Fair Trade Recycling Visit: Angola - Middlebury 2011

Geek Meets Geek:  Angola and Rhode Island In VT
I've been working on a Memorial Day blog all weekend, but it became a bit of a treatise as I was interrupted along the way by visitors from far away lands - Providence Rhode Island and Luanda, Angola.

This holiday weekend, we have a visitor and "E-Waste" Buyer from Africa, here in Middlebury.  Coincidentally, he got a press interview - A local reporter and photographer were at Good Point yesterday for an interview about Rhode Island, New York, and Vermont "legislated" e-waste contract work.  By introducing Miguel (about whom I'll write more extensively about this week), I was able to kind of personalize this challenge
  • Five years agoour biggest competitors for e-waste recycling work were "sham recyclers", recyclers who undercharged us but were not accountable for much of the material they collected.
  • Today, our biggest competitors for e-waste recycling work are "no intact unit" shredding companies, who imply (or state) that I'm a sham recycler, because I have people like Miguel, Wahab, Hamdy, Fang, Jinex, Oscar, Mariano, Somda, Nikita, and Gordon visiting my home and my facility.

"E-Waste" (electronics) Recycling Thesis

Robin's "Fair Trade" Thesis:  

(That) The free market largely avoids "junk along for the ride" and largely creates (or retains) value in developing nations which is otherwise lost in first-world shredding and prohibitions.  This value includes not only fully restored appliances, but also value added parts (chips, cartridges, power supplies, rare earth components, electric grade copper) which is otherwise typically "downcycled" in labor-saving mechanical processing.

The retained value from recycling export is as important, or more so, to the development of emerging markets as it is to the balance of trade in wealthy nations.  

The key benefit to wealthy or "northern" economies is reduced recycling service cost, resulting in increased recycling rates, income from legitimate "asset recovery", and carbon reduction from usefulness (embodied carbon) of devices and components which would have been downcycled.   A tertiary benefit is diversion from MSW of the "fluff" material or shred which is typically generated by shredding, and disposal of items when generators refuse to pay higher fees to support lost "value".

The key benefit of used electronics exports to the emerging market is the value created by "geeks", "techs", and "tinkerers" who salvage working and added value from computers, cell phones, and audio-visual equipment;  a tech earning 10 times the labor rate in Africa will still provide 10 times more added value to the "discarded" appliance.  The hazardous residuals from the fair trade should be identified and quantified, both as to quantity and actual hazards from "release" (e.g. of solid and inert material).   Separately, the "informal" processes should be identified (e.g. aqua regia, which frees non-toxic gold via a toxic additive), and safe process identified for the proper recycling (or re-export if necessary) of those items.

The counter thesis is that free market global trade will result in perverse incentives for avoided disposal or treatment costs of materials which will result in greater releases of toxics into the environment than the benefits of increased reuse, repair, and recycling.

The proposed response to the first thesis is to increase trade, resulting in more choices of supplier for emerging markets, as well as to provide incentives for transparency and reimbursement for incidental breakage, elective upgrade, changes in demand/inventory, and unintended shipments.  Investments in dealing with the 15% of residual or unwanted "ewaste" will serve the additional purpose of creating infrastructure for "eventual" waste (when brand new or working equipment is one day "generated" in the emerging market).

The proposed response to the second thesis is greater government control and restriction of "e-waste" exports.  This will theoretically result in newer product in emerging nations, shredding jobs in developed nations, without significantly impacting the 85% of exports which are properly repaired, refurbished, reused according to Basel Convention Annex IX.


Push The Button For Reuse

This is European pop.   I get to listen to it, because I have high speed internet.

It's kind of catchy, kinda bubble gum pop. (And vid's undertone is "Geeks getting Lucky").

It is also a symbol of what is wrong about this blog.  No, it's not my taste in music... I'm quite willing to defend the mix of Fatboy Slim, Cat Stevens, MIA, Neil Young, Soukouss, Bluegrass, Ludakris, Jethro Tull, Egyptian, Dr. Nico Mbarga, and Matrix soundtrack videos sprinkled through the "Ethical E-Waste Recycling" discussion.

What is wrong is that the use of music videos, like "widget fever", slows down the upload/download time.  The froth on bandwidth, for the sake of photos, videos, and widgets, is a tax that falls on the poor.  Our visiting Ghana Tech could barely open his emails.  This week, we have another distinguished African Geek here, from Angola, here to test and buy product... but he also wants to know more about Las Chicas Bravas, the Ethiopia solution, and last night we explored ways to trim the bubbles off the information.

The same people who I vociferously defend for their use of "yesterday's" CRT monitors and pentium 3 computers (the sweet area for much of Africa) are the ones left out when we put bandwidth bandit apps onto our web pages.  Their internet cafes can get working and repairable computers for the price of scrap, and bandwidth is so bad that a P4 or dual core computer would be wasted.  But that same reuse partnership is non-java phenomena.

If I get a little vacation time this summer (not a certainty, I am American after all), I hope to use it to explore RSS feeds of the blog into a non-picture, non-widget, text and translate environment.   I need a "push button" solution for translation and re-posting in a low-bandwidth format.   If there is any reader who knows someone who knows someone who can help me with that, please drop a comment or a line.

Hast Ye Seen the CRT Market?

[Wikipedia] "In 19th century psychiatrymonomania (from Greek monos, one, and mania, mania) is a single pathological preoccupation in an otherwise sound mind.[1] Emotional monomania is that in which the patient is obsessed with only one emotion or several related to it; intellectual monomania is that which is related to only one kind of delirious idea or ideas. In 1880, monomania was one of the seven recognized categories of mental illness.[2] ...

The Cathode Ray Tube, or CRT, is declining in production, declining in demand, and declining in numbers discarded.  Markets for CRT glass cullet are shrinking.  But most alarming - CRT recycling may be declining in "ewaste" importance.

The demand for CRTs at reuse factories, estimated at over 50,000 units per day ten years ago, has dwindled to a few hundred thousand units per month.  I have made a career chasing the White CRT Tube.  Now Amazon and Best Buy are setting up takeback programs for small cell phones, ipods, and other hand-held devices - probably to be sold back to the same factories that made them (manufacturer takeback), the exact same business model I developed for the CRT computer monitor.  In other words, sell them back to Asia, the same as you do warranty returns.  I'll be without a lot of CRTs to manage, and without many people doing something other than I've been doing.  It could get quiet around here.

Ghana "E-waste" Tech Returns!

Back From Ghana!  Muhammed W. walked into my office today, looking fresh in a new African Buba.   He apologized for sending so few emails and for not yet uploading his film footage of the technicians at work in Accra... he says he's been spoiled by the high speed internet here in the USA, and that in Ghana it sometimes takes 15 minutes to open a single web page.

He showed pictures he'd taken, and documentation of the shipment, and shared a lot of his experiences with sale and delivery.  Here's a few:

- He hit the ball out of the park with the copy machines we sent.  That was a bit of an experience on all our parts.  He said they were all repaired and made to work, and showed photos of the makeshift paper trays they had crafted for the ones which were missing a tray feeder.

- He was successful at buying and replacing hard drives from the ones we pulled out due to time constraints (if they are not wiped, they cannot leave the building in Middlebury).  He had been a little uneasy about that.

- His experience at customs was typical African mess.   15 of the nicest computers were stolen from the container during "inspection", and a number of flat screens were rifled through and broken.

- His letter stating that there would be no fees on this load was not honored, and he was forced to pay an extra $3,000 in "value added tax" or something to get the container out of customs.

Status on WR3A Kiva "Fair Trade Recycling" Program

About ten months ago we announced a venture group between WR3A (World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association) and the Kiva.org small loans DIY-SBA program.   The goal was to encourage small loans to small "Geeks of Color" businesspeople.

Just to update everyone, the loan to Rosa, the internet cafe woman in Peru, was fully funded and has been 56% repaid in less than ten months.  We just started a new loan with Leonard, a computer entrepreneur in Kenya, which has now been 100% lent to, and we expect will be fully repaid.  See below, or go to  KIVA LENDING TEAM WR3A RECYCLING (note: not all loans have been made through our console, but thousands have been raised, loaned, and repaid).

Loan in Kenya has been 100% funded

This is an update on your loan to Leonard in Kenya.
Thanks to you and 31 other Kiva Lenders, the $975.00 loan request in Kenya has been 100% funded.

This loan will be used for the purpose of: to purchase computer accessories

Over the 14 months of this loan, Kiva's Field Partner in Kenya, SMEP Deposit Taking Microfinance Limited, will be collecting repayments from this entrepreneur and posting progress updates on the Kiva website:
Thanks for lending to the world's working poor on Kiva!
Best Wishes,
Kiva Staff

For an entrepreneur like me, it seems much easier just to trade with Mr. Leonard and to discount his purchases in return for things he does, and in the bargain to create takeback and local recycling inside Kenya.   But since people want to make that illegal, the other option is to give him the money directly, not ask questions where he gets the computers and parts, not incentivize his recycling, and keep the whole thing underground.

Leonard Olaga
Computers, Kenya
0% repaid
Carmen Rosa Hurtado Gamboa
Paying Back
53% repaid
For me, open fair trade, getting good e-steward companies to stop shredding working equipment, is almost perfect (i.e. The Good).  The USA Recycling Stewards get more income, Leonard gets more choice of supplier, and the "sham" recycler who would take advantage of Mr. Leonard would lose their ability to ship "toxics along for the ride".

It is a very simple concept.  It has been presented to BAN, SVTC, Greenpeace, etc. gift wrapped for many years.   The NGOs apparent inability to grasp trade has defaulted to supporting one group as the "expert" on international trade.  That group constantly and regularly conflates the Basel Convention (which explicitly allows electronics trade under Annex IX, B1110) with the "Basel Ban Amendment", a much more draconian attempt to change the Basel Convention.

India Clean Industry - TED Talk Vision

There is big buzz growing in Europe following the publication of the Ghana Study, my own article in Motherboard, and testimony from African Technicians that WR3A has introduced to European journalists.

This video from TED was just shared with me (by a Malaysian Geek of Color - who watches TED, it turns out... on a refurbished computer).  We are discovered everywhere (except maybe at Middlebury College, where our presence is a bit of a "sleeper").   I'm signing up to do more presentations like the ones I've done at Cornell, BU, BC, UVM, etc.  But the presentations mean more when they come from a Green Geek like Kamal Meattle.

So we are having our Geek in Ghana with his camera, and a Geek from Angola is coming to visit our plant in Vermont this weekend, and I am going to excitedly overthrow the Ayatollah of E-Waste, not from my own soapbox, but from a crowd sourced wiki-recycling solution to the "ewaste" problem... Fair Trade Recycling.

Coexist 2: Coopting Recycling Vocabulary

Late Post 2.  It may be #3, I think I saved one to draft limbo.  I'll look for it, and it may belong in front of this one.   But elective upgrade, aka "semiknockdown", is the way Egypt got it's groove back.  If the export prohibitionists had their way, Mubarak would still be in power today.

(The Cat Stevens Post doesn't seem to be streaming nicely... Feel free to come back later).

The Prohibitionists were friends for about 8 years.  But they crossed a line. They took information I gave to them, and misused it to try to take away the jobs of the fair trade recycling factories we were working with.

"The Silver Bullet" for E-Waste

What if we could make used electronic scrap ("ewaste") completely non-toxic?
What is "source reduction" and how does it work?

Be careful what you wish for...

Why Take Drugs When You Have Internet?

Here's another reason to allow people in Latin America to use computers which they can afford:

Click to see videos.  I like information sharing.

Translating America - Balance of Power

Robin's Doctrine (Obama, feel free to use this in your speech to the Arab world).

"Balance of Power".  In the history lessons of the United States of America, "democracy", or "republic" or "representative democracy" were primarily the best available tool for a single goal - diversifying power.   The founding fathers did not want a monarchy.

Capitalism is also a form of "balance of power".  Competition is good.  Communism and state owned business tend to strangle competition.  As does a mature fat capitalism which allows price fixing or monopolies to develop.

The most frustrating thing for an educated person in the developing world (and our fair trade partners are very representative of this self-made kiva power) is the inability to appeal your case or to shop for answers.  When your aspirations and creativity and inspirations are boxed by an unfair monopolization of power... when all the judges are related to the executive branch and the legislative branch is fully of cronies... you will look to a Bin Laden or a religious angle, anything to break the ossified absolute power system.

HTC EVO (Sprint) freeze solution??

[ update ] NO.  THIS WAS NOT A BREAKTHROUGH.  The breakthrough is that I spent an hour on the phone with Sprint and made them replace this phone.  The "touch input" did seem to help for an hour or so but this was completely unacceptable for a $400 phone. 

Possible breakthrough.?  After 4 calls to Sprint, a number of battery pulls, and a trip to the Sprint repair store, watching a youtube video recreation, and a lot of reading of a lot of opinion on what causes the Sprint HTC Evo cell phone touchscreen to become unresponsive...  I also put on No-Lock (to stop screen lock function) and removed a large number of applications.

Here is what has produced at least a noticeable improvement:

Went to Settings-> Running Services

Scrolled down to Touch Input

Set this back to "factory default" and stopped what appeared to be a second "touch input".

Now, as for my Dell Inspiron Laptop adapter - bought a new one, per Dell instructions.  Doesn't work.  Means it's the power input on the board.  I need to find a broken dell inspiron (broken screen) so I can use the charger to charge the battery.

Arab E-Waste Conspiracy Theory

Usama Bin Vulcan Sighted

Americans sometimes snicker at the "conspiracy theories" which circulate in the Arab media, or on "the street".  Fareed Zakaria and Tom Friedman are pretty good at distilling them.

Here's a real life conspiracy, involving government, computer manufacturers, dictatorships, and "environmentalists", working to keep the Arab Spring under-boot. 

  1. E-Waste Advocates claimed that 80%-90% of the used computers sold to Africa, Mideast, and Asia were burned in primitive conditions, ignoring photos of talented Geeks of Color, ignoring cell phone repairs, etc... showing photos of children sitting on modest piles of junk.
  2. Original Equipment Manufacturers, wanting to sell more new equipment, paid for shredding investments
  3. E-Waste Advocates asked Shredders to pay them a percentage of what they shred, in return for continuing the message that "ewaste" was 80-90% illegal and bad
  4. Arab dictatorships cited the E-Waste Watchdog press as an excuse to seize working used computers, the only ones the average Egyptian, Tunisian, Iranian, etc. can afford.
  5. USA Shredder who donates to E-Waste Watchdog also donates to Obama campaign.  Soon after, EPA "Environmental Justice" regulators begin implementing laws to impede exports
  6. USA congressional representatives who receive $$ from Original Equipment Manufacturers (e.g. Green in Texas) draft laws banning export for repair (get this - UNLESS the shipment is from the OEMs! Read it!)
  7. E-Steward Watchdog standards are written into the first draft of VERMONT law, specifically targeting Fair Trade Recycling companies in a way which benefits the Shredding company from out of state.
Perverse Outcomes of the "War on Reuse" Conspiracy:

BBC: China, India, Asia Environmentally Progressive

The BBC reports both on high-tech, big investment environmental projects, but also takes on the simple myth that Asia is bad at recycling.

Another Recycling Blog Discovery: India Girl

Yet ANOTHER blogger find.   India In Images has photos from an arist/photographer, a person without an incentive or an axe to grind.

I hope that independent bloggers will find each other and share the good side of the recycling story... or at least an honest side which does not earn $$$ from pictures of stereotypes.  What I am certain of, based on my many travels, is that the folks here would rather sort "waste" from rich people than sort "waste" from poor people.  Rich people throw nice stuff away, and the bad stuff recycles the same as raw materials from poor people.  Kindly pocket your white guilt, let's move on with "fair trade recycling"

Nothin in this world will stop me worrying about that girl

E-Waste Field Bloggers Play Atticus Finch

The truth about reuse and recycling is starting to come out everywhere.  Lisa P. Jackson in Ethiopia, Atlantic Monthly series, Meltwater Academy in Ghana, my own contribution to Motherboard.   The Ghana research released by StEP, the papers published by Eric and Ramzy at ASU.   Adam Minter of ShanghaiScrap and I have discovered each other.  NPR, PBS, AP.  Charles Brennick of Interconnection.org, another RPCV, is corresponding regularly.   {copy and paste any of these into "search" at right}

Clearly Fair Use Image taken off by NGO?  What are they afraid of??
Like the "Arab Spring", the truth about Geeks of Color is catching up fast on the "McCarthy Campaign against e-waste".

People are pushing back against the labels, against the "crime" of "Recycling while Poor".  We feel traction.  We are all Fair Trade Recycling.

Yesterday I discovered a new window, TechTravels blog (wordpress).  It's mostly photos from Asia, very similar to the pictures I took in Guangzhou, Singapore, Malaysia, etc. on my first visits to "Geeks of Color".  It's done by an artist, not a tech writer, but the pictures tell a thousand words.   It's an OUTSTANDING rebuttal to the "Guiyu" story.

About TechTravels

This blog deals with some of unintended effects of the collision between culture and technology. These pages will be dedicated in particular to the repair, mod and hack ecosystems that have sprung up around consumer electronics in developing countries.
As an interaction designer and one of the principal founders of Blendid, David Kousemaker researches this topic from a designer/maker perspective.

On the "Product Stewardship" guest blog a couple of months ago, Sarah from BAN.org posted a blog with pictures of dirty looking cell phone repair shops.  I wondered, what are they doing there?  What's bad?  I wanted to ask whether this was another example of the crime of "recycling while poor"... but since she had photos and had been there and I hadn't, I kept my mouth shut.
Ok, where's the lighter fluid? NGO Censorship

Now look at these photos from TechTravels, same cell phone recycling... but much more detail, many more photos, and TECHNICIANS instead of unwashed children.  Suddenly, you see something incredibly different.  Seems BAN may have done the same thing telling the story of cell phone recycling which they did to CBS 60 Minutes, steering them off the real trail to a place without a computer monitor in sight.

I discovered TechTravels via this Nokia blog... itself another contributor to "the rest of the story."  The comments left below that blog are interesting in and among themselves.  Interestingly, a few people think, like I do, that this is cool and sustainable.  Others seem predjudiced to believe that having painstakingly separated these chips (which are reused as components in new assemblies), that surely these poor Chinese just burn them again.

This funny video (originally below, removed because of autoplay issue) shows how a lot of people feel when they learn the truth about "e-waste" recycling in China.  But follow the Nokia blog above, first... much more important a story.

Children's Crusade vs. Terminator? Product Stewardship in Parallel Markets

Won't stop terminating secondary market
R2 Solutions just named its R2 Technical Advisory Council, a new name for something which had been referred to as "R2 Governing Council".  It sounds like a demotion, but that may be a good thing.  

One of the themes of this blog is how righteous ferver - yes, including environmental and social righteousness - can be harnessed like water to turn the mill of of planned obsolescence.   Four points in today's longish blog:

1) Patent Exhaustion Doctrine is Settled Law under ferocious attack
2) Product Stewardship, E-Stewards, and other Watchdogs may not realize their role
3) The unintended consequences on the Parallel Market and environmental sustainability
4) Why Manufacturers should agree with me: Consequences on emerging markets
    If you are a serious environmentalist or scholar, this is worth the read.  If you are here for the music, our first "original" piece (copied from Neil Young) is the post just below... awesome work by Vermont's "Mellow Yellow" cover band in support of the Techs in Egypt.  If you're getting tired of reading about Usama Bin Laden, read both.

    Revolution 2.0 Egypt, Vermont, CSNY

    The link here is too crucial to be written in too many words.

    This is positive if sad feedback to my friends Mohammed, Omar, Hamdy and Essam and their families in Egypt.  I shared the facebook feedback they sent to me to a Vermont film-maker, Ken French.  Ken has a band that covers Neil Young / CSNY songs, and the vibe from Tahir Square was reborn in Burlington Vermont (backstop Middlebury).

    Ken French has been an OUTSTANDING videographer, highly HIGHLY recommended.  The best videos from our Video Link owe thanks to Ken.

    More important than our e-waste politics or ewaste pollution posturing ... reuse creates.  End-of-Life Stewardship laws (so far) destroy.  I hope future environmentalists won't be dissuaded by dialectic. It's healthy, and environmentalists should be keen to see a lot more of that going on.

    EXCERPT From "GOOD" - Bin Laden was an Endangered Species

    A Class of Geography Students Found Bin Laden's Hideout Long Before the CIA

    Believe it or not, two years ago, a class of UCLA undergrads pretty accurately predicted the location where Osama Bin Laden was hiding out.
    The students, working under UCLA geography professors Thomas Gillespie and John Agnew, created a probabilistic model that, as Science Insider reports, said there was "an 88.9% chance that bin Laden was hiding out in a city less than 300 km from his last known location in Tora Bora: a region that included Abbottabad, Pakistan."
    Here's the kicker, though. Gillespie's focus isn't national security or intelligence. He works on ecosystems, and sometimes needs to find where endangered species live using satellite images and remote sensing. He introduced the Bin Laden search as an exercise so his students could practice these techniques. The students used a geographical theory called "island biogeography" to home in on what turned out to be Bin Laden's real hideout.
    Now that his work is being celebrated by the intelligence community, will Gillespie be working with the FBI to track down more of our most wanted? Nope. "Right now, I’m working on the dry forests of Hawaii where 45% of the trees are on the endangered species list. I’m far more interested in getting trees off the endangered species list."

    Read More and Discuss

    Seeing People for what They CAN do

    One of my favorite compliments to Good Point Recycling came from a job counseling service.  We had managed to take on several trainees with long-term unemployment issues.  It has not worked out in every case, but our record was much better than anyone else in the county.  Glenda said we were unique in our ability to imagine people at work, to find a job that the person was able to do... "Good Point has an ability to see people for what they CAN do, not only for what they CANNOT do.  That's rare."

    Multi-Tasking ..."What about me, Papa?"
    This applies to Las Chicas Bravas, our women's coop ewaste "maquiladora" partner in Mexico.  It applies to our trading partners in Africa, Latin America, Mid-east, and Asia.

    I need to remind myself not to close my eyes to the Watchdogs ability.  I had a eureka moment, a leap of faith which said that the California Compromise could be a way we could work together, using California CRT refuribishing to demonstrate to everyone how talented and environmentally sound the Geeks of Color can be when dealt with in a Fair Trade manner.

    Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, Sustainability Warrior

    • As a high school student (Fayetteville, AR 1980) I wrote a letter to Senator Bumpers about reform of the General Mining Act of 1872. I went on to college, but returned from Peace Corps and became active in mining and recycling. Years later, I was informed by someone in a mining reform NGO that Senator Bumpers was a bit of a crusader in mining reform and sustainable mineral policy. I'm now nearing 50, and would kind of like to thank him, and also to know whether my high school letter was written by someone oblivious to the fact the Senator was already on board, or whether my letter... possibly... resulted in representation beyond my wildest imagination. - Robin Ingenthron