Update: Electronics reuse spurs war of words

Recycler is highly critical of terminology found in Basel Action Network (BAN) statements and press releases.

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The Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) has targeted the problem of unsafe and environmental unsound electronics practices throughout this century. The group has focused in particular on the shipment of obsolete electronics from the developed world to the developing world, at times finding places where unsafe dismantling and disposal methods occur.

Subsequently, the recycling industry has put in place audit-dependent certification systems designed to adhere to laws put in place by governments to pinch the flow of electronic scrap to overseas buyers with unsound practices (or inadequate waste handling infrastructure).

Robin Ingenthron of Vermont-based Good Point Recycling says he understands BAN’s focus on the issue, if not necessarily its use of GPS trackers to look for noncompliant behavior. (Ingenthron’s company was implicated by one such tracking device that ended up in Hong Kong in 2019.)

In its Oct. 7 news release, BAN says the products it tracked consisted of four nonworking LCD monitors that made their way to Guatemala via a textiles exporter. The devices were donated to the Dell/Goodwill partnership known as Dell Reconnect. BAN says this also marks the third time it has found the Dell/Goodwill Reconnect program exporting e-waste "in likely violation of the importing country's laws and Dell's own corporate policy."

Although not necessarily defending parties in that transaction, Ingenthron’s complaint has more to do with phrasing used by BAN in its news releases that, in his view, create false impressions that often go unquestioned by media outlets running the news releases.

In a blog post, Ingenthron questions BAN’s use of the word “waste” to describe refurbished or refurbishable equipment, and the word “likely” to describe whether shipments of such materials to developing nations entail a legal violation.

Ingenthron writes that the terms “’used goods’ and ‘waste’ are defined separately in international law, and that the key to guilt is intent. Otherwise, every brand new item that landed overseas - if it failed under warranty, or was damaged in shipping - would be a violation of international law.”

He continues, “BAN has, for two decades, tried to erase the fact that the most knowledgeable actors, the ones most in control of the trade, the purchasers least likely to waste money, are the overseas buyers. They do not pay to ship ‘waste’ with the intent to avoid costs they would certainly not incur, in the rich nations where they purchase surplus goods.”

Ingenthron says BAN uses select phrasing “to define what hard-working poor people are attempting to purchase as ‘waste’ and as ‘likely’ illegal, implying that intent to purchase for reuse does not matter; that even if BAN is responsible for the device being nonworking [and] nonrepairable, that the traders were engaged in criminality.”

BAN concludes its Oct. 7 news release by stating, “BAN continues to use GPS trackers on a regular basis to ensure downstream due diligence of e-waste movements and makes use of them as a verification tool in their own ethical Electronics Recycling Certification—e-Stewards.”

Jim Puckett, executive director of BAN, shared his comments on the monitor shipments to Guatemala with Recycling Today via email, writing: “It is time to cease using the developing world as garbage and broken equipment collectors for the rich industrialized countries. This results in the export of harm and the ultimate diffusion of precious resources. This has been [the] conclusion not only of the environmental community, 188 governments and hundreds of ITAD (information technology asset disposition) leaders globally (e.g. the Coalition of American Electronics Recyclers (CAER), but it is the conclusion of Dell and Goodwill as well. Our concern is that Dell and Goodwill while talking the talk are not doing all they can to enforce their important policy.” 

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