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Fair Trade Recycling International August 2011

Fair Trade Recycling International August 2011

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Published by RobinIngenthron
In depth article on export of used computers from USA to developing nations, done in a fair trade manner
In depth article on export of used computers from USA to developing nations, done in a fair trade manner

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Published by: RobinIngenthron on Oct 12, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Facts can often get in the way of a goodstory
and that is certainly true in the caseof electronic scrap exports from the developedto the developing world. While the globalmedia prefers to focus on the undoubtedabuses within this trade, there are companieson both sides of this development divide thatare engaged in an environmentally
soundexchange which helps satisfy a vast marketrequirement.
 R e f u R b i s h m e n t 
By Adam Minter
E-scrap in Malaysia
August 2011
August 2011
f there are two sides to every story, then NetPeripheral - a Malaysian importer, refur-bisher and marketer of used US computermonitors - is the flip-side to the well-knowntale about developed world waste ending up inAsia’s digital dumps.Here, on a tropical afternoon at its Penangwarehouse, a pallet of used computer monitorsimported from the USA sits out of the sun afterhaving arrived the previous day, the latest ship-ment from a US supplier who, over the courseof four years, has sent roughly 300 000 moni-tors to this facility.Despite years of hype suggesting that electron-ics scrap exports to the developing world areenvironmentally destructive, the most notablecharacteristic of this facility is how unremark-able it is: monitors are documented, refur-bished and repaired in a warehouse operationthat meets strict ISO 14001 stand-ards, and then are shipped out tocustomers in the developing worldwho can’t afford to buy new. Theonly abuse around here might be theBritney Spears playing on a radio.
Ignoring the facts
To be sure, significant volumes of American electronic scrap still leaveUS ports for digital dumps in devel-oping countries. But to suggest thatsuch exports are the exclusive face of electronic waste exports to the developingworld is to ignore and denigrate the developingworld’s vast electronics re-use and refurbish-ment industry, its historic dependence uponimported materials, and its increasing depend-ence upon local sources.It’s also to ignore important facts in the devel-oped world. For example, as of November 2010,more than 100 US companies had filed writtennotifications with the US Environmental Pro-tection Agency (EPA) certifying their intentionto export intact, re-usable cathode ray tubes(CRTs) of the kind that Net Peripheral imports.That’s a significant number of companies, withsignificant volumes, risking serious legal sanc-tion if they are not following through on theircommitment.Likewise, a recent European Union-sponsoredreport on Ghana’s imports of used electronicsdetermined that 70 percent were, in fact, des-tined for the reuse and refurbishment market;only 15 percent ended up in the ‘digital’dumps’.
‘Twitter Revolution’
But the most important side of the story is notin the developed world, but rather in placeslike Egypt, Indonesia, developing Africa andless developed parts of Malaysia where emerg-ing middle classes are anxious to get on-linebut can’t afford new computers given per-capita incomes that fall below - and sometimeswell below - US$ 1000 per year.For example, according to people who direct-ly supply used computer equipment to theMiddle East, at least 60% of all computer pur-chases in parts of Egypt are second-hand. Inother words, the so-called ‘Twitter Revolution’of 2011 didn’t take place on iPhones, but rath-er on repaired, five- to ten-year-old desktopsand monitors from exporters in the USA, theEU, Japan and elsewhere in the developedworld.Companies like Net Peripheral were developedto supply markets like these. And Malaysia,with some of the best downstream hazardousmaterial recycling in Asia (and, arguably, thedeveloping world), makes it easier - though by no means easy - for legitimate exporters tosend material knowing that hazardous by-products will be processed in a manner thatmeets international environmental standards.It’s a closed loop so long as Malaysia hasexporters willing to supply the high-quality monitors that the refurbishers require.
The CRT exporter
Robin Ingenthron, President of Vermont-basedelectronics recycler American Retroworks,spent much of the 1990s working as the Recy-cling Programs Director at the MassachusettsDepartment of Environmental Protection. Butwhen his wife accepted a new job in rural Ver-mont, he decided to change direction and duly founded American Retroworks.He had noticed that scrap appliances - spe-cifically televisions - which still had re-usablevalue were being labelled as hazardous wastes.‘The EPA basically wanted to treat CRTs likefluorescent light-bulbs,’ he recalls. ‘The prob-lem is that nobody upgrades a light-bulb. But you can upgrade and repair a television.’In 2001, Mr Ingenthron decided to ‘take achance’ on a business he didn’t completely understand’, as he recalls it and shipped hisfirst load of tested, working CRTs to China.Shortly thereafter, he received an invitationfrom the Guangzhou Electric Repair ResearchInstitute to give a speech at a conference. Heaccepted on the condition that he would begiven the opportunity to visit Chinese re-useand repair facilities.
Learning moment
What he saw, he tells me, was alearning moment. ‘I stood insideone of these huge places, owned andrun by mostly Taiwanese contractmanufacturers, who were manufac-turing monitors from old CRTs,’ herecalls.It was the same year that the worldreceived some of its first disturbingimages from Guiyu, the now noto-rious Southern Chinese electronicsdumping ground. ‘And it occurredto me that what we were starting tosee in the media was grossly over-simplified,’he says. Exported electronics, especially CRTs,were not just being dumped in China; they were also being repaired, refurbished and re-sold on an industrial scale in China.Soon after, Mr Ingenthron undertook a secondtrip to China, this time following up withsome of his own CRT loads - and he had someadditional ‘learning moments’. He elaborates:‘I saw that they’d take a CRT tested as workingand they’d throw it on the floor. And they’dexplain the technical reasons and I realisedthat they were way beyond us.’ Those reasonsincluded incompatibilities between monitorsmanufactured for the US market and theintended re-use market, availability of repairkits, and age of the equipment (decade-oldequipment isn’t, generally, going to sell forre-use). But the opportunity was enormous.‘Re-use means that a US$ 110 picture tube fora monitor drops to US$ 10,’ he explains. ‘Theprofits are huge.’
Su Fung:
‘Often because something can’t be exported for repair it ends up in a backyard,in China, being burnt….’ 
August 2011
R e f u R b i s h m e n t 
option - but there are others, such as legalexports in line with Annex IX of the Basel Con-vention. Mr Ingenthron’s job was to convincethese companies that it was not only safe to sendthe re-usable units overseas, it was arguably bet-ter for the environment than sending them to ashredder. Nonetheless, it wasn’t an easy sell topotential customers and members deeply con-cerned that they’d be painted as exporters of digital death to the developing world.
Membership musts
To allay those fears, WR3A incorporatednumerous musts into its membership require-ments and trading practices. First off, WR3Arequires its members to maintain records of their waste stream management - and, in par-ticular, what happens to the leaded glass con-tained in the non-working monitors that aren’tshipped overseas. The idea is simple: if they’reauditing what happens to the broken monitorsthat must be recycled domestically, then they’reprobably honest operators who aren’t also ship-ping overseas.Second, WR3A requires extensive, detaileddocumentation of what its members sendabroad and, following EPA regulations, requiresthe documentation to be maintained for three years. And third, WR3A takes the time to findand certify legitimate CRT re-use and repaircompanies who can provide reconciliationreports on precisely what happens to eachshipped CRT. WR3A’s approach has beenremarkably successful over the years, with asmany as 14 major companies sending theirrepairable materials to developing countriesunder its auspices. ‘I get them to sort out thegood ones,’ Mr Ingenthron explains, ‘andremove the Japanese models due to incompat-ibilities that complicate refurbishment, themodels that can’t be refurbished because of thescreen burn, the ones that can’t be upgradedbecause they’re too old, and so on and so forth.’Mr Ingenthron doesn’t go through this kind of trouble just because he’s a nice guy. He does itbecause he has a civil contract with a buyer, NetPeripheral in Malaysia, who expects nothingless. ‘That’s the basic idea behind fair trade recy-cling,’ he explains. ‘You do it because you haveto do it under civil law. My partners expect it.’And Net Peripheral, as the exclusive importerfor WR3A’s CRTs, has reason to expect a lot.
The CRT importer
Over the last twenty years, the Malaysian gov-ernment has actively encouraged manufactur-ing investment in the Penang region, and now- among Malaysians, at least - it’s well knownfor fast growth, hosting high-tech manufactur-ers like Sony, Dell and Intel.That critical mass of foreign high-tech manu-facturing - and foreign environmental compli-ance departments - is perhaps the key reasonwhy Penang has become something of a centrefor electronic waste recycling in South EastAsia. In an era of intense government andmedia scrutiny of waste management in the
Robin Ingenthron:
 ‘…. it occurred to me that what we were starting to see in the media was grossly over-simplified.’ 
Fair trade recycling
It was around this time that Mr Ingenthronbegan to think about applying the ‘fair trade’concept to recycling. The argument is simple:if you want to improve electronics recyclingoverseas, the best way to do it is through tradeand civil contracts. Export bans on electronicscrap, Mr Ingenthron believes, merely serve tomaintain the status quo by rewarding under-ground operations. ‘Look, if I’m contractually bound not to send Net Peripheral in MalaysiaApple monitors, or not to send them a setnumber of 21-inch monitors, then I don’t.That’s fair trade.’Fair trade aside, it’s worth noting that there ispre-existing international law on this issue - theBasel Convention on Transboundary Move-ments of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.Mr Ingenthron knows, respects and supportsthe law - and he’s quick to point out that AnnexIX of the Convention explicitly allows for theexport of re-usable and repairable products.But even the strongest advocates for exportconcede that the treaty is anything but clear onthe standards for re-use. And that’s one reasonwhy ‘fair trade recycling’ went from concept toguiding principle.
No loopholes
In October 2006, Mr Ingenthron formed theWorld Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association(WR3A). The welcome letter for members readin part: ‘… the goals of our association are tomeet world demand for legitimate, reusable andrecyclable commodities without creating a“loophole” for illegal dumping of toxic materi-als. The WR3A serves as a mechanism of “coop-erative marketing” for used monitors and TVs… WR3A recognises that export for reuse andrepair is not only legal (Annex IX of the BaselConvention explicitly allows export for reuseand repair), it is a “win-win” for legitimate recy-clers and those trying to close the “DigitalDivide” overseas … it makes internet access andcomputer skills more affordable in countrieswhich are striving to enter the digital world.From the outset, Mr Ingenthron sought outreputable companies that had intact, workingmonitors to sell and wanted to do ‘the rightthing’. Coverage of overseas digital dumps by American mainstream media had led many of these companies to believe that the only rightthing to do was to sell their monitors to domes-tic processors. Infact, that is one possible legal
American Retroworks operates a dvision in Mexico. It is co-owned by“Las Chicas Bravas”, a women’s collective created to bring jobs tothe area.The new 50.000 m
warehouse of American Retroworks in Vermont,USA.Robin Ingenthron, founder of American Retrowrks and the WR3Aassociation.

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