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The Fascinating Second Lives of Stuff

A recent book dives into the massive, global, and greatly under-studied trade in used goods.
Nigeria - Lagos - Electronic waste

Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, Adam Minter, Bloomsbury, 2019

Dell has gotten better. I don’t know about the quality of their computer hardware, which has never particularly impressed me, but their recycling and environmental programs are closer to the mark than they were a few years ago. I gather that, anyway, from Bloomberg business journalist Adam Minter’s recent book, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.

Much of the book deals with the afterlives of clothing and textiles, but I happen to have some insight of my own on the portion that deals with used electronics and electronic waste (“e-waste.”) When I was earning my masters degree in public policy, at University of Maryland College Park, I did a project with the College Park Public Works Department, to study possible avenues of resale and reuse for some of the used electronics brought in for recycling. In the course of that project, I spoke to a middle manager for Goodwill, and he explained Goodwill’s own computer recycling program. In partnership with Dell, most of the computer equipment brought to Goodwill was scrapped—promoted as an environmental amenity, but really, in this manager’s view, a means by which a computer manufacturer could shrink the secondary market for competing equipment.

This basic dynamic of corporate self-interest hiding behind environmental public interest—“baptists and bootleggers”—explains a lot of recycling policies for whole items, like electronics and appliances, as opposed to true waste, like empty cans and boxes. Minter points out that while those things are simply raw materials, whole items are, well, whole items, often with potential to be refurbished and reused, and reducing them to raw materials often entails a loss of overall value.

In any case, Minter reports that Dell has recently begun to do exactly this, with at least some of the devices that come to them for recycling. This ranges from defective or unwanted newer machines that are refurbished or broken down for parts, to pallets of older machines sold in bulk. “We used to scrap them,” Minter quotes Andrea Falkin, senior manager at Dell for North America environmental affairs and producer responsibility. “Now we don’t.” Some manufacturers are learning to participate in the secondhand market rather than view it as unwanted competition.

There’s an interesting tension in Secondhand, however, between the development of at-scale markets for known and mostly interchangeable goods—from computers to specific types of garments—and the emotional, almost spiritual desire that many people have for their random, one-off items to be loved down the road: a handmade kimono in Japan, a pair of porcelain cats in Minter’s home city of Minneapolis. 

Minter mentions, and probably somewhat simplifies, a Japanese belief that a well-loved, well-used item comes to embody a spirit of its own. I understand this feeling myself, as do plenty of Americans: I have an inordinate amount of affection for my ancient Zenith radio with a woodgrain vinyl case, for example. But unlike the kimono or the cats, whose value is mostly emotional, my radio happens to be worth $30 or $40 on eBay. Secondhand might leave you thinking that stuff like this, due to age or lack of volume or to the time and complexity of testing, doesn’t have much of a market. Minter ultimately analyzes the secondhand trade as a sort of manufacturing industry, not as a quasi-sacred means of saving special things. Of course, it can be both. Personally, despite the logistical difficulties, I think it can be more of the second.

But perhaps the most important and counterintuitive aspect of Secondhand is its treatment of what’s often called “e-waste dumping,” or the export of containers of used, often broken electronics to developing countries.

One of the major dynamics that Minter uncovers here is that secondhand is, by the nature of economic development, mostly a global trade, between rich countries and poorer countries. This means, in his telling, that relatively open cross-border trade is vital to the secondhand market. (Protectionism in his telling, whether by rich countries or poor countries, is likely to lead to more waste, both directly and indirectly. Directly, by closing off foreign markets for existing used goods. Indirectly, by essentially subsidizing low-cost Chinese manufacturers, whose products are so poor that they rarely have secondhand value). 

In the course of this rich/poor trade, it turns out that it isn’t really the rich countries exporting, or “dumping,” most of this “waste.” It’s actually poor-country entrepreneurs who import most of it. They know how to fix it—skills that rich countries have largely lost—and their labor markets and income levels are such that skilled repair still makes financial sense for most consumers. Of the used electronics trade in Africa, Minter writes, “Goodwill and Greenpeace couldn’t have devised a better system if they’d tried.” 

He thus flips the charge of environmental racism on its head, locating it not in the “dumping” of e-waste but rather in a sort of soft bigotry of low expectations: “What use could a broken computer be to an African?” That many earnest people have absorbed this false characterization of the used electronics trade only makes it more tragic. Minter goes over a case in the UK, in which an electronics exporter from Nigeria was identified through a Greenpeace sting and sentenced to prison and charged exorbitant fines—for violating the UK’s ban on e-waste exports (indeed, the caption of the lead photo for this article mentions the Greenpeace investigation, without grasping the marvel of this international trade). Baptists and bootleggers, again. This is blood-boiling, and it underscores the fact that the secondhand trade needs and deserves a much better public image.

Also blood-boiling is the now well known story of Apple’s proprietary screws, unreplaceable batteries, and iPads glued together with a nearly unbreakable adhesive (even Apple itself doesn’t service these items.) 

All of the anecdotes and interviews in Secondhand point to the same conclusion: stuff may not be imbued with a spirit, and a lot of it may ultimately be worthless. But an existing manufactured good is a resource, not a liability, and the higher the quality of that good, and the more the secondhand market is legitimated, the more we can all benefit.

Minter’s ultimate vision, despite his cool analysis, is one part Naderite and one part distributist. He positively profiles iFixit, the company which produces schematics and repair kits for modern tech, hoping to shift the balance of power back towards the consumer. He indicts the twin scourges of poor quality and repair-unfriendly design as raising the cost of ownership of products. And he goes even a step further, suggesting that such a consumer-unfriendly environment dilutes the very concept of ownership. 

This kind of argument has long been raised occasionally in regard to the software industry’s ubiquitous “end-user license agreements,” contracts agreed to at installation that state the software is merely licensed to the user under a long list of usually unread stipulations. But as the increasing proprietary computerization of products meets repair-unfriendly design, even physical products are less “owned” than they used to be.

It is long past time that the average American had another Vance Packard, or another Ralph Nader, someone who is unabashedly capitalist but does not believe that capitalism must inevitably marginalize either the worker or the consumer. Adam Minter has produced a book that scrambles tired partisan expectations, and which comes down to an argument no economist can disagree with: secondhand makes money, so let’s do more of it.



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