@RecyHub: The Case for Reformed Electronics Recycling Exports

  White's move...  


In the comments section on Sunday, reps from @RecyHub posted the following questions about the Fair Trade Recycling Model.  As a reminder, WR3A/FTR encourages export of used electronics to Africa, hand picked by Africans, under defined purchase orders and contracts, to meet the desire and needs of African cities.

EU RecyHub writes:
There are some issues in my mind that I think are not cleared out by your model:

- Child labour. In Agbogbloshie there are kids working with the e-waste, burning cables. Somehow, they should be considered in a model that takes into account human development, not only economical development. 

- Non-recyclable parts. Not 100% of the components are recyclable. There are hazardous parts that need to be removed and treated separately, and there are plastics that don't have any secondary market value. Those parts will be travelling together with the reusable electronics. 

How do you approach these two issues?

First, it is now very well established that the junk show in primitive scrap yards is primarily generated by Africa's cities themselves.   The two problems - child labor and difficult-to-manage components - are products of the emerging nations themselves.   A trade ban does nothing to address these problems.

Second, and on the contrary, the WR3A / fair trade recycling model uses the value of the goods to create incentives to address these problems. Instead of paying $7,000 for a containerload of televisions, the African trader could pay just $4,000 in return for a contract to eliminate child labor, recycle the plastic, etc.

This is the only model which creates $3k (or $4k, $5k, $7k) to fund proper recycling. African traders import from wealthy countries because the scrap is so much higher in (reuse) value, and OECD nations are foolish to shred that value. Keeping it out of the hands of African techs is a lose-lose proposition.

 Check. 

Earth Day 2014 - Searching for Africa's Bobby Fischer



Happy Earth Day.  If you have all day to read environmental blogs, I suggest a revisit to 2010s "Capacitor Heroes".  If you don't understand the last decade's capacitor plague and the good enough markets that replace bulging caps, you won't understand the economics of the export market.  IFIXIT gets it.  StEP and Interpol, I'm afraid, may not understand how supply and demand work, at least not well enough for a good cost-benefit analysis on exports.  

What drives demand in Guiyu?  Chip harvest and reuse.  You can "externalize pollution costs" much closer, in Haiti or west Texas.  Externalized pollution is real, and is a concern, but it's almost never the economic driver of the person paying for the product.

We need to listen to demand, and study it.  

EU E-Waste Policy: Disarming Friendly Fire & Environmental Malpractice (Part B)

In Part A, I gave RecyHub the review they asked for, suggesting they are trying to place themselves in a halfway point between fallacy and fact.   It's a slippery slope, being cozy with a fallacy.

Why RecyHub thought we'd applaud the webpage?  Probably because in Part B, they call for "improving the informal sector".  Sounds a lot like what WR3A called "E-Waste Reform" eight years ago, when we too tried to compromise with the Ayatollah of E-Waste.
B) E-waste is a source of income and an incipient local industry. Metals and plastics can be scrapped out of old electronics and be sold in local markets for smelting and recycling, closing the materials loop. In Ghana families from the North send their kids to work in the dump because they value more the scarce but regular cash they get for the metals recovered than the irregular income from agriculture. For some Western countries it doesn’t make economic sense to manually remove the metals from e-waste, because it’s labour intensive, while for countries with lower wages it’s more suitable. In contrast, components like printed circuit boards can only be recycled in a handful of factories in the global North (and now in India too, by Attero) and therefore could be exported back, following a philosophy called “Best of Two Worlds” (PDF, 1Mb.). Improving the informal sector, including its workers’ health and safety conditions, could result in a local industry of e-waste recycling.
What about the "worst of two worlds"?   In part A, @RecyHub implies that the worst is when Europe fills boats with toxic waste electronics and dumps the waste on primitive beaches.   I don't think that's the right diagnosis.   How about an alternative diagnosis?

The worst of the West is its willingess to assume the worst of the blacks.

With less of "the right tools" we can stop shredding value to begin with.  Below is my modest proposal, our proposed model at WR3A:

  1. Start with carefully assessing the situation.   Start by asking questions, get a proper diagnosis.
  2. Sell Africans what they want - working displays and computers.  They prefer a 3 year old they can repair to a 6 year old "tested working".   The point is, give African buyers exactly what they want. Ask them why they want things if you are confused, but don't be condescending.
  3. Once a price is agreed to (about $7,000 per container), offer the Africans a deal.   Give them back $3,000 of the containerload if they take back used electronics from African cities each time they sell one.  This creates a takeback infrastructure at the used retailers, just as used auto yards are connected to the auto scrap yards.
  4. With the other $4,000 buy tools, buy better used equipment, do something to incentivize the proper management of used electronics.
  5. Fly your Western staff to work in Africa (as Vermont does with its staff sent to Mexico), and fly African scrappers to cross train with your staff in Europe (as Vermont does with partners in Africa, Latin America, and Asia).

This takes the $7000 which is WASTED in EU WEEE shredders and uses it to finance the simple hand-disassembly which you've already recognized is a darn good job for many Africans.  I don't label this as "inside the box" because the rest of the world doesn't live in the Basel Action Network's box.  This is the same "secondary market" economy that automobiles, ink cartridges, ships and airplanes "waste" comes from.  Waste is almost never generated from the first purchaser in the chain, unless a conscious decision is made to "obsolete" it.  Wealthy people tend not to drive their new cars into the ground, or their cell phones or PCs.

WR3A's Model Improves not just the environment (reuse saves more carbon and toxics than recycling), but the entire Social Progress Index in Africa.  Africa doesn't have to make a choice between barefoot-and-pregnant backwater and brand new product.  They should be encouraged to tinker their way through the same way that Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea did, achieving economic growth by repair, recycling, knockoffs, counterfeiting, reverse engineering and contract assembly.   Africa's got Terry Gous and Simon Lins and Rowell Yangs all over their cities.  They are in their 20s and 30s now.  Give them a chance.


The poor nations growth in internet outpaced the USA's by a factor of ten - using "discarded" CRTs

EU E-Waste Policy: Seeking Middle Ground On a Slippery Slope (Part A)

"Solving the E-Waste Problem"  (StEP) is a European association of highly respected professional and academic experts with strong policy pedigrees.   The "Problem Solving" effort is coming into its eight year.  American environmentalists are keen for European environmental leadership.   The electric windmills fanning the landscape are a testament to proactive policy.

StEP represents itself as a "middle ground" organization.  A lot of us have pandered for that position.  BAN labels us as "apologists".

It is natural to seek to leverage the sensational press around "ewaste exports" and the growing tome of facts about international city junkyards.  Agents of conscience naturally seek a middle ground between the Basel Action Network and...  Facts.  Or is it a middle ground between us and "The Other?"   Otherization, or exoticism, the "informal" six out of seven billion people, who have been labelled so likely to poison their children that it warrants a billion dollars in shredding machines and arrests of African traders.  Since BAN has imposed a kind of "original sin" on anyone who has ever purchased an electronic device, replaced one, or sent one for recycling, we begin with a sense of guilt.   Agents of conscience, including a previous generation of ICT and Internet Access "white knights" organized to heal the "digital divide".

These forces have given rise to another EU based organization seeking "middle ground" between internet access and environmental risk of computer waste.  RecyHub has posted an essay on ICTWorks which follows the path into the "middle ground", or "best of two worlds".  RecyHub has asked me, via Twitter, to review it.    ("They asked for it" is an English idiom).

On the one hand, they get the easy A.  A for "Applaud Anything" that moves Europe from the extremely bizarre far-left arrests of African businesspeople, geeks, and technicians.   Any correction from the 2009-2010 "years of breaking CRT glass", is a gift horse.  But since they asked, I have to tell them... they are at a halfway point between alter-globalization (WR3A) and racist slander.
"Electronic components contain toxics and their manipulation without proper tools can easily release them, resulting in environmental damage and health hazards. Up to now electronics have been mainly used in the most industrialized countries and dumped somewhere else when they reached their (perceived) end of life. Although this trade geography is slowly changing, some countries continue to be known e-waste recipients. Ghana, for instance, is trapped between the desire to modernise by acquiring and refurbishing technology and the damaging effects of it when it’s not reusable...
"After all, they don’t have the technology to process that material properly. E-waste exports must therefore end. That’s why a strict ban like the one proposed under the Basel Convention makes sense (taken even further to forbid any e-waste trade), and why the work of countering illegal trade must be supported. 
One thing I've always loved about Europe is the tradition of arguing sophisticated philosophical positions from a historical perspective.  The Europeans often assume Americans don't do that, that we operate in business from some kind of a "lizard brain", seeking efficiency and profit.

OK, Critique of Part A, in pure reason.
  1. Toxics are not "easily released".  Europe had to build shredders, which certainly releases them.  Hand disassembly, harvesting parts and components (down the chips and capacitors and power supplies) is not going to yield toxics.  
  2. Up to now electronics have not "mainly" been dumped somewhere else at the end of their perceived life.  
  3. "Some countries continue to be known e-waste recipients.  Ghana, for instance, is trapped..."  This is absolutely contrary to the study RecyHub refers to, which says Ghana is NOT an "e-waste recipient" but is a 85-91% reuse recipient which generates 90% of its own "e-waste".
  4. "Proper tools"?  A downstroke baler is the most complicated tool we use in Vermont.   The best one we bought used for $2,000.
On the third point, simply visit RecyHub's website, where an entire tab titled "Ghana" offers very scientificky looking "statistics".  It links to a Google Documents Page, with "comment function" enabled, which mostly takes statistics from the E-Waste Assessment (Ghana) study (they should also read the larger Nigeria E-Waste Assessment report).
"9% of the total imports of used equipment is non-repairable and is directly passed on to collectors and recyclers."
The very report they cite disproves most of the allegations.  Nigeria's Assessment was more precise, finding 91% repair and reuse, but we'll accept the 80% estimate from the Ghana study (statistics taken from interviews in the latter case, from actual sea container sorts in the Nigeria study).  In either case, brand new product is as bad or worse.  In either case, the studies explain how Nigeria came to have (World Bank 2007 statistic from 2006 assessment) 6,900,000 households with television.  And cities which have had TVs since Prince Nico Mbarga was on the top 10 are generating junk TVs, just as American and European cities do.

What do developing nations really need?  More development.  And taking away "trade" from the toolkit is exactly what they need least.

Where do "tinkering", "reuse", "recycling", "dumping" etc. fall in Harvard's new Social Progress Index?  If you spend time with people who live in the emerging markets, the developing nations, the cities of the "not yet OECD", their aspirations and measures of progress make Europe and America's obsession with "used electronics dumping" seem obscured by clouds of disinformation.