Once Upon a Time in the North: Certification = Barrier to Entry?

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After two decades of study of the recycling and reuse of electronics, it is increasingly clear that "barrier to entry" and monopolization of services is the biggest economic driver.

The USA Supreme Court is considering an important case this summer, to consider whether licensing rules are truly established to reduce risks, or whether (nudge nudge) they are simply anticompetitive.

GPS' Fareed Zakaria program spotlighted the challenge to Federal Trade Commission's successful defense of public mall "teeth whitening" services, which were banned as "unlicensed dentistry" by NC's State Board of Dental Examiners.   The Board of DE's, staffed completely by dentists, ruled that you have to have a dentist license to practice teeth whitening.

Why we should care about teeth whitening - Zakaria Blog

It's not just plumbing, truck driving, legal services, or book-keeping any more.  Cat grooming, flower delivery, house painting - and now electronics recycling - are pay-to-play businesses (R2 or E-Stewards is mandatory to do business in Vermont, you can avoid the requirements if you ship out of state).  Expect it to hit AirBNB and Ebay and other online trade at some point.

WSJ ran an editorial in 2011:  "A License to Shampoo: Jobs Needing State Approval Rise"-

The hope is that regulation will boost the prestige of their professions, provide oversight and protect consumers from shoddy work. 
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty, from Slate
But economists—and workers shut out of fields by educational requirements or difficult exams—say licensing mostly serves as a form of protectionism, allowing veterans of the trade to box out competitors who might undercut them on price or offer new services.
"Occupations prefer to be licensed because they can restrict competition and obtain higher wages," said Morris Kleiner, a labor professor at the University of Minnesota. "If you go to any statehouse, you'll see a line of occupations out the door wanting to be licensed."
Morris Kleiner researches the growth of "certifications" required to do business in the USA.  Between 30% and 40% of American workers now need a license or certification to do their work.   In fact, Alan Krueger (former White House economic advisor) has drawn startling parallels between small business licensing fees and union membership.  As many states change from heavy industry and manufacturing to decentralized service sector economies, licensing is the new "regulation", in the latin sense of the word... regulating the number of competitors in the economy.

As union membership declines, "licensed professionals" requirements increase.  Therapists.  Manicurists.  In Vermont, you need a state license to be a chimney sweep, tattooist, air conditioning repairman, boxer or barber.  You can lookup career licenses, by state, CareerInfoNet.org .

"Nearly 30 percent of workers are now licensed, as compared to less than five percent in the 1950s."
It becomes an opportunity for an organization, such as ISRI (Rios), R2 Solutions-now SERI, or Basel Action Network to get in on the action.   Membership organizations, like country clubs, both want more members, but attract them in part with a promise of exclusivity.  They promise to raise barriers to entry and reduce competition.  As state "Stewardship" legislation pushes contracts (like all Vermont solid waste districts) into single contracts, the control of competition becomes a full time job.

Here's the scoop.  Despite studies showing the "e-Waste Export Crisis" to be mostly a hoax, the same "certification" standards keep "non-OECD" entrepreneurs out of the business.    Scrap recycling licensing, it's implied, should be more "civilized".   And the efforts to keep it "civilized" are starting to look rather Eurocentric.

Now, I'm a licensed recycling professional in Vermont, and having spent tens of thousands of dollars to be "certified" to turn used electronics into scrap metal, I admit I'm testy over a contract awarded two two companies which have no such certification.   But as I admitted in the previous blog, that's my bias.  And what I have to deal with is nothing compared to nationals in Africa or the "global south".

We justify the Euro centricism with the false claim that it was "our" waste to begin with.   Stewardship in this context is a claim of past ownership, a fetish or symbol of our ongoing responsibility for a computer we sold to Africa 15 years ago, which was used, reused, repaired, and finally discarded in Africa.   "Eventually it will be disposed" gives us some moral right to prevent Africans, who cannot afford new, from owning our used products.

Graham Pickren, is a Ph.D from University of Georgia moving to the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, next fall.  I've spent part of the weekend reading two of his papers, especially focused on his comments about the "non-democratic" nature of certification development in the "e-waste" trade in his dissertation, and the "fetishes" attached to products in the "e-waste" realm.

In his 2013 publication, "Political ecologies of electronic waste: uncertainty and legitimacy in the governance of e-waste geographies" Pickren takes one of the least "apologetic" stances to the anti-export-crusaders, and indeed at researchers (like StEP, R2 Solutions, and even Fair Trade Recycling, which attempt to meet the Action Network of Basel halfway).

From the abstract to Pickren's paper in Geographic Compass, we see the word "fetish", as alluded to in the previous post with citations of George Carlin on environmental morality.
However, given the complexity of global commodity-networks like those for used electronics, these governing narratives rely on abstractions that oversimplify and rework the fetish of what e-waste is, where it goes, and how it should be managed. In unearthing both what labels do as well as the silences and ambiguities embedded within them, the limits and opportunities of consumer-driven waste politics come more clearly into view. 
Ambiguities such as "whose junk TV is it"?   The Japanese designers?  The Taiwanese contract manufacturing company?  The Cantonese assemblers?  The European retailers?  The African used TV buyers?  Or the scavenger, who found it at in an alley in Lagos?   Someone is going to get tagged as the "Steward", and someone is going to get arrested by Interpol.  Sorting this out is labelled "environmental justice".

It is made to look less ambiguous via a "Good Guys vs. Bad Guys" plot.  The morality, the risk, the heroic Northern do-gooder protecting the South from globalism, or trade exploitation.  Regulation, while primarily a barrier to entry, has to have posed risk as a premise.   "80% of electronics sent for recycling are dumped, poisoning poor brown children overseas" will do very nicely, as it combines environmental and social cognitive risks with fetishes of responsibility for our own waste.  The hugely inappropriate, exaggerated statistic, seems to remove our collective doubt whether action must be taken.   80 percent dumping is a call to arms, an emergency.   7 percent dumping is an inconvenient, ambiguous, truth.

If 80 percent of non-licensed chimney sweeps burn down houses, the fact there's a certification creates a sense that it's working when houses don't burn down.  If 80 percent of cat groomers are pet-o-philes, paying for a licensed kitty groomer seems appropriate.  But if it's only a problem 7 percent of the time, and the problem is rare, the certification "solution" is a more ambiguous moral solution.

The exaggeration of "risks" precedes barriers to entry for repair and recycling.   But in our field, the "certifying body" seems always to be based in the North, in the "developed" or OECD countries.  It's a short distance between the fetish of past white ownership and the racial profiling of geeks of color.

Basel Action Network's entire thesis is that the Basel Convention rules against transboundary shipments of hazardous waste should be expanded to govern the whole entire secondary and reuse market.  Keep in mind that a used car or truck is more "hazardous" than a TV.    Puckett told me that, in his world, the rich will repair and reuse rich peoples stuff, and the poor will fix and reuse stuff from other poor people.  And Puckett cannot seem to fathom why an ex-Africa Peace Corps volunteer would find his concept the stupidest on the planet.  And he cannot seem to filter why so much of his support comes from big shredders and anti-secondary-market groups.

This fetish of past ownership is ambiguous in its meaning as we trace copper and tin mined from Indonesia, refined in South Korea, and resold again over 3 more continents.

Pickren, in many ways, approaches the Hoax in a sophisticated, academic and scholarly version of "The Emporer's New Clothes".  He is questioning right out front how the "certifiers", while invoking the health and welfare of the importing traders, seem to benefit both from barriers to entry and to higher fees.

If you read the full paper, don't miss page 28
"In the case of e-waste, organizations like BAN and its competitor, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (supporter of R2), play key roles in defining the problem (through discourses like ‘toxic trade’ or ‘digital development’), the metrics of good governance (trade bans or trade reforms), as well as in creating niche markets through which consumers can act to affect the problem (using certified recyclers) (see table 1). The ways in which these institutions produce e-waste as an object of regulation/commodification depend upon simplifying and abstracting from actually existing e-waste flows, which are complex, multi-directional, and involve both resource recovery and hazardous activity across diverse recycling sites (Lepawsky and Mather, 2011). The disconnect between the abstractions necessary to make e-waste recycling amenable to consumer action and the nuances of place-specific recycling practices are a key contradiction explored in this paper. At issue is not whether certifications simplify reality, which all acts of representation do, but rather of interest are the specific kinds of economic activities, practices, and places that are stabilized by particular representations..."
and p.42
To be fair, for US consumers, ... certifications provide some modicum of security against unscrupulous waste brokering. But these certifications are not, as the Wells Fargo testimonial suggests, making this supply chain simpler or more legible. The criticisms leveled above point to the importance of contingency in processes of recycling and value recovery and raise the possibility of unintended consequences for both informal sector recyclers and grey-market consumers. Both e-Stewards and R2 target these informal recyclers as the beneficiaries of their activities, yet no actors from developing countries were involved in the development of either certification. E-recycling is improved on their behalf but not with their participation. 
I wanted to do more with Graham Pickren's two articles, but have oh so much work to do.  But here's a couple of exciting new ways the pot is getting stirred.

It's just this...  African importers paid for the shipping and transport of alleged waste, not Europeans or Americans.  Africans stack the containers in Europe and screen the product.

Africans pay $20,000 for a typical load.  And white do-gooders lied when they said 80% of it is dumped, and misled when they showed pictures of used electronics that have been in African cities for 20 years, finally taken to African dumps. Interpol was that the stuff burned at the dumps is 80% straight out of western sea containers.  Africans got their goods seized, Africans got their businesses wrecked, just like my business has been wrecked.

R2 Solutions, renamed SERI, seems to be incorporating ideas from WR3A / FTR and academic research (Nasr at RIT, Lepawsky/McNabb/Mather at MU, Miller at MIT, Goldstein USC, Knapp at UC Berkeley, Williams and Kahhat at ASU/PUCP, and others).  We hope that they do not put "Africans" on their board.  We hope they put African reuse and recycling professionals on their board.

So much of the debate and certifications are driven with poverty porn.  Pictures of kids at dumps.

PBS Frontline released a damning program filmed by University of British Columbia film students in 2009, one of the "save Africa from e-waste" efforts.  Their film led to the arrests of Hurricane Joseph Benson, stopped the imports of Hurricane Hamdy in Egypt, and led to the fabulously wrong, accidentally racist, anti-sustainable "Project Eden" of Interpol in Lyon.   Peoples lives were completely wrecked when the UBC Vancouver students interviewed garbage burners and an African reporter, and came across as having covered the accused when they were NOT.

Now that the African E-Waste Assessments are done, and StEP and R2/SERI are competiting for grant funding for African recycling projects, it will be interesting to see what Graham Pickren can tell the Frontline documentary/film study department at UBC this fall.

Film has always been a theme of this blog.  Any film student should know references to Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West."

The main argument for certifications and government scrutiny of used goods trade is that we don't want recycling to be done in an unregulated, wild west, fashion.  We want formal recycling processes which make sure nothing bad ever happens.

And our interest is the fetish of stewardship, that we want the harmonica returned somehow to the person the harmonica started with.  Somehow, it means more to a film student that the harmonica put into Frank's mouth is the same as the harmonica Frank shoved into Charles Bronson's mouth.  If it's a different harmonica, the fetish is broken.   To a film student, putting a stapler into Frank's mouth, or an egg beater, or pencil sharpener, would be absurd.

But in real life, we are writing regulations and certifications and rules for free and fair trade between Americans, Europeans, and southern "Geeks of Color" as if we were writing a movie script.  And the theme of the movie is to keep money in the pockets of the rich.

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