Fascinating Interpol - EPA Conference

WR3A (Robin Ingenthron and our new intern from Middlebury College, Matt Birnbaum) were only able to attend the first day (open to stakeholders) of the conference in Alexandria, Virginia, but we did meet with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and did hear presentations from several enforcement officials from the USA, Asia, Europe, and Africa.    We arrived at 3AM and left at 9PM, and I would describe it as the most important conference I have attended in a long time, just because of the concentration of people concerned about a single topic:
  • When is the export of used electronics a crime?
  • What are the financial benefits of the crime?
  • How will Interpol and the various government agencies stop it?

I have to catch up for my absence at the plant, but would like to write more later.  What I'll report for the time being:

1) Basel Action Network exhibited tremendous power and influence at the event, giving a long presentation with photos.  BAN is promoting a process flow diagram or decision tree which is very conservative about exports, and using photos and anecdotes and estimates to justify it.

2) The European enforcement officials were younger and more emphatic or enthusiastic about arrests and solving the problem through enforcement.   Since Europe has passed a WEEE system similar to California's, they can argue that it is a violation of a law to export working equipment... it can be criminal even if it is environmentally and morally good.   This makes life simple for an enforcement agency, we just need to get them to focus their power on bad actors and not randomly select good people, like my former trade partners in Egypt, for enforcement.

3) The Hong Kong representative's presentation was chilling.  China knows exactly what is going on and has many agendas.   I have heard before and can verify from several sources that China considers it a crime for me to resell a Pentium 4 laptop which I have used for one week, in fully functional condition, properly licensed and title.  "Second hand" is defined by China as "discarding", and is considered a crime.   Again, that is old news, and past blogs have explained some of the angles (the financial interests of Taiwan in refurbishing, the financial interests of the Chinese Communist Party which owns virgin CRT plants).  Here is the shocker:

The Hong Kong representative announced that under Basel Convention, that Hong Kong port is a "transit" point and is defined as a Party to the transaction.   That China has, according to the official, an obligation to stop shipments between two other parties who do NOT define working and repairable second hand goods as waste.  I made a point to meet one on one with the Chinese official afterwards, and he made this clear that China has the right to stop a shipment, in my example used hard drives shipped back to Singapore from California for re-manufacturing.  This invokes a right by China to stop sea containers with used goods of any quality, working or repairable. I believe this is specifically barred by the WTO Doha conference, and should be on everyone's radar, especially the USA Commerce Department.  Again, this is anything previously owned by anyone else, used cars, store returns, remanufacturing cores, China announced that it can stop shipment via the busiest port in the world between two parties consenting to the trade.  As a sidebar, the representative did announce allowance "green wastes" as a new term for recycling (steel, plastic, etc.) which they will allow... this closes the hole in my meetings in Hong Kong where I noted that clean steel was also previously owned, and under their previous definition, was a "discarded waste".

4) Africa.... this will take a longer post.   I lived in Africa and have a soft spot for Africa.  There is a way to resolve some of the issues through Fair Trade, and we will post more about the challenges and opportunities later.

Jim and Sarah of BAN and WR3A's intern Matt and I spent a little time "catching up", which was a good breather following the saber rattling of the past 6 months (following E-Scrap News publication of my post which was critical of the unintended consequences of E-Stewards model).    Jim does not want me to characterize his positions on his behalf, and it is challenging to report on a two-way exchange without doing that.  I can only say that I told him I objected to his editorial that Fair Trade was poisoning people, and told him that if the E-Steward companies actually DO test and ship tested working (rather than shredding), that I will be much less critical of BAN.  I only object to people pretending there is a domestic repair alternative to overseas refurbishing, when the actual main solution in practice is shredding.  That is not a solution to the demand, and actually leads to more junk being shipped as the market tries to replace worthy "certified" material with whatever-they-can-find.   (I think Jim Puckett would allow me to report positively that the guy has a sense of humor and said he really enjoyed the April Fools post more than his colleagues did, and that his son thought the "ayatollah" photo was funny.)

I made several points which I would describe BAN's reaction as constructive and encouraging - that the CRTs in Hong Kong primarily go to a SKD refurbishing plants, that WR3A requires recycling of removed parts and circuit boards in a Basel Convention approved fashion, that demand for $20 display units - CRT monitors - is still gigantic and the only option for students in developing countries.

What would make me pessimistic about working with BAN on ewaste policy compromises is that I have been making those points since 2003 and in written letters to BAN since 2007.   So the pop-topical reference for today's blog is of course the wonderful 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, directed by Harold Ramis.


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