Computers and Press Releases are blunt instruments

(photos from MAILonline, cited under fair use policy)

That is basically the story at the UK MailOnline

"...The boy had grovelled in the dirt for mercy, whimpering as blood dripped from his cracked skull. With the computer monitor that had been broken over his head lying on the ground nearby, filthy children with glassy-eyed stares and twisted smirks had stood over him."

Just how bad is donating a used computer to Africa? According to the Mail, you have blood on your hands. Your monitor is being used as a club to beat small children.

What shocks me is that the photos appear to be a ratio of about 20 good computers to one thing being burned on the ground for copper. The author is so over the top, it provides the best explanation for what Jim at BAN calls my "apologist" attitude for exporting. The kids at the landfill look sad, but I don't actually see many PCs there.

Ok, just to warm up for the E-Scrap 2008 conference, here's some push-back...

BAN and SVTC are promoting companies which have zero reuse policy, which destroy everything. They mean well. But by doing so, BAN and SVTC create a vacuum for our competitors to mix bad material into. We have met the enemy, and he is us. If they stand behind an article like this, they are hurting the people they claim to champion.

Another quote from the article

"Most of the hard drives were empty, but one contained medical records relating to patients based in Leeds. It came from a computer marked Northumbria Healthcare Trust, although the data found did not relate to its patients but to customers of a pharmacy that had used the computer after the trust had disposed of it."

Let me get this straight... the hospital the author is attacking... it wiped all of its hard drives. But one was re-used by a third party. So the author attacks the hospital...

Threatening to hurt and embarrass people who have sent wiped, working computers, is a bully tactic. As a former Peace Corps volunteer, as a man who housed African refugees, homeless people, impoverished women from a Mexican coop, international students, young Egyptian computer repairers, Peruvian small businesspeople, and others in my own home this year, I am so frustrated I could cry.

Companies with "no export" policies, and laws like California SB20 which REQUIRE destruction (obsolescence in hindsight) of working monitors, are morally wrong. While the Pledge is careful not to ban all reuse exports, the easiest way to join the Pledge is to end reuse, and that is what many "True Stewardship" companies have done. Put in a big shredder, and you are golden, even if it leaves a pile of toxic fluff (printers and CRTs do NOT shred well, people).

To quietly accept export of "tested working units" (even though that could include a 1988 286), does not go far enough. BAN needs to speak out against California's perverted SB20 "cancellation" rule.

The "tested working" rule is not even in the Basel Convention, which explicitly states in Annex 9 that exports of used CRTs for repair and reuse is completely legal. Critics of digital divide programs state that "someday the monitor will go bad", but that was true of MY first computer when I bought it in 1992 (and there was no CRT recycling infrastructure), and it is true of a brand new computer any African student might buy.

Many people in our industry say they agree with me, but that I am sticking my neck out. BAN has officially refused my company offer to sign the Pledge, over our interpretation of Annex IX, (and officially endorsed a company which exports more than twice the monitors I do). Well, this isn't really a promoted blog, it is intended only for people who understand the nuances of the export issue. So in the words of Huckleberry Finn (when he abandons his guilt over not turning Jim in as a "runaway nigger"), "All right, then, I'll go to hell". It's my favorite line in all of literature...

Companies like mine are not "wishful thinkers". We fly to see our partners, we ask for reports of our mistakes (if we are sending something they couldn't use, we need to know in order to correct it), we fly buyers here to pre-inspect our loads. We have had a lot of fun, made a lot of friends, and changed a lot of practices along the way.

Did you know a tested working Dell 17HS Trinitron monitor is 'waste' at the factory in Jakarta, and the non-working Dell E773 is good? I didn't until I visited the buyer of my tested working monitors in 2004. In Peru, the Dell 17HS Trin is fine, by the way.

We must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. BAN should not take its toys and go home over the reuse repair "loophole". The only way the situation will get better is if companies like mine succeed in establishing a recycling infrastructure in the countries which REFUSE to stay barefoot and pregnant. If California breaks every monitor, they will buy the monitors from a mobster who sends them junk TVs mixed into the load. The war on drugs approach has had 6 years, and let's admit it now does more harm than good. Companies in WR3A are actively engaging wonderful people in Egypt, Senegal, Malaysia, Peru, Mexico, Singapore, Indonesia, and China, and doing the same kind of work that micro-lending organizations are doing.

If African doctors cannot get affordable working computers, children will die.


Anonymous said...

What in God's name have working
computers got to do with children's health in Africa?

Can't doctors write with pen or pencil anymore? or is paper in short supply?

Children in Africa can't eat, drink, wear or sleep in working computers. Neither can working computers replace lost parents, who for reasons of their own often neglect their children, and then abandon them in hospitals.

We do our best to clothe and feed them but they will never feel the loving arms of a mother or father, or a bedtime kiss.

Stop talking about computers and how they can improve the lives of African children, it is quite sickening to see how outsiders in other countries try to make news out of the african child, most often to the child's detriment.

Sue van Straten

Jim said...

Dear Robin:

Thank you for this opportunity to respond to your complaint against the Mail on Sunday story and against the Basel Action Network (BAN). First I’d like to make it very clear that BAN did not write the Daily Mail story but were interviewed by its author who traveled to Ghana as eyewitness together with Michael Anane, environmental reporter from Ghana. Michael is a very well respected Ghanian journalist and environmentalist who has assisted in documenting the situation is Ghana previously for Danish journalists and was instrumental also in showing the National Geographic photographers the sad situation of e-waste importation in West Africa which BAN first documented in our film and report The Digital Dump: Exporting Re-use and Abuse to Africa. The Ghanian story has also been written up this year in Audubon magazine. And just a few days ago, the BBC also visited Ghana and highlighted Greenpeace’s findings of the abuse there as well. The point is, this horror story is there to be seen, it has not been fabricated, it is real.

BAN has been among the first messengers of these nightmare scenarios involving e-waste exports that have been increasing around the world today. But we will not be the last. Unfortunately the story continues in large part because of the vast profits that can be made by externalizing costs to developing countries and the lack of rules in the United States to prevent such gross cost externalization. Unlike the rest of the developed world, the US has almost no controls on the export of hazardous electronic waste. Meanwhile developing countries likewise lack such import controls and moreover have totally inadequate infrastructure to collect, process and manage electronic waste once it arrives or is generated on their territory.

We would ask Robin and others to refrain from killing the messengers such as the Mail on Sunday, and also to refrain from ignoring the international law already in place to deal with the problem.

It is widely recognized that a majority of hazardous electronic waste that consumers deliver to recyclers in the United States, is freely exported to developing countries. In lieu of adequate controls on exporting hazardous waste in the United States, BAN and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition has set forth our e-Stewards program (“The Pledge of True Stewardship”) which is now under BAN’s leadership evolving into a third-party audited certified program. This calls among other things for recyclers to behave as if the United States had ratified the agreements of the Basel Convention even though the United States has failed to honor these international agreements.

With respect to the issue of re-use, contrary to the insinuation of Robin, BAN is not in favor of destruction of computers. We have been very critical of what we call the “churn and burn” approach of shredding perfectly good electronic equipment and smelting them when a viable and appropriate re-use life exists ahead for them. Our films and report make this case very pointedly. Robin is absolutely right when he says that re-use prevents damaging extraction industries such as mining. But this argument would be far more powerful if the equipment destined for re-use was finally recycled at the end of its life. But because more and more the re-use destiny of such equipment takes place in developing countries lacking in infrastructure to properly recycle such imports, that equipment is seldom collected for materials recovery but is simply dumped and burned. The small amount of collection and recovery that does take place in countries like Ghana is extremely damaging, primitive and inefficient.

Indeed, the re-use community does a grave disservice to the world if they do not recognize and address the massive abuse that takes place under the name of “re-use” and bridging the digital divide. They cannot pretend to be wearing angels wings when in fact as much as 75% of what arrives in Africa is not reusable or repairable. Other material arrives for repair and rebuild, and the hazardous parts are immediately dumped. And even working equipment may have another year or two of life but will end up in a context where there is no infrastructure to collect and recycle the materials at all. The lack of recycling negates the positive effects of re-use and requires that more mining must take place while greater amounts of pollutants end up in the environment. Rather the toxic equipment and parts that cannot be re-used finally gets dumped and most often burned openly creating some of the worst known pollutants and damaging the local environment and health of the populace irreparably. Indeed the hand-me-down effect of re-use which moves hazardous products from North to South will leave the developing world with disproportionate toxic legacy from the electronics industry and moreover will leave it in a place where that burden is least able to be dealt with safely. These issues are very real and with serious consequences and yet the re-use community is not adequately addressing them.

To begin to address some of the more obvious concerns over the “Digital Dump” problems described above, BAN’s e-Steward Initiative calls for the approach developed at the Basel Convention’s Mobile Phone Partnership Initiative known as the “Decision Tree” approach. Basically, it calls for functionality testing prior to export to ensure that exports of non-working hazardous electronic parts or equipment are not exported.

It is this requirement for functionality testing prior to export and removal of parts that will be discarded which disqualified Robin’s GoodPoint Recycling company from being disqualified from the e-Stewards program. He has refused to remove parts of monitors (e.g. circuit boards) prior to export that he knows will be discarded upon importation. And he knows also very well that we have begged him to simply remove the non-working or parts that will not be re-used prior to export.

The accusation that we “endorse” a company that is exporting twice as many monitors is a throw-away remark, because we do not know who he is talking about and we have never said that “working” monitors cannot be exported. If we learned of non-compliance with our pledge criteria by any of our e-Stewards, we have a procedure for correcting that. We have removed companies from our list already for non-compliance. Further as our program moves to a third-party audited system it will become far easier to root out non-compliance.

Finally, Robin’s notion that exporting used electronics including hazardous electronic waste to developing countries is a vehicle for them to magically develop infrastructure to deal with it is tragically misinformed. Rather these export are what has created the horrific “informal” sectors now documented in Guiyu, China; Lagos, Nigeria; and Accra, Ghana. The kinds of technologies ultimately necessary to manage CRT glass and circuit boards will not exist in developing countries for many many years.

Therefore in sum, what will be needed to address this problem will be a combination of export legal controls and programs such as e-Stewards to stop the blatant dumping including the “TAR”-- toxics along for the ride -- that Robin is currently sending to developing countries. Computer and electronics manufacturer’s must step up and subsidize collection programs and re-export (back to developed countries) those fractions that will not pay their own way (e.g. CRTs and CRT glass).

We urge Robin and others, to stop their sniping at the messengers such as the Daily Mail or BAN. The recycling and re-use industry will continue to get a bad rap as long as they fail to address had-on and stop making apologies for, the massive e-waste export exploitation increasing daily around the world.


Jim Puckett, Coordinator
Basel Action Network

Robin said...

Brief response to BAN/Jim

It seems to me the only choice BAN offers (Pledge Signers)
1) Repairing monitors in the USA (0 on the list do this)
2) Destroying non-working, repairable monitors (at least a dozen do this)
3) Stripping off the parts (One company delivers to Monitex)
4) Sending "tested working" monitors which are stripped to the same factories

These factories are reusing something like 80,000 CRTs per monhth, they are getting them somehow.

To the degree any of your Pledge companies tests working units and sends them to these factories, the tested working monitors are being stripped and rebuilt the same as a non-working monitor.

These factories are the most able to manage all the derivative fallout and are recycling the circuit boards in Japan.

We do NOT send that type of monitor to Africa.

Robin said...

Correction, 80k per month is what one of the smallest ones needs, which we deliver to directly. Between 1M and 1.5M per month is a closer estimate of the SKD market demand. The point being we need Pledge companies to help meet that demand, those factories don't stop buying monitors.

Jim said...

Forwarded from the Mail on Sunday Article's author:

Dear Jim,

I don't normally dignify the rantings of bloggers and other amateur pundits lurking in cyberspace by replying to their comments on my work, but this time I am going to make a rare exception.

I found the comments of 'Robin', not only disgusting and morally repugnant but crassly misinformed all in his thinly veiled attempt to justify the money-making free marketeering of those that export this misery. He also completely traduces facts and distorts others that are inconvenient for him.

What I found in Africa was human suffering on a level that rocked me on a professional level as a personal one. This year I won the Amnesty International Prize for Human Rights Reporting on human trafficking in Africa as well as the American Society of Journalists and Authors Award for my expose of gold mining in Africa. But never, have I seen suffering as I did in Ghanan electronic waste dumps. We found children as young as five with severe respiratory problems, suppurating sores living in conditions that were unfit for animals.

What I find disgusting, as do other people who here in the UK that haveread 'Robin's' comments is that here we have a man likely sitting in air-conditioned comfort, no doubt well-fed, dressed in freshly laundered clothing writing this stuff on a computer from his desk in leafy Vermont declaring that the solution to this suffering, starvation, misery and wretched lives of these children in mosquito-infested slums, stinking of human excrement and urine and ruled by gangsters is to.....wait for it.... send these children our second hand computers which he is going to supply and be paid for doing so.

I have news for Robin: even if computers were going to solve starvation, poisoning and chronic sickness there is no electricity in the slum to plug them in. Nor is their broadband internet, surprisingly. And I bet if you asked Schoolboy what he would like he would probably ask for a doctor, clothing and a square meal rather than a 1995 Dell.

While there is certainly a market for used computers in Africa, there is a horrific underbelly of this market which Robin and other businessmen refuse to recognize. What happens to the massive volumes of toxic waste computers and parts that come along for the ride? What happens to even the good computers once their life is expended in some months and there is no proper recycling even possible? I have seen what happens to this “benevolent” trade, it becomes the smoking, toxic battleground of desperate children.

The problem with amateur bloggers like Robin is the misinformation which is presented as fact in blogs.

He states:

“What shocks me is that the photos appear to be a ratio of about 20 good computers to one thing being burned on the ground for copper.”

Every single computer at the dumpsite was broken, waiting to be broken up by boys for scrap. What Robin states is a falsehood. And quite how he can say this when he wasn’t even there, beggars belief.

The same for his comment on the hospital. We found stacks of computers marked with NHS stickers. None had been wiped entirely. They simply had operating systems installed over the top. The computers were the targets of fraudsters who look for hospital and police computers specifically.

What was so malodorous in 'Robin's' rantings was not one shredof compassion for the children I saw.He says some in the pictures looked ‘sad’ but rather than empathize or express sorrow at their plight he goes on to document, laboriously, stating what a big heart he has because of some of his house guests and his time in the peace corps…

Those who do genuinely kind things for their fellow man do not do so for recognition on blogs while trying to justify their money-making activities.

In just three days we saw random violence erupt countless times largely due to the desperate situation these children are in and the well-documented effects of lead poisoning which irrefutably lead to heightened levels of aggression. Once, while in the slum, Mike and I had to run due to fighting which again broke out over copper wire.
The monitors we found had been dumped at the site to be broken apart by children. The pile of NHS monitors we depicted in the original story were indeed from the NHS, waiting to be cracked and ripped apart for the copper. This is just part of a massive export arriving in West Africa -- part of the scam which sees 75% of exported computer equipment turning up at the ports in Ghana as junk which is illegal to dump in landfills in the US. None of the computers we bought were 'wiped'. They merely had operating systems installed over the top – patient’s medical records were easily obtainable.

At the magazine we had a flood of letters not only from readers but from crime-fighting UK agencies who are now thoroughly investigating this trade. I have forwarded Robins comments to them and not only are they slack-jawed in bewilderment but they share my disgust.

Robin is likely to be hearing from some people in Africa – who I have forwarded his blog to - who have quite a number of things to say to him also.

Is this really what we have become at the start of the 21st century -- businessmen in the first world justifying human suffering so that they can make a quick buck 'recycling?'


Jonathan Green

Robin said...


I may be all of the things you said, but I am also a Peace Corps volunteer who lived in Africa and who has visited and filmed the places I ship to. If I jumped to conclusions, it was because you clearly photographed a decent, respectable used computer store, you clearly indicated computers were wiped, and yet there was no shred of good news in your story.

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

Basel Secretariat Funded Report completely exonerates Robin, and the reporter Jonathan Green of the UK Mail is completely discredited. 179 sea containers were examined, and the report found 70% fully functional, and of the remainder, 15% repaired. The report did not find the dirty dispicable riff-raff described by the reporter, but rather 30,000 technician jobs. Johnathan Green can take his sanctimony and figure out a way to apologize, not to me, but to the Africans who were imprisoned and lost fortunes.