Right Wrong 5: MIT Senseable City, PBS, and Hong Kong EPD Responses

What is right and what is wrong about the BAN press releases, describing their story on PBS, their partnership with MIT's Senseable City Lab, their investigations with Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department?  Home runs require you to touch bases.  We are asking the referees - did BAN touch all the bases?  Were sabotaged devices not repairable? Is Li Tong Group really not allowed to process OEM material at the state of the art EcoPark in Hong Kong?  Are there child laborers in Shui Wai New Town?  Are the 86% of Hong Kong called "New Territories" a "cowboy land"?  Did MIT find any evidence that a single device they helped track was dumped illegally or repaired responsibly?  Does PBS see a link between NGO sponsorship, accusations that workers surprised by cameras are "illegals"?  Suddenly the reputations of MIT, Hong Kong EPD, and PBS are being held very, very tightly by Basel Action Network.  Public display of affection.  Their organization names have been meta-tagged with #trackingewaste.

What's up, ump?  Did BAN touch all the bases?  Did this expose do the primo non nocere?

Do tell us...


Carlo Ratti has just acknowledged our inquiry this morning.  He's the director of Senseable City, and a TED Talk expert, and one of the most respected authorities on international city development. His opinion on Hong Kong recycling?  On PBS, Ratti stated  "One of the surprising things we discovered is how far waste travels. You see these kind of global e-waste flows that actually almost cover the whole planet.

Right Wrong 4: MIT Senseable City, ENGO vs. EcoPark, Geography

MIT's Senseable City Lab gave apparently new credibility to a wilting ENGO in Seattle, whose reputation for accuracy about "E-Waste Exports" has taken a couple of nasty hits in recent years.  For example, BAN.org tried to claim they "never, ever stated" that 80% of e-waste was exported when multiple studies showed zero percent evidence of the figure.  Then the bete noir of the past decade - Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana - turned out to be an unimpressive urban junkyard near the center of Accra, not a remote fishing village contaminated by imported e-waste.

BAN desperately needed a new "tragedy" and turned to a methodology it had tried once before - placing GPS trackers into "e-waste" (?) and showing transboundary movement.  With the help of MIT Media Lab's Carlo Ratti and his "Senseable City Lab" team, they found an e-Steward (a paying member) to put tarps in their parking lot and let BAN and its "volunteers" allegedly render samples of CRT monitors, LCD monitors, and printers "unrepairable" and place tracking devices inside them.

Thanks for the invitation to "Explore".  MIT Tracking Has evidently led us to the discovery of a "Previously Unknown" hundred million dollar development - ECOPARK  in Hong Kong.

Let's drill down and look for printer scrap, to see if we find "rice paddies" - or more confirmation that Hong Kong is richer per capita than the USA and generates more urban waste, requiring state of the art industrial sludge treatment, landfills, and e-scrap recycling facilties.

(Digression - Why Would What "e-Waste" Gets Exported Evolve?)

In March 2015, a group of Ghana customs agents, Ghana Tech Sector importers, and three USA journalists accompanied WR3A from the scorched waterside where copper and aluminum wires - wires from cars, appliances, and computers - were being torched in tires.  We'd walked about the fires, dodging the black smoke, as WR3A's Dagbani translator (and Tech Sector Geek, first introduced on this blog (May 2011) translated for a group of young men led by Muhammed Awal.

(Note: I've kind of deliberately avoided really nice photos here, just to kind of capture the ordinariness of it all)

The photographers (myself included) had all snapped some great and alarming shots of young men, dirt, poverty, pollution, and smoke.  The ENGO's halloween language would be hard to resist.  But we now moved the the larger Agbogbloshie yard, where by hammer and screwdriver and axe, metals were being separated from each other and from the plastic skins and wire nerves that bound their bodies.

The first electronic or "e-Waste" device we photographed was a VHS or VCR player.  It was, no doubt, originally imported used.  The Italian photographers got their lenses up close, accepting the premise that this represented and "obsolete"  import.

Joe Benson's container exports were itemized, not just by count of appliance, but by brand and model.  In 100 pages of documents I reviewed, there was no VCR.  Wahab, the Ghana Tech who made our tour possible, would never have imported one.

But back in the day, when I lived in West Africa in the 1980s, VCRs were a hot commodity.  An entire industry of "duplicate" movies existed in Nigeria.  Knock off copies of "Rocky" and "Rambo" and "Bob Marley Concerts" were in every marketplace, from Yaounde to Ngaoundal.  Cameroon was still in the business of erecting TV towers, but the "critical mass of users" who made those investments promising had obtained used CRT televisions - every one of which demanded a VHS player as much as it did electricity.

When I looked down and saw the young men pounding, I saw a flashback of scrap appliance from Africa's past decades.  I wondered, did the young Italian documentary makers (in their 20s) have any idea what a VHS player was, and could they imagine a Joe Benson or Wahab buying one from an "e-waste" collector and paying thousands of dollars to ship it here?

Right Wrong 2: African Ambiance at MIT Senseable City Lab

I'm looking for time to edit down the long post I've written for "what the NGO's and MIT got right, what the NGO's and MIT got wrong" piece.  That's a problem for me, finding time to edit stuff.

The 14 months that have now passed since March-April trip to Ghana in 2015 have been in large part the editing or digesting of the experience there.  I'm still re-editing things I wrote at the time, I'm still reviewing interviews we filmed.  And new information keeps coming, even as the situation is evolving.

Wahab - our business partner in Ghana - has been back and forth four times to see his cousin Kamal, CEO of Chendiba Enterprises.  And I continue to take calls every week from young men I met there.   Kamaldeen has now finally graduated the engineering school program (he had been working at Chendiba Enterprises to help pay for his studies).  And Awal, the "lead guy" of the wire burning men at Agbogbloshie, still calls several times a week.  When Wahab's here, it's easier, because my pidgin English is really rusty.  Wahab and I help ground each other's wires;  my compassion for Awal keeps Wahab from spanking his ass for calling and shilling, and Wahab's grown up expectations of the men (and Awal is definitely a man, not a "child labor orphan") who will twist a guilty knife is welcome intervention in the role-play.  I've had good and bad experiences intervening in Africa, and having time and partners from the area give needed perspective.

What I need to say about Jim Puckett, Kevin McElvaney, and the MIT team, PBS and @Earthfixmedia is important, but I do owe it to them to take the time to edit.  They deserve the same compassion and patience we show Awal and the company at Agbogbloshie.  And this extends of course to Dr. Jack Caravanos and PureEarth, and the StEP team, and everyone in the business of "saving Africa".  I need to edit, and to demonstrate the dignity these researchers and journalists deserve.

It takes time.  Primum non nocere. Don't rush to judgement. Listen to your human subjects.  Basics.