Scrap Boys: Agbogbloshie Ghana Video

A film by Taylor Patrick, Michelle DoCampo, Mary Ellen Skawinski, available on Vimeo.

There are a lot of good film clips in this.  And I'm sure Michelle, Taylor, and Mary Ellen meant well.

But I recommend you watch it first with the sound off.  Now, take a piece of paper.  Make a list of jobs you would NOT want your student from Peace Corps to be doing when you went to visit them in Africa...

1) Child soldier
2) Sex slave
3) Bush meat hunter
4) Robber
5) Cutting down rain forest
6) Conflict metal / tantalum miner
7) Gold, lead, metal mining
8) Oil pipeline tapper
9) Spam writer
10) _________________________________________________________________

Organic cotton farming may or may not be on that list.  Now, take another sheet of paper, and make a list of jobs which you hope your students might have when you go back to visit them.  Doctor, nurse, banker, astronaut, movie star, engineer, software writer....

Now ask how many of the latter jobs your student can achieve without access to a used computer.  The answer is NONE.  Not one of my students could afford a new computer, and none of those jobs are available if you can't get internet in Africa.

After watching the film with the sound off first... play the sound during the interviews of the actual African scrap recyclers.  These are interesting.   Then watch the whole thing.

This is a lot like the Fair Trade Cotton attack (Bloomberg News V. Victoria's Secret) last month.

"It's as if recoiling from images of poverty is becoming equated with compassion." 

After I watched the Scrap Boys video the first time, I watched again, and I followed scene-by-scene by annotating.  You can read what's happening with the sound off, below.  By the way, there's lots of talk about "e-waste", but practically no "e-waste" of any kind visible in the film, or at least not in "imported quantities", and certainly nothing like nice equipment being unloaded from containers in the Greenpeace video.

Dumps at cities in Africa have e-waste, sure.  The same as they have junk cars (prominent in this video).  But there is almost nothing here, no evidence whatsoever, of significant dumping of USA and Europe waste.  They describe how most of the imports are good, but there's no film of that, none of a container being unloaded either.  But there is scrap metal - lots of it.  Car parts, refrigerators, wheels...

Fair Use in responding to claim that Agbogbloshie site is primarily about electronic waste

Scrap Boys from Michelle DoCampo on Vimeo.(For comparison see Fair Trade Recycling To Africa video, made in 2007)

[Editing in 2017 to replace broken links to the video]

In the first minutes there is some geography and history about Ghana, and describing how refugees from war areas came to this part of Ghana, the dumping site for the city.  They interview the former mayor about the decision to clear the site away from the Odaw River.  It's a rainwater runoff problem. [Worth noting he describes it as a solid waste dump for the city in 1994, and describes how electronics only started being scrapped there much later]

Between 2 and 3 minutes, there are standard shots of landfill, like dumps in Rio or Cleveland or Lima or Guangzhou or Fayetteville, Arkansas.  There is a lot of junk, trash, garbage, Municipal Solid Waste.  A piece of electronic can be seen here or there.  But really no evidence of high proportions of electronics.  It looks like a dump anywhere.

At around 4 minutes, there are shots of traffic and shopping and commerce.  Human beings cooking and walking.  It looks a lot like my time in Cameroon and Congo, and not that different from the Friday market in Cairo.   It's normal people, normal everyday life.  It's a poor area of a poor city in a poor country.  There's sad music in the background.  Replace that with some TP OK Jazz Soukous (Franco!) and I wanna be there.  Watch it in silence, and it's just people.  People walking.

At 4:15, the former Mayor speaks again about the businessmen, the used goods importers.  He describes how they import TVs and computers, and says "some" are not reused.   The Ghana study in 2011 puts that number at somewhere between 15% (if repair for reuse is legal) and 30% ('s interpretation, as BAN says repair is illegal even if the goods are not dumped).  In either case, most of the imports are good, and most of the recycling is non-toxic.  But at 4:24, as the mayor speaks, the camera zooms in on one junk CRT TV in the dump.  The implication is that most of these imports are bad, even if no one says so and the photography says the opposite.  More close ups follow - a half dozen refrigerators, a couple pounds of wire, a single printed wiring board fills the screen.   Like 1950s scary movie closeups of a single special effect, cheesy, but filling the screen.

The ex-mayor says they import the used goods "profitably", but that "some" are discarded.  These are the direct quotes from the video.  "So it started as usual with good intentions", the mayor says, as a man in the background is seen hacking the insulation from the inside of a refrigerator door.  Insulation which would be "fluff" at a recycling shredder in the USA or Europe.  "And then, degenerated into something not so very good.." the mayor continues.  So far, it's just metal recycling.   Pan a shot of mixed MSW at the landfill.  Then men using chisels to separate metal from automobile axles.

Abu Haruna, "a resident", is interviewed at 5:25, talking about "taking the ICE out".  I believe he is talking about ICs, integrated chips, possibly like the ones harvested for resale in Guiyu, but I don't know. There's certainly no ice coming out of "e-waste" containers.  For computers he explains that "they take the ones that work and sell them to others", and that then they remove copper from the scrap by hand tools.  That's pretty much what we do in Middlebury.  Again, no stats.   But he does say residue is burned, which is the first evidence of a problem in the video.

Now, at 5:45, "Resident" Haruna says what I've been trying to explain.  Computers which have been used for a long time in Africa are then collected by the scrap boys.   This is what I've been trying to explain this year.  The computers don't come out of sea containers, for the most part.  For the most part they are coming out of offices and homes WITHIN AFRICA.  Haruna says that the scrap boys say there are benefits, but "for me, one who does not work there, I do not see the benefits".

Abdulai Abdul Raman, Chairman of the Accra Scrap Dealers Association, is now interviewed.  This is terrific.  Someone actually is interviewing the heretofore nameless, faceless African businessperson.  Unheard of.  Thank you.  Of course, he's NOT the geek who filled the container or made the purchase.  He is the RECYCLER, downstream, after reuse.  The actual buyer is still anonymously missing, but we'll take this for progress.

Again there is a non-defined, unmeasured distinction of percentage of good and bad ones, but he says the bad ones are brought - and the subtitle says remove the "ICE" again, I believe it's Integrated Circuits, and he says remove the boards.  Then "they will sell the plastic to somebody".  Again, it sounds a lot like Middlebury.  But then he says they take the glass (e.g. bad CRT tubes) and "throw it away".  Honest.  We don't believe in sending bad or old CRT tubes to Africa.  It doesn't sound like Mr. Raman wants them.  This should be a focus point for more dialogue, but first we have to decide what the percentage of bad is.  For years BAN has lied and said 80% are bad, they have now publicly retracted that and said they have no source for that number.  Let's find out what the number is and improve on it.   But somehow I think this video is going another direction - to support the outright ban on trade between recyclers in the USA and recycling businesses in Africa.  If Used Computer Exports are Outlawed....

Between 7 and 8 minutes into this video --- still very little e-waste.  Metal recycling, mostly.  Separation of metals from plastics.  Throwing out the parts of metal which go into "fluff" from USA scrap recycling yards.  The description by Mr. Raman sounds very much like scrap metal recycling in Boston, Los Angeles, Tampa, Houston...

At 7:25, a scrap metal worker Abdulai is interviewed.  He's breaking down a car axle.  I'd like to hire him, I'd like to praise him, I'd like to reach through the screen and pat him on the back.  He's working hard.  He isn't mining, he isn't selling drugs, he isn't cutting down rain forests.  As far as I can see, his only crime is "recycling while black."  The filmmaker Michelle asks whether he has children.  He says he sends his son to school, and that he is "happy with this work, because it is my job".

But now the sad music comes on, and the text says that he gets only about $3 "for each motor he sells".  WTH?  How many motors per day does he sell?  What is the wage in Ghana?  This is manipulative because it looks like a "fact" but says nothing.

Another scrap metal (not e-waste) man is interviewed. He's smiling, says he likes his work.  I like him, too.  Michelle asks if he'd like his son to work there.  He answers about as well as I would.  I'd like my son to be an astronaut, a doctor, or a famous violinist.  But I'd respect my son if he became a recycler like me.

Raman explains that some boys come to pick up very small pieces of iron after school.

At 9:30, Daniel is picking through a very small pile of circuit boards, using a magnet.  These are not computer boards, the look to be from the kind in ovens, toasters, and other appliances, the parts which go into "shredded fluff" in the USA.  At 9:45, he's using a circular magnet - from a magnetron inside a microwave oven - to pick up iron screws and nails.  My twins did that in my plant, to get screws from the floor sweepings, when they were young.  Daniel says he used to go to school, but at 15 he has stopped.

At this point, I get kind of angry.   Michelle is asking Daniel if he could do anything in the world, would he like to work here?  He says no, and the music starts.  

If we just boycott Ghana, Daniel, like Clarissa of the infamous Victoria's Secret Fair Trade Cotton film, will perhaps live in a nice ranch house and eat sweets and get a college scholarship and leapfrog all of this, and have a new pony.  Stupidly, I've been trying to make their lives better by communicating with them and finding out what makes more money for them, what they cannot recycle and reuse, and what they need.

Now a statistic about metals, dust, cadmium, and lead.  ???  We do air tests and wipe tests at my company, and we are finding this.  But ok, it may be there.   It's probably not from any activity they show in the video. But let's do the samples. Let's do a study, this is use of toxic ju-ju words to make recycling look bad.   I don't see any activity in the film that would expose anyone to cadmium and lead, but if there is, let's identify that activity and make it safe, not just imply that mining is safer than recycling.  Because those are the only two choices, and mining is MUCH more polluting than recycling.  But let's clean it up...

A doctor shows pictures of skin disease.  There was no sign of it on the boys, but fine, lets find the boys with this skin disease, find the cause, and treat it with Olivnol.  I saw kids every day with skin disease in Africa, and it had absolutely nothing to do with recycling.

"Resident Haruna" returns, saying that the boys should not have to pick up small pieces of metal, they should be in school, but their families need the money to live on.

Back to the doctor.  Something about "obviously" and "various sexual infections".   I don't get this at all.  Either explain it, tie it to the work the video is about, or cut it.  Leaving in an obscure quote from a doctor about venereal disease is a cheap shot at recycling, in my opinion, and demonstrates bias in the filmmaking.  "Typhoid".  "Bad drinking water".  Contagious diseases, pollution at a dump, this is not about recycling.  It raises questions about what are possibly real concerns - toxics from lead - when you throw a bunch of mumbo jumbo about contagious organic diseases in there.  If you think contagious viruses and bacteria comes from elemental metals, you are just undermining your case.

13:20  More panning shots of the dump, the landfill.  NO e-Waste visible anywhere.

Then there are some interviews (mayor and resident) about how this neighborhood is not well represented by the government.  I'll buy that.  "But the time to evict them isn't now", says the ex-mayor.

Then the quote


By all means.  What is unclear is whether their welfare is more endangered by recycling, by reuse trade, or by "parasites of the poor" making amateur video conflating poverty with e-waste.

In other words, I would expect the video to win some kind of award, like CBS 60 Minutes, and PBS Frontline.  Parasites of the poor, filming working class people trying to make a living for their families in countries where not that many types of jobs are available, working honestly, doing something sustainable for the planet (recycling).   Surrounded by photos of skin diseases, claims of typhoid and sexually transmitted diseases and other juju words which we can declare definitely have nothing remotely to do with recycling.

1 comment:

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...
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