poor Nation Z, was to avoid treatment costs in OECD A."

That is a fallacy. If A produces B, and B is found, it does not prove that A occured. If you counter tested the hypothesis, to find evidence it was not true, you might find a lack of evidence that the lower the shipping costs, the higher the traffic. Haiti is closer to the USA than Malaysia or Peru.

Also, there would be little incentive for Poor Nation Z and Poor Nation Y to differentiate in their imports. Yet the products exported to Africa - TVs and Pentium IIIs (No Pentium Is, no printers) - are completely different than the products solicited in China - CD Rom drives, power supplies, etc.

Further, under this thesis, one would expect to see more traffic of BAD than good. The demand for the bad TVs, which are expensive to manage, would be greater than the demand for working or repairable TVs. You would see fewer laptops, more VCRs.

I cannot finish this now, but for you College Students writing papers on used electronics exports and "E-Waste", what is needed is a little less emotions and a little more science and numbers. My own analysis has shown that the "inefficiency" point is about 30% waste/TAR ("toxics along for the ride") to 70% commodity - that is assuming uniform material. You cannot afford to ship 75% "waste" TVs to 25% "commodity" TVs, as the cost of proper recycling in OECD A is lower than the cost of transport to Africa.

That means one of two things, or both:

1) The loads are not uniform. Something - e.g. smuggled generic viagra (found in sea containers of monitors destined for Africa out of Canada) is allowing the ratio of 'waste' to exceed the ratio of good items. You can leverage a bit of e-waste just with laptops, but there is a point where you would be making more selling the laptops as laptops than you would by using them as a choo-choo train for your ewaste.

2) That the export amounts are not majority waste, but that the waste is either A) cumulative, or B) process waste.

The cumulative is in evidence. When I went to China, I found lots of discarded and secondary "R4" Trinitron monitors and screen burn monitors, way more than their proportion in secondary monitor sales. That was so easy to explain it was obvious - the GOOD CRTS, the non-R4, the ones in demand, were NOT thrown on the ground - they were off in a doctor's office. If you found 75% of the bad ones in one place, you could predict that 4 loads had been through that place, which also explains the money. Someone was importing 75% good and letting the 25% accumulate like a tire pile.

If you ask the question, "Is 75% of the used electronics in this spot waste?", the answer is yes, but if you ask "Were 75% of the imports here waste?", the answer is no.

The solution is fair trade. A big part of establishing fair trade is a crackdown on the worst violators. We predict that the dirtier the loads and the more repeat business in dirty loads, the more you will find drug trafficking, illegal arms, stolen goods, exports of restricted high-tech equipment. So the message by all means, CRACK DOWN ON THE WORST EXPORTERS.

But BAN EXPORTS? That is exactly what the worst exporters want us to do. They are already doing illegal things. If they can control more of the supply to the Good Enough Market - good enough jobs, good enough product for Africa and Asia and Latin America - then they win. We will NOT defeat the bad guys by shredding up good stuff.

"PRODUCT STEWARDSHIP" states have had the most effect on the execution of remedies in response to Thesis A. They can achieve their main goal - manufacturer participation in the cost of disposal, without sacrificing reuse, but that has not been sufficiently important to legislative activists compared to leveraging the press attention to "dumping via export" or making deals with manufacturers in a hidden war against "grey market" manufacturing. By inadvertently wading into the war on the secondary market, well-meaning activists are disrupting the lives of young technicians repairing internet devices and cell phones and staying away from "mining jobs" to make more "stuff" for Americans.

Like mercury lamp diversion to mercury gold alleuvial mining in the Congo River, you can do better. Don't stop trying, but next generation, don't just follow the paths of the alchemists who preceded you. The study of environmental health should be like the study of human health, which evolved from alchemy (feeding mercury to King Edward to ease his bowel movements was one of the first "end of pipe" solutions developed by Western Medicine).

What we need is Scientific Method, debate, and study. And anyone who uses poster children to make their case is suspect. The world is too important to waste time on ego battles over who was smartest or who was right, or worst of all (historically) who was the most holy and closest to God. Scientific method can be used to show who is right, by taking theses and testing them, per the opening of this blog.

"I'm not a witch!"
"But you are dressed as one."

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