MIT Ethics

It's approaching ten days since I contacted MIT Senseable City Lab.

#Ewastetracking Project by MIT and NGO Discovers Analog Television (exists) in Pakistan

According to the opening page of Massachusetts Institute of Technologies Senseability City Lab's expose on second hand electronics, transboundary movement demonstrates likely environmental harm.

A joint project between the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the MIT Senseable City Lab has led to the discovery of previously unknown international electronic waste routes departing from the United States.
Printer, and LCD and CRT monitors were embedded with GPS trackers capable of remotely reporting their location from overseas locations. These trackers were then delivered to recyclers and charities around the country. 65 of the first 200 trackers deilvered as part of the Monitour/e-Trash Transparency Project went offshore, mostly to Asia. 
On-the-ground investigations in Asia by BAN produced a clearer picture of these trade routes. Results of this study can be found here on this site in graphic form and will also be released in a series of reports by BAN. These can be found at: 
While legitimate e-waste recycling helps reduce landfill contamination and raw material extraction, the export of hazardous electronic waste is most often illegal trade under the Basel Convention and moreover, the management of toxic electronic waste in the informal sector damages human health and the environment. 
The Monitour/e-Trash Transparency Project demonstrates how relatively new technology can generate unique data needed by civil society, law enforcement and enterprises to better track what until now have been hidden flows. Since the time of our experiment, the UN Organization on Drugs and Crime has confirmed that the Mong Cai border is a primary corridor for e-waste flowing from the US and EU into China, part of an estimated US $3.75 billion market for illegal e-waste. 
Learn more about e-waste tracking here: Video.

"On the ground investigations in Asia by BAN produced a clearer picture of these trade routes."  Really, MIT?  Just how clear?  Analog or high definition?  Seriously, this is from Media Lab of all places?

As I showed last week, the screen shots of the MIT's tracking project are difficult to see at proper resolution; you can't zoom in.  Instead, you must copy the longitude and latitude and paste it into google maps, or rely on whoever is writing written descriptions of the sites on MIT's website.

Then you find places like the Hafeez Computer Center in Faisalabad, Pakistan.  It's near the center of a dense city, blocks away from one of Pakistan's largest universities.  It is a long way from the port.  Screenshot below.

We are writing to MIT to offer to assist them in interpreting several tracking devices locations.  In particular, I'm focusing on CRT devices, which are governed by USA EPA law.  That law does not ban export for reuse, or even export for recycling, but requires that export to be declared and investigated by EPA prior to export.

The reason for EPA's restrictions stem largely from the Basel Action Network (MIT's "joint partner") declarations in 2002 and 2005 that the "vast majority" of CRTs are not recycled, but are dumped overseas to avoid high USA recycling costs. Overseas, BAN announced, the CRTs were most likely going to be beaten by children with hammers to remove "valuable copper".  It is certainly true that CRTs are the most expensive type of electronic waste to recycle, and it's true that any which are diverted for continued use represent an avoided fee.  It's also true that working display devices have been in high demand for reuse and repair markets.  Billions of people owe their "teledensity" (mass media, internet, etc.) to used and rebuilt CRTs sourced from wealthy nations.

How Little We Recyclers Even Care What Happens

Wow.  What a powerful emotional connection - to no one. Because embargoing trade proves how much you care. Don't exchange with anyone, Bodhisattva.   I thought I'd share the opening salvo of logic from KCTS9's "The Circuit: Tracking America's Electronic Waste".

Sure.  If I send work to the Chicas Bravas Womens Co-op at Retroworks de Mexico, the fact that the electronics crossed the border means I don't care about them.  I don't care about the people I send my children to visit, I don't care about the people whose godson comes live with me for a year.

I don't care about the former Attorney General from Burkina Faso, who I housed for months while a contract was put on his life by President Blaise Compere.  I don't care about the Egyptians, who hosted my family and stayed at my house, because I sold them computers.  I must not care about the investors who are trying to build a $45M state of the art printer recycling factory in Hong Kong, to supply Apple, Sony, and LG with recycled content for new devices.  I surely don't care about the technicians in Ghana who fed and housed me for 3 weeks, or the scrap men at Agbogbloshie who still WhatsApp or call me once a week.

Save The American Children! Shocking Expose on USA's Car Repair Market

Just sayin'...

The point is obviously that:

1. Abandoned or slow moving "waste" is more persistent and easily photographed
2. Manufactured goods kept for part sales is different from shredding, different business
3. Sometimes business owners die or get in trouble or screw up
4. Outliers in an industry should not be used by photojournalists to racially profile geographies
5. No one knows, really, what's going on without data journalism.

Hopefully Germans don't see this video and decide to boycott car sales to Florida.  Fortunately, there are no brown children close up photos to trigger an NGO fundraising campaign.