Wrong, Wrong, Wrong... How E-Waste Photos steer WEEE Policy

How does a great wall of "ewaste" photos obscure factual data on the trade in second-hand goods and secondary scrap commodities?  Data collection is more important than a competition to photograph the "largest TV sculpture".  

European "E-Waste" Recycling is heralded by some Product Stewardship advocates as the model for the USA.   The EU is certainly taking a very tough stand on exports of used computers.  Is the EU's Maginot Line against export trade the best response to unfair trade practices?

Are the European restrictions against sale of used electronics to emerging nations based on art or science?   Most photos of export loads don't answer the basic question, "Is the container 80% full or empty of affordable electronics?"  Queue the song, "Black Swan" by Thom Yorke.

Maybe I just didn't realize how traumatized the Europeans are by Cathode Ray Tube televisions.  These days, they are X-raying sea containers in Rotterdam, the Scottish EPA is arresting people at Salvation Army donation centers, and they are planning larger enforcements against anyone who sells a computer monitor to be used in an African Internet Cafe.

Based on photographic evidence, one might assume the CRTs are needed at home in Europe - to complete a "Great Wall of E-waste", which will completely encircle the European Union.

This Great "E-waste" Wall seems to symbolize a trade barrier to the export of second-hand electronic equipment, or export of copper or plastic scrap.

Could Europe be using arts market development to become self-sufficient in demand for used electronics?  On the other side of the wall, will Africans "leapfrog" their way into laptops and flat screens?

Ok.. I'm making fun of the Europeans here.  The point is not about this ill-conceived use of "e-waste" debris as objet d'art (located in Vilnius, Lithuania, where my first fair trade partnership started in 2003).  My point is that using photos to describe an entire culture is fraught with problems.

A picture can tell a "thousand words" about a foreign land.   But they do not do as a substitute for data as well as they do as a stand in for rhetoric.   These photos do not represent the European TV recycling infrastructure.

Nor does BAN's photo of the woman whacking a copper yoke off of a CRT, or BAN's film of an African child whacking a CRT with a screwdriver, support their contention that most exports of second hand electronics are polluting (what exactly is screwdriver kid doing, anyway?   Doesn't he know how to use a screwdriver?)

Do these photos depict a lot of TVs in Europe?


Are they a significant percentage of EU WEEE CRT "e-waste" disposition?  No.

Does the image clipped at left, from "Ghana:  Digital Dump," show a poor African boy knocking a copper yoke off of CRT glass?  Yes.  But it looks like he doesn't know what he's doing.

Does he really use a plastic screwdriver to hammer it, normally?  Or is this a posed shot?   The important question is, "Does it depict a significant percentage of African CRT disposition?"  Where is the numerator, and where is the denominator?

The photo left, is from an interview of a technician in Senegal (who immigrated to Dakar from Democratic Republic of Congo).  His repair of the CRT monitor is real (WR3A interviewed him, there's no interview of screwdrivier-cum-hammer-boy).

"Does his repair depict a significant percentage of the containerload we filmed and documented?"  Well, most of the monitors in this containerload worked fine and required no repair. Some required repair.  And a few, we documented, were damaged in transit.  We filmed our monitors, and also the remains of computers from a previous shipment (from a different recycler) which had much higher residue.

We document how much fallout from every load we ship.  Pictures are nice.  Numbers are better.

I don't export TVs to Africans like the ones at left (from the PBS documentary), because they would require a digital PAL to NTSC tuner converter AND a 220v converter.  European TVs wouldn't need that, and also Europe has lower transport costs.

But if Europe succeeds in building a wall against second-hand product, then it may become economical to do the PAL and 220v conversions on USA televisions.   A USA TV is waste if it's not worth the investment of parts, but if Europe is cut off as a supplier, it might become economical to fix an American TV in Ghana.  More probably, Africans will go without.  Either way, the time has come to put numbers on the page.

In the containerload picture, and similar film from Greenpeace video, which purports to show bad practices, how come there are no brown TVs?   Brown TVs are a significant portion of what we collected and recycled the year this film was made.  Why are they carefully shrink-wrapped in plastic?  Greenpeace then cuts to a shot of scrap at a Ghana landfill, as if that is the destiny of what the African men are unloading.

And there are only brown TVs in the Great E-Waste Wall, no black TVs...  Is it a coincidence, or does it say something about the free market?

Are the nice, black, shrink-wrapped TVs delivered to screwdriver-is-hammer boy?  If they are just harvested for scrap, then why does the market accept only 27" ten year old TVs?  Isn't it plausible that more than 20% of these TVs work, or are repaired by a techie of color?  Or are they made into a giant sculpture-wall-maze?  It's time for science and technology to meet public policy.

What other photos could be used to base our policy debate upon?

The clip to the left, from the PBS Ghana documentary, showed an interview with an Indian entrepreneur (Rajeev Gupta) who was designing a high-tech electronics scrap processing factory in India.  What percentage goes there?  Is this proof that India is the most high-tech processor of WEEE?

The next clip shows a California electronics ewaste processor running his hands through granules of CRT glass, which has been shredded.   Is he getting lead poisoning?  Should this be shown as an example of primitive operations in California, where no one repairs or tests anything?

Did the Californian add value?  Is the disposition of CRT glass into smaller and smaller pieces an alternative to the bad European sculpture problem documented above?  Since California SB20 punishes reuse (you lose money), it must pay more to offset the lost revenue from reuse.  Since it pays more, it succeeds... in making smaller and smaller pieces.  What makes white people so proud of shredding, and so scornful of reuse?

Left, in the background of one E-Waste dumping documentary, is a clearly visible set of bales of ABS and HIPS plastic from demanufacturing of electronics (this color combo would typically be from monitors).  Does the impoverished lady with the yoke hammer, or the screwdriver-John-Henry-ewaste-Nigerian boy, have a high density baler operation going on in the background somewhere?  Or are proper recycling stewards selling into the same market?  How can a camera focus on one piece of junk and not notice that entire containerloads of properly processed material are visible in the background?

What is my point this weekend?

Well, photos are not the way to make policy.  I mean, they are good for attracting all of our attention and to motivate us to study a problem.

Data is long overdue!!!!

I know that of the 300,000 computer monitors I have exported in the last 2.5 years, the following:

1)  They were less than 25% of all of the CRT glass we managed.  We shipped more than 4 times as many containers to USA domestic processing as we exported.

2) They were unacceptable about 15% of the time.

3) We paid for proper recycling of the 15%, we tracked glass-to-glass destinations for the 15%, and most importantly, we reacted and changed our processes.  The single largest cause of recycling wasn't incidental breakage, or that the CRT could not be repaired, it was that the inventory was liquidated because the market had been glutted by more CRTs from cheaper sources, and those we had shipped were no longer worth it to refurbish... but if they had been delivered 6 months earlier, they would have been fine.

So, I provided my raw data from these shipments to Reed at MIT, and to EPA.

I figure, if BAN is right, and 80% of all exported CRTs are waste managed in primitive conditions, then my documented reuse rates on my 300,000 units is a stunning success.  BAN should build a statue of me, made of fat looking televisions.

However, I think that it points to something else.  That my partners on the other side of the ocean are not naive idiots.   They don't accept containers with 80% trash... At least, not knowingly, and not twice.  They like me, and I like them.  But the story that I'm better than everyone is just as wrong as the story that Europe is diverting televisions to build a great wall of e-waste.

The photos in this post show every extreme, from high tech shredding in India to high tech shredding in California, from silly wall sculptures in Europe to silly use of screwdrivers as clumsy hammers in Africa, and of repair and reuse.   My point is that absolutely none of these photos does anything to indicate who should be prouder, the USA, or Ghana, or the EU.   It's all a lot of photography.   Too much policy is based on random photos.

My hypothesis is that 30%-40% of display units can be "scrap", which may be unacceptable, but that a shipment of 80% scrap-crap being hit by African boys with plastic implements is anecdotal.   If I am correct, the best remedy to free market exports of 30% unrepairable is improved trade, and more choice of product by the importer.

I stood up at the Interpol Meeting in Alexandria Virginia, and offered all the EPA and Interpol officials full access to our data on our exports.  No one asked to see it.  I felt like a loony uncle.  If I would have shown pictures of a new Middlebury e-waste wall, I may have attracted more attention.

From the site where I got the Lithuanian TV pictures...   [Sources: 123]

A statue of Lenin lies in the middle of the labyrinth. The sculpture symbolizes the absurdity of Soviet propaganda that for over half a century had been implanted in people’s minds with the help of senseless TV.

All Lithuania has taken part in the creation of a labyrinth of television sets. People from various Lithuanian towns donated old TV sets after an appeal from Europos Parkas was broadcast on LNK television.

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