Fact Check on E-Waste Recycling: 11 POINTS

Do exports of electronics need to be handled with care?  Yes. Should electronics recyclers be certified?  Absolutely.   Professional recycling companies are proud to have the bar raised, and for standards for reuse and recycling to be level.  With that said, should the Green-Thompson Bill banning "ewaste exports" be passed?  Here are the facts.

1.  Are 80% of USA's "EWASTE" exported to non-OECD Nations?

Non-OECD nations represent 83% of the world population.  While there has never been a source for the "80%" export statistic, it is logical that 83% of the buyers in the world could represent 80% of the market for USA goods.

2.  Are most USA electronics scrapped in primitive recycling yards, creating pollution?

No.  The largest importers by volume of items like computer monitors and desktops are the contract manufacturing factories which originally made them.  Most of these are located in, or owned by, Taiwan based companies such as Foxconn, Proview, Wistron, and BenQ.   They take back items under warranty for repair, but also take back non-warranty items if they can be refurbished for reuse.  The other big overseas markets are for raw materials - plastic, copper, aluminum, zinc, lead, steel, etc.  Those are the same markets for everyone, and whether the used electronics are shredded first, or not, does not change the recycling outcome.

3.  Do most of the European and USA electronics shipped to Africa wind up burned in primitive conditions?

No.  In depth research provides concrete evidence that 85% of the exports to Ghana (the site filmed by BAN.org and Greenpeace) are reused.  Only 30% of the electronics imported to Ghana are brand new.   African buyers station inspectors to carefully screen items they are buying in the country of export in order to make sure shipping costs (80% of the cost of the item) are not spent on junk.  The percentage of product not reused is similar to the percentage of store returns at Wal-Mart in the USA.

4.  Are e-Waste reuse and recycling operations a significant source of pollution?

No.   By far most of the pollution in Asia, Africa, and Latin America comes from the mining of raw materials to make brand new electronics.  In comparison, the percentage of toxics released by repair and elective upgrades is practically not even measurable.

5.  Will a ban on e-Waste exports help poor people?

No.  The proposed bans on e-waste exports will harm poor people.  The emerging democracies in Africa and the Middle East have made connections via internet.  The cost of new display devices (monitors) is more than a month's pay, out of reach for most Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians, etc.  The alternatives to recycling jobs are mining for metals like tin, tantalum, and tungsten in rain forests, and mining for lead in Kabwe.  No reputable professional has ever said reuse or recycling is worse than mining... even those who would ban recycling concede the mining in Africa and China is far worse.

6.  Do a significant number of USA recyclers mix "toxic along for the ride" with exports?

According to interviews with importers and technicians in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, bans on export in California, Oregon and Washington resulted in a "sellers market" for used electronics, and quality has decreased whenever good people refuse to trade or ban trade with geeks in developing markets.  While the quality of loads went down, the cost of shipping (especially to South America and Africa) generally makes it impossible to ship more than 30% junk.

7.  Where do the electronics shown in photos at dumps like Guiyu and Agbogbloshie come from?

By all accounts, most of the scrap shown in primitive recycling yards in China comes from China, and most of the scrap in the dumps in Ghana has been used productively for years in Ghana.  Photos by organizations like Greenpeace clearly show (in their own footage) nice black televisions taken out of sea containers, and show very old white computers, in small numbers, at the dump.  Greenpeace commits fraud if they say that the sea containers are unloaded at Abbogbloshie, BAN commits fraud if they say that sea containers sent to China are unloaded at Guiyu.

8.  Is modern shredding technology superior to hand disassembly?

Hand dis-assembly is certainly superior to shredding by machine.  Hand disassembly recovers products like batteries, rare earth magnets, chips, reuseable parts, and can separate high grade copper from low grade.   Burning wires is bad but is actually rare, most of the wires shown in Africa have been sorted for reuse, and most of the wires in China are graded in modern chopping and washing systems.   Shredding technology is only used in nations who cannot find labor to hand disassemble.  Hand disassembly creates more value and more jobs and more affordable computers.

9.  What is the alternative to legislation banning "e-Waste" exports?

Fair Trade Recycling agreements require exporters to clearly label and identify electronics shipped (not simply to load junk into a container), and to have the buyer agree on a price which demonstrates the Cost of Goods Sold cannot support simple scrap dumping.  The exporters must allow importers to hold back a portion of payment (e.g. 20%) to use to cover the cost of properly recycling bad units and parts by hand.

10.  Do reused and refurbished goods produce bad jobs and pollution?

The only source which makes this claim, BAN.org, receives nearly 100% of its funding from Original Equipment Manufacturers who are opposed to secondary markets (like an Auto Manufacturer contributing to a campaign against used car sales), or high capital shredding companies which have trouble competing with reuse and hand-dis-assembly operations.  Under the E-Steward label, companies which agree not to deal with refurbishers overseas pay thousands of dollars and a percent of their gross revenues to the non-profits which use pictures of African and Asian children to market against reuse and hand disassembly.

Not a penny of the donations goes to the children in the photos.  Their images are used to market a campaign to take their parents jobs away.

11.  Does International Law ban the export of computers for repair, refurbishing, and reuse?

No.  International law (Basel Convention) explicitly says these activities are not waste treatment.  Laws have been proposed to outlaw the reuse export practices, but have not been passed.

This is not a renunciation of efforts to improve recycling.  Certification and improvement of reuse and recycling exports is good. But most African, Latino, and Asian buyers do not resemble the exaggerated pictures distributed by some non-profits.   Please look into Fair Trade Recycling, and Responsible Recyclers practices.  It makes a lot more sense than export bans and subsidies to destroy working computers.


Anonymous said...

You should do a serious fact check - I would very much like to see the "original research" that "provides hard evidence" for "most of the exported e-waste" being treated in state-of-art facilites. I am currently employed at a University, so I have access to several databases. A quick search in Scopus and PubMed tells a very different story from what you are telling here - for example a scientific article published 2011 in the peer-reviewed magazine Waste Management entitled "How are WEEE doing? A global review of the management of electrical
and electronic wastes". This scientific articles states the exact opposite of what you claim to know here (without citing ANY sources at all, I might add); namely that the informal recycling sector in for example Africa is growing, while there is no adequate recycling infrastructure at all relative to the amount of e-waste that is processed on an annual basis there. The article also highlights problems with the current Chinese attempts to legislate on the e-waste issue. This is just one article out of at least 100 others stating the same facts. I found this after a really quick search. In other words most of the things you write here, yor "facts", seem deeply flawed.

Anonymous said...

Oh and regarding the e-waste exportation not causing serious pollution - that is a statement as false and obsolete as the geocentric worldview. If you search any scientific database you will find tons of articles linking serious environmental pollution to improper e-waste handling in e.g. China. Long-range atmospheric transport of mercury, BFRs in fish and sediments, Dioxinformation etc. all are SCIENTIFICALLY DOCUMENTED environmental effects that arise as a consequence of improper e-waste handling. Seems you haven't done your research before writing this post at all.

Robin said...

I'm traveling but am anxious to continue the dialogue. I'll send links tomorrow. Your fast check tells a story. I agree that this is a hard sell. If we can find exchange students at you university I think I can convince you. Please stay in touch.

Robin said...
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Anonymous said...

Well that should be interesting, if you can provide links that'll prove a consensus-unified ensemble of scientists wrong. I am awaiting these links with excitement. Why would you want to contact an exchange student at my University? And how would that convince me? Like I said, I am really looking forward to your magic links.

Adam Minter said...

You've gotta love the chickenshit academics who show up and demand citations - anonymously.

Robin said...

Anonymous - I'm writing from an airport hotel and will soon be packing a fighting family into a small car. So this may take awhile, but if you are a legitimate critic, I'm willing to do this with you.

Here is the first link: You have seen all the reports on Ghana, you have seen the pictures.

1) PHOTO EVIDENCE: Contrast the pictures at Agbogbloshie landfill with the pictures of electronics from Greenpeace Ghana video of containers being unloaded. The stuff at the landfill was in use for 10 years, it is generated in Ghana. The stuff in the containers is nice black TVs shrink wrapped in plastic.

2) ECONOMIC EVIDENCE: The costs of shipping a containerload to Ghana, combined with the cost (assuming Ghana buyer pays at least scrap valeu) of product, leaves no incentive for bad product, and it's impossible to afford to ship more than 30% bad without losing money. See Monkeys Running Environmental Zoo, also NIH Report by Charles Schmidt (which came out critical of the export practice) 2006.

3) ACADEMIC RESEARCH: Two year SBC (Europe) study of "e-waste" imports into Ghana. The only serious academic research on electronics exports, done by a group which was biased against the exports but turned around. http://retroworks.blogspot.com/2011/04/new-report-coming-out-from-ghana.html

4) EXCHANGE STUDENT: Now, find an exchange student from Ghana at your university. I will introduce them to Lambert Fabulon (Ghana EPA chief) and Frederic Somda (Burkina Faso former Attorney General), and the importers.

5) BAN.org recently released a second "report" on Ghana. While it was intended to do damage control on the SBC report, it contained major concessions, including citation there are 15,000 computer and TV repair techs in Ghana and only a few hundred boys who burn the stuff at a landfill. The report (accidentally?) discloses that the junk comes from reuse store trade ins. The reuse stores stock up on the 85% good product, and in negotiation, take-back trade ins of electronics used for decades in Accra. That's what gets burned at Agbogbloshie.

I can also take you down the play by play for waste in Guiyu China, and show you an infinitely racist and callous attack on a fantastic and legitimate fair-trade operation in Indonesia, accused of being a "primitive wire burning" operation by anti-export groups in the Boston Globe. I invite you to find a friend from Indonesia who will not agree with me that the "anti-export" attack on Semarang PT was a massacre and a cover-up.

Also... click on work by Adam Minter, commenter above, who is based in Shanghai, and wrote a fantastic series in The Atlantic a few months ago. Then get back to me, preferably with your name and the names of some exhange students. By the time you are finished looking at how the Geeks of Color have been treated, I think you will take my writings with a little more respect, whether you agree with them or not.

Anonymous said...

I would reply to your answer step by step, if it wasn't for the fact that it is not at all an answer. "The only serious academic research on electronics exports, done by a group which was biased against the exports but turned around"; by writing this you have already proven to me that you have no valid facts to back up your standpoint whatsoever. I did a little more research in several databases on the subject of e-waste recycling and exports, and as it turns out there are even more studies than I initially thought (ca 200, most of which were published this year). Many of these studies were field studies. When you claim that virtually "no serious research" has been made on this subject, you simply choose to neglect the facts and hope for rhetorics to work in your argumentation. I hope everyone who reads this blog realizes this. I also hope that you have a safe trip. Good luck with the lobbying!

Adam Minter said...

Dear Anonymous Academic:

You claim, re studies of e-waste exports and processing, that there are "ca 200, most of which were published this year." Not sure about the "most," but for my purposes, that usually suggests 50%. So, for the purposes of this discussion, could you send us in the direction of those 100 peer-reviewed studies, conducted in the field, published in 2011. If you emailed Robin, I'm sure he'd be willing to keep your identity under wraps. Or, you could just go through my blog contact form (http://shanghaiscrap.com/contact/, and drop the list anonymously.

Having covered this industry for a decade, I can tell you that the only people who trust academic studies conducted by academics outside of the countries in question - are other academics. Problem is, for a range of reasons, academics aren't able to access the full range of processing options available to industry participants and, in some cases, to journalists embedded in the industry. Commercial secrets and other impediments prevent academic studies from pulling down the full range of available material, and no amount of peer review can change that. In the case of the recycling industry, in fact, peer review is really just another way of saying "the blind refereeing the blind."

Anyway, looking forward to that list of papers. And, if you have the cajones to stand behind your alleged research, your name and institution. Anonymity is for people who don't know what they're talking about, after all.

Robin said...

Anonymous... I'm disapointed you will not refute my comment step by step. BAN.org, our primary opponent, recognized the report on Ghana as "definitive". You are the first to uncover anything wrong with it. Here is a post about the EPA, STEP, MIT data project I attended in Washington, where BAN admitted this data trumped anything they had published. In fact, at the meeting, BAN admitted they had no data to begin with. But if you or other students want to follow the updates from EPA and MIT, a lot is coming out. http://retroworks.blogspot.com/2011/06/epa-and-mit-forum-on-data.html

As a token of cooperation, I devoted a post to you this week, with pictures and citations. Will you at least say what University you are from? I can find a student there and offer them a stipend to follow the MIT and EPA research as it unfolds.

Robin said...
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