3 Recycling Films: "Where" is E-waste Exploitation?

TV at dump in Ghana.  Imported.. but when?
I'm postponing a post I'm writing about my ten year anniversary at Good Point (in January 2002 I bought my first asset, a used truck), to say a bit more about the Scrap Boys Ghana Agbogbloshie film reposted yesterday.

Dr. Josh Lepawsky of Memorial University in Newfoundland sent me this link to film of recycling in Detroit.  It appears in NY Times as a short, "Dismantling Detroit", and the young men interviewed serve as kind of a comparison to the "Scrap Boys" in Agbogbloshie.

Josh and his grad student Chris McNabb came down to visit our "fair trade recycling" pilot recycling plant in Mexico two weeks ago (Third Video:  PBS on Las Chicas Bravas at Retroworks de Mexico).  Josh has written about the theory he's studying, The Pollution Haven Hypothesis, which is that avoided disposal costs explain geographic displacement of PCs. 

The cost of disposing the junk (or surplus) product here in the OECD represents a value that could partially offset the cost of geographic displacement.  The environmental and social benefit of OECD's higher standards may be assumed lost, or be a cost to the recipient.   But what was good about the item, which caused African entrepreneurs to pay for its relocation?  Is this also about externalizing value, or only costs?

  • What's the cost (or value) of properly recycling it in the new location?
  • What's the retained value after pollution haven is debited... i.e. what is the raw material and reuse haven value?
The "value" of a labor hour in Ghana - about $1.68 - alone creates an economic disincentive to do the work for USA minimum wage.  But accounting for all the "unfair" and "pollution haven" values, are we left with a symptom or a cause?  What is the value added?  Where's the baby, and who is holding the bathwater?

Below I make my case for the "Reuse Haven" hypothesis.   Both depressing films focus on symptoms.   If we stop world trade, will we make the symptoms go away?  What other effects would that cause?  Can the third film - on Retroworks de Mexico - offer a compromise?
Marketing the "perception" of primitive recycling is an element in both the Detroit and Ghana films.

Why are guys stripping scrap metal out of old Detroit?   Tearing down old buildings is not a problem if there are new buildings and new jobs.  We celebrate demolition of working hotels to build bigger and newer casinos.   The recycling is a symptom of what is bothering us in Detroit - loss or relocation of jobs.  (We frequently mistake relocation for loss, by the way, if you add all the hundreds of thousands of jobs "lost" since 1970, when the statistic first came about, the country would be prairie wastleland or 100% unemployment).

Scrap Girls
Why are guys in Ghana tearing down old cars and old WEEE scrap computers?  Because they have figured out a way to pay $10,000 in shipping fees for $5000 in scrap?   Because they charged so little for their labor that the 11 cents per pound (Detroit boy value = Ghana boy value) added up to $5,001 (offsetting the transport and $1 profit)?  Or because people in Ghana had imported these cars and computers a decade ago, and now got "new" used cars and newer used computers?  

My "Reuse Haven" hypothesis:   Anti-export activists are mistaking locally taken back computers, which were used LONGER than the three years we use them in the OECD, for a significant percentantage of recent imports... the difference between "80-90% junk" and 15-30% reuse "fallout" (unrepairable, damaged in customs, etc.).  I am inviting critical university departments to test this hypothesis against PBS, CBS, and NPR Fresh Air, all of which aired a number, a statistic, about the export of e-waste.   If my hypothesis is correct, and the net lifecycle of a computer - purchased used and then used for 4 times longer in Africa and then scrapped - is superior to the lifecycle of a computer under "product stewardship" laws, then what explains it?  Planned obsolescence and racial profiling and a campaign of "western juju" words.

Primitive Recycling?   It's like "Natural Granola"...   I have no idea what Unnatural Granola is, and I don't know what the difference between "unprimitive" recycling is.   The definitions of "formal sector" and "informal sector" have an underlying assumption... is government regulation a net good?  Remember, we are talking about Africa, and the unnatural concept of performing "labor by hand".  The place Bloomberg's Cam Newton expected to see teenage girls driving John Deere tractors on the fair trade cotton plantation.

Imagine the alternative
The average life of a computer in Africa, in the free market or informal sector - is probably 9 years .  That is, nine years AFTER its three year white man life.   Or six years after its six year white man life. 

Either way, reuse doubles or quadruples the useful life of he PC, avoids mining, meets demand otherwise not met by new product... but it is not permanent, the 1990s and early 2000s imports to Ghana etc. have long started to show up at the scrap yards.  

Does the lost value of "pollution haven" offset the "reuse haven" added value?  Would Africa "leapfrog" used clothing and used computers if we cut off their imports?  Or would Africa be a little more left in the dark, a little more barefoot and a little more pregnant?

Agbogbloshie and Guiyu have been declared a diverted dump, a pollution haven.  However, the accusation received widespread acceptance without checking what is in fact being photographed.  We have established that CBS definitely did not find the monitors in Hong Kong inside Guiyu, and that Greenpeace definitely does not find the black shrink-wrapped TVs unloaded from Europe at Agbogbloshie.  I've proven that without a doubt, but there is no response from the press or export watchdogs.

It is perhaps not sufficient to say what was NOT at Agbogbloshie or Guiyu.  We need what IS being filmed in Guiyu and Ghana.  We need to determine whether the "discarded" or recycled items were used at least 3 years before they were found in the scrap - in which case African computing is better for the environment than America is.

Discard of computers once reused for years is commonplace, its the norm, so this isn't rocket science.  No one is asking a very basic question.   It matters whether the PC labels photographed at Agbogbloshie say "off lease NY" or  "Ghana Institute of Public Management"  where they'd been in use for 5 years.  What Josh Lepawsky saw during his visit to Agbogbloshie is very important, because the labels from NY could still be on a PC which has been upgraded after 7 years at an Accra internet cafe. 

PCs in Agbogbloshie -Courtesy Josh Lepawsky - 2011 - Ghana
Even if a used PC at Agbogbloshie had indeed been used for years between its import and its sale for scrap, I think it would be rare that a Ghana obsolete PC would have a Ghana label.  So a sample of the goods at Agbogbloshie, photographed by Dr. Lepawsky, which so happens to provide such evidence supports my hypothesis.   

Here is the hypothesis to be tested:   If  X% of Agbogbloshie scrap comes from 15-30% of recent imports, and the balance of WEEE at the dump Y=1-X% comes from Ghana's own twice used e-waste.  The total discards would be X + Y.   If Y is greater than X, the export paradigm merits study before we diagnose the problem and recommend a "cure".

Therefore, Europe announcing a ban on exports without testing this hypothesis or studying it means... wait.

Oh, but what about the children?

Look, The Scrap Boys in Ghana, the Chicas Bravas in Mexico, and the Dismantling Detroit guys are all doing the same thing.  Recycling, NOT MINING.  Recycling is the only alternative to mining metals.
  • They are not cutting down trees.
  • They are not killing endangered species.
  • They are not producing 45% of all toxics produced by all USA Industry (raw material metal mining)
  • They are not throwing waste.
If the women in Mexico, the boys in Ghana, the boys in Detroit, and the women in China STOP recycling, either we will all stop buying electronics, or we'll get the metal from Kabwe or OK Tedi Mines.  If we switch to a non-toxic metal, like tin, that hasn't been in use and doesn't have a source of recycling, we will open a mine in the Indonesian coral islands.  Mineral Policy and Geography Studies should defend recycling. 

Whether these are black recycling boys, white recycling boys, or Mexican grandmothers is not very relevant to environmentalism.  We want them to be recycling with knowledge and training to protect themselves.  We want them to find reuse value, to avoid mining and waste whenever they can.

And I for one want to give them all dust masks, blood tests, proper training, and shiny cub scout badges.

Taking the recycling jobs away from any of these people does not catapult them into a shiny white collar office job.  Recoiling from images of poverty is not the same thing as compassion.

It is compassion to care about them, how they want to do their jobs, what they are paid.  Boycotting coffee does not help coffee farmers, and boycotting recycling does not help scrap boys.  Boycotting girls who grow cotton without harsh chemicals is badness.   

We need fair trade standards.  Because if YOU refuse to sell to them, or pass a law banning recycling, the junk buildings in Detroit are still there and the Chicas and Scrap Boys are still there.  

Unless you replace the money you take away from recycling, they have to replace that income on their own.  They will probably wind up doing business with someone they have the choice to do business with right now.  You should ask them why they are doing THIS recycling, instead of the other job they aren't doing.  War.  Mining, Sex trade, Drug dealing?

On the tenth anniversary of Good Point Recycling, I want to openly share information about the 30,000 computers I sold to Africa during the decade.  Some, no doubt, have ended their useful life and are being recycled - not by "primitives", but in more informal conditions.  Some are being recycled in better improved conditions, which my company spent $500,000 to pay for.  We made recycling a little bit more affordable for Americans, but more importantly, we made the internet MUCH more affordable for people who live in the middle of the 7 billion people... not the very poorest, not the very richest, the people earning $3-$4K per year.    That's about $1.68 cents per hour.

If I boycott my friends who work 40 hours per week and earn $1.68 per hour - in hospitals, blood banks, internet cafes, schools, and recycling yards - I'd be a hypocrite and a coward.  Because I know you are lying about them.  There are many other "E-Steward" supporters who have never been overseas, who can be forgiven for drinking your BAN.org Kool-Aid.  But there are some among you who know what I'm saying about the emerging market, some of you contract workers there for LESS than $1.68 per hour, but don't want entrepreneurs to fix and reuse your "STUFF".

Don't worry.  I got more to say about this.  A formal letter to the Parasites of the Poor is coming.

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