January 2011 Al-Jazeera E-waste Story

Constantly reminding myself not to be an "apologist" for bad e-waste export practices.  WR3A.org is an "export reform" organization, not promoting the status quo.

However, the export of e-waste is made worse by a propaganda campaign which promotes shredding (and in this video, incineration) in the USA as the "noble solution".   While the video, in places, attests to reuse and recycling in Asia, and makes (our) point that protective clothing and reformed practices are what's missing, it's done under the constant backdrop of images of Chinese as "primitives".  Not a single image of reuse, it's all acid and gases and fires.

Here's what I find interesting about this video.  It was released on Al-Jazeera English in January, 2011.  It shows pictures taken in China in 2001.  And it is oblivious to the Arab Spring, to the revolution about to Facebook out and Twitter out of Cairo.

Compare the January 2011 story from Al-Jazeera to the German 3Sat news story on "e-waste" role in the Arab revolution (and the conspiracy between dictators, new manufacturers, and ecologists to take Al-Jazeera away from the populace).
The I-phone and Flip cameras may have been the cameras for the revolution 2.0 in Cairo.  The reused and refurbished Cathode Ray Tubes are the eyeballs.  People bother to film because other people can see it.  The audience in the Arab and African world are using "good enough" technology to access the film.

The Al-Jazeera story has the obligatory interviews with stalwarts Ted Smith of Silicon Valley Toxics Coaltion and Allen Hershkowitz of NRDC (Ted says that "between 50% and 80%" of e-waste is exported to be processed in primitive and polluting conditions, another "statistic number" for the recordbook).  Old white men whose image of China and Africa comes out of Tin-Tin.

The fair trade movement is doing something harder.  We have to balance the real dangers of recycling toxic materials (especially CRT glass) in emerging markets.  We know that while the African, Latino, and Asian disassemblers are capable of doing the work, and that safety equipment is cheap, that the economic pressure to "cash out" can mean burning wire, selling circuit boards to an under achieving acid bather, or to stockpile CRTs in a tire pile to be abandoned.  Yet we are willing to take this on, because the jobs of reusing monitors for internet cafes, of rebuilding phones, of putting "capacitor plague" boards back into business with small 4 cent replacement transisters, and manually splitting coppers into different grades (which western shredders lump into a downcycled, carbon-generating process).  And sustainable recycling jobs are not something to take away from people earning $6 per day when the alternative is disease and starvation.

It's hard to do the right thing.  But like Spike Lee's Mookie, just throwing a garbage can through the window of the internet cafe is not the solution to managing toxics along for the ride.  The TAR gets there in higher percentages the more ethical e-waste recyclers tune in to the racist imagery, turn off the export market, and shred up gadgets which are the only internet access a young Libyan revolutionary could afford.

The solution is a middle ground.  I respect Ted and Allen and know they want to do the right thing.  I just wish they would admit that the images they are distributing about Africa and Asia are one sided, exaggerated, and ethnocentric.  When I was in China in 2002, I also found my camera to drift towards the shots of the bicycling recycler, like taking a shot of a celebrity in Hollywood (I was there!  I saw someone poor!).  But it was the hundreds of images I found of Chinese Geeks of Color, reusing chips, replacing transitors, and pulling themselves up by their savvy bootstraps which made the more lasting impression.  And ten years later, the affordable computers those people were remanufacturing made the difference in Alexandria, Cairo and Tripoli.   The irony is that Al-Jazeera is broadcasting this video of white experts to Arabs who are watching it on refurbished CRT monitors.   I found the irony immediately laughable.  But I feel like I'm laughing out loud in a quiet room at an inside joke, of Al-Jazeera missing out on its own conspiracy theory, and it's scary.

Meanwhile, the last million 5 year old CRT display monitors, beautiful machines that work for 25 years, which could be resold for $5 or donated to African Schools, are being crushed up in a hideous, expensive, carbon-belching screech, by eco-narcissists content to air a ten year old story to a new generation of emerging market recyclers.  Crush crush, grind grind... HP actually ran a recycling ad which said something like that (repeated shredding noises), prouder of white people crushing a monitor in a box than of a Chinese factory (which made the monitor originally) repurposing it for Al-Jazeera broadcast.

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