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’.
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.
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.’
‘Often because something can’t be exported for repair it ends up in a backyard,in China, being burnt….’