Decision Tree: Basel Convention on Functionality

Worst Reuse of a Computer
With the best of intentions, NGOs and representatives of Parties to the Basel Convention have designed a "decision tree" or flow chart to regulate the sale of used and surplus computers to emerging economies in developing nations.  The strongest opinions expressed about the "Decision Tree" were submitted by Basel Action Network (BAN) an industry watchdog which describes its opinion of "export for repair" in this 2008 paper, Preventing the Digital Dump:  Ending Re-Use Abuse.  It lays out the basis for BAN and other NGOs breaking away from the interpretation of "repair" language in the Basle Convention interpreted by EPA, WR3A and R2.   It's well written, and its flow diagram case for "tested working" and "fully functional" deserves scholarly attention.

The flow chart in BAN's paper appears to be based on a battery flow chart or a fluorescent lamp flow chart.   Test it and see if it works before you sell it.  That's where EPA started in the 1990s, before the more recent CRT Rule.  It's attractive for its simplicity.  When implemented, it would indeed reduce the number of bad units in a random load of collected computers.  Unfortunately, it fails where it should stop the export of bad PCs, and also arrests exports of some good equipment.  A computer is not a light bulb.

Electronics are more complex in their functions - involving software, magnetism in different hemispheres, upgrade availability, and demand fluctuations.  Because of the complexity, the degree of human skill level becomes the determinative factor in whether a PC results in "waste" (disposal or discard of components which bear Annex III toxics, forbidden in Annex VII).   I'm going to split this blog into two parts.  First I'll look at how "functionality" tests fail to stop some wastes, where testing doesn't guarantee that no waste is produced.  In a future post, I'll describe how "functionality" tests create false positives for waste - there are many repairs which produce no discards at all, and treating these repairs as exactly the same as dumping will cause the USA to destroy working products in high demand.

The BAN decision tree may be better than nothing.  But in at least in some cases, shocker of shockers, the free market does a better job of preserving value and limiting waste than the "command and control" of used electronics exports.  We hope to arrive at export rules 3.0 in the coming year.

The question is, can we safely depart from a simple test, like BAN has prescribed, without opening the barn door to rationalization, fraud, pretext and abuse?   WR3A's proposal is to take a system which doesn't even reuse material BAN would accept, California, and then properly track the equipment California companies propose to ship, and see which materials got reused and which ones were junk.  If we ship California monitors to the same refurbishing factories, replacing WR3A supplies, we can then look historically and compare how well the new E-Stewards suppliers do compared to historical shipments, tested for repairability and need (getting the right volume is half the battle).  Both organizations will make progress if we rely on people smarter than me.  Techs of Color. 

Part I:  Tested Working product produces waste.   The BAN paper, in reaction to piles of e-waste on foreign shores, correctly describes how repair can become a pretext for exporting harm.  My problem is that if they shut down supplies and don't replace them, it's a "war on drugs" approach which creates bad traffic.  But aside from that, if the decision tree works as it is designed, can't it also provide the same pretexts?

To illustrate how well the BAN rules work logically, lets take some examples.  I'll just grant that a smashed or cancelled tube with the vacuum released - as is required by California law - will not get exported, and that BAN's rules will capture the worst examples of junk exports in its net.   But let's also look at 3 computers which pass all the functionality tests designed by groups such as E-Stewards.

"Internet-free,  color-blind" market
Software Issue:   The first computer is a working, functional Macintosh SE computer, made in 1992.  All of its programs work.  But it does not run java script, which means it is useless on most web sites.  A few may sell, but these are not going to be sold by the thousands in a nation which needs internet, and an importer who winds up with them is more than likely going to scrap them.

If you can read this you're too close
Degaussing Issue:  The second computer is a fully functional, tested working computer with a 2003 computer monitor which has had a good 3 hour burn in test.  It worked when it left the USA,  but  it won't work when it arrives in the southern hemisphere. CRT manufacturers made CRTs for either northern hemisphere, southern hemisphere, or neutral (equator), and there will be a picture distortion that makes text  illegible.  There are several fixes for this, from putting a magnet near the monitor to taking the monitor apart, flipping the tube, and reversing the wires.  The point is that if the CRT is not sold to a technician (like WR3A works with), the person receiving the computer may think it doesn't work.  Computers which are fully functional may still demand repairs.

"Los gringos agradable dejado algunos desechos funcionales para nosotros"
Elective Upgrade Issue:  The third computer, also tested and fully functional, is sold with two sticks of 256k RAM memory.  The retail buyer, unknown to the USA / EU shipper, is savvy about computers and elects to replace the two sticks of RAM with two sticks of 512k RAM.  He doubles the memory of the computer and discards or recycles the two sticks of RAM.

These are not the only three examples of a repair, a recycling, or disposal "slipping through the cracks" of the decision tree model insisted on by Basel Action Network.  TVs with analogue signals for USA can be exported to PAL or SECAM countries.  Power supplies designed for 110 volt USA current may all be working, but they won't be used in a 220v country.  And warranty repairs for used electronics manufactured in China cannot be legally refused under WTO agreements.

We do not want to panic and try to redesign a flow chart to further restrict trade as a solution to these problems.  The best outcome is a "fair trade" agreement between prospective suppliers (e.g. R2 or E-Steward "e-waste" recycling companies) and repair people (e.g. WR3A and TechSoup Global parterns) in the developing world.  WR3A drafts very detailed contracts, explaining how many of THESE and how many of THOSE computers a buyer can handle, and requiring the buyer to prove they can handle the types of refurbishing that may be warranted.

Binding civil law contracts are used to avoid sending obsolete but "working" products (example A), to ensure the buyer in the south has capacity to degauss the CRTs (a routine and simple repair for WR3A partners and contract manufacturers), and to require proper recycling of electively replaced parts, like the RAM in the computer they have upgraded in example C.  These techs can be given incentives to do these things correctly, and to recycle properly in safe and humane conditions.

What I have learned, as a student of international relations, as a Peace Corps volunteer, as director of a non-profit recycling organization, as a recycling regulator, and as a small business person, is that the skill of a person creates value in an object.   No matter how perfectly working a computer is, it will be useless in a village without electricity.  And no matter how few Americans refuse to repair a cell phone, more people in emerging countries will choose to repair it.  One man's trash is another man's treasure.  But the use of a decision tree makes the "trasher" man the judge.

Good intentions set up a decision tree which treats a computer like an light bulb - good or bad, black/white.  But the process of marketing that model of improvement involved denigration of opponents, casting the world in a black vs. white map of "exporters" and "stewards".   The truth is that repair and refurbishing is sometimes NOT a pretext, and the buyers are smarter than you think.

Technicians in Ghana, Indonesia, Egypt and Pakistan need to meet the people drawing the diagram.  The problem is Americans with strong opinions on either side - pro export or anti-export - may never fly over to Guiyu or Shenzhen or Accra or Semarang or Mumbai or Cairo.  They may never meet the people who are going to burn or degauss the monitors, and never get feedback on the quality of goods - either "as is" or "tested working" - which they ship.  If they have their cell phone repaired in New York or Paris, of course, they are extremely unlikely to encounter a WASP.

The Basel Convention allows Parties (countries) to interpret whether a repair is definitely legal under Annex IX  B1110, or counts as "major reassembly" (not allowed).  The environmental officials in these countries have other choices than to keep their people offline (though some I suspect consider that a benefit), or to continue to rely on white people to make new computers for them. The representatives of the Parties are getting to see lots of pictures of kids sitting in ash piles, but they are not getting to meet Techs of Color.

Without question, the people I trade with in developing nations are smarter about technology, reuse and repair, and in many cases recycling as well, than the "nanny state" regulators who try to protect them from buying the equipment they need and can afford.  The fact that Hamdy knows more than Robin Ingenthron or Shiela Davis or Jim Pucket about laptop repairs is a fact, not an opinion.  The mistake is to treat Hamdy as equivalent of the people who burn computers for copper wire.  Had we spoken to Hamdy before designing the diagram, we would have less scrap being burned in the first place.

Free and Fair Trade between educated people in different countries is kick ass.  What we need is hard numbers.  I can state with precision how many of the 300,000 computer monitors I shipped needed repair, how many were working, what the value was of each, and what happened to accidental breakage in shipping and human error.

I'd like to see those numbers from the Stewards.  How many "tested working" did they ship, and the breakdown of how the residue was managed.  If their system is better, and I'm wrong, California will show it.

In Part II, I'll share more of the details about how the WR3A's sophisticated trade model provides data, and that the data allows us to respond to minute changes in market demand, and that reduces net discarded waste.   WR3A sees people for what they can do, not for what they cannot do.   Vicki in Mexico, Jinex in Peru, Souleymane in Senegal, Su Fung in Asia - they are not my equals.  They are my superiors.   I have equipment they want, and they are willing to pay far more than the value of metal scrap for that equipment.  This demands rigorous and enforceable fair trade contracts.  I'd like my buyers to be able to call BAN if WR3A ships them junky product, without fear that their sophisticated repair and recycling capacity will be held against them.

I basically think that the complexity a repair job  gives advantage to skilled people in emerging nations.   Rich nations don't need the skill, and are designing systems based on what we are willing to do, not what the Techs of Color are ABLE to do..  Too many recyclers prefer to put money in a shredding machine than to hire an American to plug devices in - and in California, if they do sell a working device, they are punished severely through lost subsidies.  This is where BAN and WR3A have an opportunity to work together... taking California's big stupid system, and running computer monitors tested to e-Steward specifications, and running them through WR3A Fair Trade vendor reconciliation programs.

No comments: