Pareto Principle in Recycling - Eighty Percent ≠ 80%?

cold statistics
In his interview with NPR Radio's "Fresh Air",  Jim reinforced BAN's view of the world.  First, that 80% of USA's "e-waste" is exported to very crude ends.  Second, that 80% of USA recyclers export there.   The Law of the Vital Few makes it sound reasonable that just 20% of people, the e-Stewards, are good actors making 80% of the difference.

The abundance of used electronics heralds a shortage of pencils.

On an agreeable day, I can say BAN is correct.   Here's why:  Good Point Recycling domestically scraps 78% of the used electronics we accept for recycling.   That means that roughly 80% is not even worthy of repair (we domestically reuse about 2-4%).  The 22% we export should be about right.  We may disagree on the definition of testing (we follow instructions from our overseas buyers, frequently eliminating units of the same metals value as they accept, and we get a reconciliation report back to see how well we did).  But that just means sitting down and defining "tested"... we agree on 80% of the non-exported waste product.  Emphasizing agreement with BAN is common in my industry, because BAN makes a terrifying enemy, and disagreeing with them puts you on the same side as bad actors.

Hmmm.. Under this agreement, however, 80% did not wind up exported.   There are too many other companies, larger than Good Point Recycling (6 M lbs per year), which are exporting even less equipment.  Many, like ERI and URT and SIMS and Creative and Intercon, export far less than 22% (i.e. not enough, creating shortages)... and all of California, and the whole Dell-Goodwill Program (not many people realize the no-reuse-at-Goodwill Industries deal).  Twenty percent of the recyclers handle about 80 percent of the volume, and few of those are wholesale exporting 100%, as we hear Jim tell on Fresh Air..

[Update 2012 - UN Squashes BAN % Claim #eWaste Hoax, 85% of exports reused]


So, do the other 80% of USA recyclers export most of their stuff?  By count, I guess a lot of small recyclers could be exporting below the radar.  I remember a competitor eight years ago who ran a business with a cell phone, having sea containers dropped off at major generators, with instructions how to fill the container.   He never went after TVs or municipal clients, though.   Perhaps, if there were a lot more of those guys, BAN could mean that 80% of USA companies are little guys like that.   It's feasible that there are a whole lot of small players who have no processing and export everything.

But no one can believe that those small exporters manage 80% of the USA's "e-waste".

Replaced waste (toaster)
Now, if you count the items that just go into piles of scrap metal, with toasters and automobile electronics and razors and other scrap metals, 2% of the scrap metal can easily be 80% of USA e-waste.  But BAN never speaks about that, and no one follows the scrap steel ships. All the "ewaste" companies, all the Stewards and exporters and asset managers and non-profits combined, are Lilliputians in the scrap metal economy.  Once a computer is shredded into scrap metal, its downstream fate is as untraceable as Jimmy Hoffa's cuff-links, and you need a calculator to deal with the decimals.

How about this... if the material is re-used, like the CRT monitors we sent to CRT monitor factories for takeback and refurbishing, then it wasn't "e-waste" at all, and needs to be removed from the equation.  Whatever remains after reuse, the metals and parts, is the denominator.  In that case, yes, 80% of "e-waste" (breakage and residue) may wind up exported, to foreign parts harvesters and smelters.  Jim advocates for reuse in his NPR interview, so perhaps that's not considered in the 80%.

But if that's the case, BAN shouldn't be sending "volunteer" people out to write down the numbers on sea containers... that would be reckless, since a large number of the containers being reported as "hazardous waste" exports would contain the good stuff.  Under that definition, about 80% of sea containers contain non-waste commodities.

Maybe BAN means that 80% of recyclers, humans recycling worldwide, are overseas in non-OECD countries?  Does 80% of scrap recycling occur in poor countries?  That's absolutely believable.  If not for the sheer generation of "waste" in the developed world, it would be an understatement.  But it's pretty well documented that most of the stuff the poor recyclers are burning was not imported, but was generated by African, Asian and South American junk generators.  (Jim's "Fresh Air" math, that Africans spend 7k per sea container to import working electronics that cannot be sold, which are instead burned for 2k, is not very convincing.  If they don't sell, no one is buying.  Their Africa film focuses exclusively on the 20% of devices that don't sell, but the shots of the equipment being unloaded clearly show good stuff).

After domestic recycling is taken out, maybe this is the math... it follows the Pareto Principle:
  • 20% of USA exports are unanimously agreed to be working and fine to export.
  • 60% of USA exports (e.g. export for repair, included in my 22%) are in dispute under Annex IX (BAN says that export for repair should not technically be legal, many nations say it is legal).
  • 20% of USA exports are Toxics Along for the Ride, real junk, or without a buyer.
The middle, disputed 60%, BAN may argue, contains a capacitor or stick of RAM or battery that will be replaced or upgraded, making the entire 60% "waste-bearing".  WR3A only considers that material waste if residue is discarded;  BAN argues that even properly recycled parts are "discarded" (that recycling is the same as discarding). 

But recycling a capacitor in Singapore is different from the description of children burning wires.

It is frustrating to blog about a still life image. These are the same discussions I was having with Jim Puckett in 2002, when I published the "Setting a Higher Standard" white paper in Recycling Today  magazine.  During those 8+ years, China has changed from a net importer to a net generator of IT scrap.  My Techs of Color friends say, It's ok, Robin, we can buy from other countries now, in the past decade more PCs were sold to developing countries than to the USA.  It's a pity, but not a disaster, we don't need the USA anymore.

What is the teenage Chinese word for "Whatever?"

If the USA wants to shred up a billion dollars of its value added product, just like it shreds up H1 visa applications, because they don't fit with America's self-image, just how unexpected is that?  The USA rejects Mexican immigrants, rejects H1 work visas, rejects manufacturing labor jobs which are too difficult for our unions, and even takes value-added wealth purchased in the past and insists it be shredded prior to export.

If you add up all the things about globalization protested by all the different groups out there, there is something they have in common.

One of Jim's favorite phrases is "the dirty little secret."   Well, here's another one.  This is less about math, than about fear and guilt.   The product generated, and the demand and wealth in different nations, has changed tremendously, but the argument against exports has not changed in 8 years.  What remains is only skin-deep... Accidental Racism.

When people buy into a policy or story for 8 years, without ever taking time to explore the math behind "80%", they have an image in their minds.   When stories are published and apologies written about selling product to a man named Chiu, without every asking what was in the containers he was purchasing from non-Stewards in Brockton or Stewards in Fresno, you can see why I get phrustrated.  This doesn't appear to be about math, or definitions of "working", or definitions of "waste" vs. "commodity".  80% of the concern appears to be about a fear of trade with people of other cultures.

80% of whom have more melanin than Jim or I.  Immigration policy, export policy, globalization and trade... 80% of the alarm comes from differences in skin pigments.   Our melting pot, our relative ability to tolerate diversity, that is supposed to be the USA's strongest suit... we are one of the MOST integrated and MOST race tolerant societies on earth today.  The rejection of immigrants, the rejection of trade, the clownish and cartoonish descriptions of the manufacturer-takeback factories, they get 80% of the alarm out of 20% of the facts.

Skin, incidentally, is 20% of human body weight.

1 comment:

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

This 2010 Post successfully predicted the 2011 United Nations research on exports to Africa. An empassioned Basel Action Network was making the numbers up. Will Fresh Air follow Ira Glass's lead?