Two Party Intentions: NRDC and E-Waste

Allen Hershkowitz of Natural Resources Defense Council writes:
"While there are undoubtedly some ethical actors, what far more exporters are really doing is hiding behind phantom policies that sound nice but in fact export poisons to some of the poorest people on earth..."
His NRDC solution:
"Only properly tested, working equipment may be sold into developing countries.  No broken equipment should be exported."
Allen writes this months after his organization unfairly labeled a progressive contract manufacturing takeback company in Indonesia as "primitive", and weeks after a constructive meeting between WR3A and BAN to pursue use of the "export for repair" capacity (BAN insists certain non-working parts be removed from some units prior to repair, but allows export for repair if the part is not replaced.  WR3A on the other hand would allow the replaced parts to be properly recycled).

The NRDC's post harkens back to the "Foxconn is Guiyu" balderdash from last winter.  Apparently, Asian factories can make new monitors, and can take back working monitors, can mine and mold new CRTs, can take back and recycle non-working monitors generated within their own country, but if they take back their own non-working product sold in the USA, it is criminally polluting, poisonous and primitive?  

The NRDC is a reputable organization.   There is some possibility to interpret Allen's post as allowing properly documented repair and reuse, something that WR3A not only allows, but actively promotes.   WR3A's documentation on actual reuse, and proper recycling in incidental breakage, is something even E-Stewards "tested working" exporters may not have.  But we are discouraged from pursuing these compromises with NRDC if they continue to promote a simplistic solution to a naive diagnosis.

Here are some short but important points:
  1. The Basel Convention says export for repair and refurbishment of used electronics is legal.
  2. The Basel Convention says that used electronics might not even be considered "waste" by the Basel Parties.  It defers the "waste and commodity" determination to dual party agreements.
  3. Warranty repairs, OEM refurbishment, and other obviously legal activity could be disallowed under Allen's description.
  4. Fair Trade programs develop proper recycling infrastructure in the developing nations - where most of the e-waste disposed is actually from their own domestic generation, not from imports.
Due Disclosure.  NRDC raises the question of motives and conflicted interests.  Am I too much of an interested party to challenge NRDC on this front?   Most of the remaining exporters have taken cover underground, and some who want to stand beside me I really don't vouch for.  It's a fair question.

I have properly disclosed my company's exports of intact units - 22%.  Some of those exports were tested working.  Most have a hard drive removed before we get them, and we cannot find enough hard drives for all of them.  All have been screened to remove unrepairable units.  We get a reconciliation report, and can tell our clients exactly how many were refurbished, and how many were properly recycled (about 10%) in the export country, and provide proof the recycled portion is something to be proud of, not just comfortable with.  BAN has insinuated that our 10% recycling rate is too high, but has not provided "tested working" reconciliations to compare them to.

The remainder of the e-waste (the other 78%) my company must de-manufacture and recycle in the USA.  Interestingly, most of that 78% is technically working, but does not meet the specifications of the buyer.  We could embrace the "working" standard, exporting more product (BAN has posted a NYTimes article quoting a Pledge company which says they export 60%, not 22%).  In fair trade, plugging in items the buyers don't want doesn't work, even if the device does.   What exasperates me is that our higher standard, worked out jointly in a fair trade agreement, is being ignored at best, and at worst impugned as a lower standard than "e-Stewards" who shred and destroy working units, passing the costs on to consumers.

The value of a unit can be a potential bad influence or bad motivation for sale.  But the value of a unit is also a better predictor of its destiny overseas than "test working".  If the market offers you more for a Pentium 4 laptop without a keyboard than for a "fully functional" Pentium 3, it's not because the Pentium 4 will be set ablaze (Pentium 3s actually have more gold and copper).  This does not excuse people who use their good product to force movement of unscreened or junk product.  But it shows that the secondary electronics economy is a little more complex than the abridged "Basel Convention for dummies".  The Basel Convention Parties discussed export for repair, and explicitly made it conditionally legal under Annex IX, section B1110.

Refurbished and Repaired PCs
  So if I disclose I resell some products overseas, and I express frustration with NRDC, is it out of conflicted motives?  I have also gone to great lengths to demonstrate that my philosophy about refurbishing jobs in the developing world brought me into the used electronics field, not visa-versa.

Allen and other environmentalists who impugn electronics export markets fail to appreciate the beauty of dual party intent.  They have not visited the Big Secret Factories, describing export demand with poster children taken at dumps, attacking the best and the brightest techs in the developing nations with innuendo.  They probably really believe that more than 50% of exports are junk, but haven't researched or obtained data.  Without data or contact with overseas markets, they repeatedly come back to the motives of a single party.  I do appreciate evaluation of motives and conflicts of interest... it contributes to my understanding.  A little horse-sense also goes a long way.

  • A well meaning party can export working product which turns out to be waste.
  • A bad intentioned party can export untested product which is mostly repaired and reused.
  • A well meaning party can destroy non-working product which is actually better (once repaired) than the working product they are exporting.

Are the intentions and profit motives of the shipping party a good indicator of what is going to happen to your donated or recycled computer?  If the intentions are all you have to go by, it's probably better to use a company with good intentions. (On that note, if someone is on the payroll of a large e-Waste recycler in the NY/CT area, and that company has selected the e-Stewards over the EPA R2 standard, one needs to disclose this right up front).  But if there is more than just "motives" to measure, if there is data from dual party purchase orders, reconciliations, and post-audits available, why not engage them?

Perhaps because of the "profits" at stake from E-Stewards?  Why else ignore calls for, and offers of, numerators and denominators?

For NRDC to really move forward, the organization needs to engage and learn with those Allen calls "undoubtably ethical" actors.  If you find a combination of a two-party transaction which is not just "free trade" but also "fair trade", you will always do better than either blindly exporting working product or blindly exporting non-working product.   

It would be far wiser for the E-Stewards to export more, better, tested product, at lower prices, than to install shredders as altars to shiny consciences.  If they do think that most exports are junk, then forcing the export market to get their good units from junk sellers isn't very productive. Try giving repairable stuff away, newer and better than the "profit motivated" exporters, and you'll have more effect using the free market to your advantage.

If you do promote and push E-Stewards to engage the export for repair market, you will get to know some really cool Geeks of Color.  Like the previous generation of the Neu family, who sold "scraps to Japs" and helped in the process to rebuild postwar Japan and to increase trade and working relationships between the USA and what would become the second largest world economy, NRDC needs to soberly look at the consequences of prohibition.   Interviewing non-exporters about the intentions of the export market is not sufficient.

Tears in Heaven:  By the way, when I'm occasionally called a for-profit exporter defending my capitalist business model, I generally ignore it.  My close friends know that Robin Ingenthron is one of the few people discussing the pictures of children in Africa, who has held a dead African child.  I carried the two year old boy by the legs, and lowered him into the dirt grave I helped his despondent father to dig.  We wrapped him bathed in sheets, without a coffin, and buried him.  I do not remember the boys name. I am not more important for having done this. I remember vividly trying to decide exactly how long to continue picking and digging when we hit hard pan clay, knowing we had not made it to two meters.

The boy's father, Monsieur Moussa, happened to be a teacher of "Technology" at CES Ngaoundal in Cameroon Africa.  His father owned a green Nissan pickup truck, which he did his own repairs on, and drove us a few kilometers out of the village to dig the grave and hold the ceremony.  I was 23, so the boy today would now have been 25.  Mr. Moussa's better, geekier students, would sometimes be reading their technology texts in my English class, preparing for a big exam, studying electric schematic diagrams.  I like to think some of them are now repairing cell phones in Paris.

I do understand crusades, and the grey area between sanctimony and singularity of mission, and holy motivation.   I have often pushed back against my Ozark religious relatives who believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven.  A two year old boy of a Muslim father is not going to hell, I know that.  Arguing with people who think they are better than other people because of something they believe, whether it is religion or intent or other sanctimony, is a distraction.  What we need is data.  You get the best data talking to professional techs of color overseas who import hundreds of thousands of used USA computers.

No comments: