Cleaning Up #EWaste Madness Mess

STORY:  Africa turns imported electronics into hundreds of millions of dollars in jobs.

BLACK HISTORY MONTH.... The point has been made.   The anti-export, e-waste watchdog organizations were fueled by an intoxicating certainty that globalization was "externalization", and that world trade is inherently suspect.

They created a fake statistic, out of very thin air, that 80% of the "ewaste" in the USA is exported, and that 80% of the imports into places like Africa were junk.   The math failed on face value, but the images of "scrap boys" banging metals apart carried the day.   Splitting copper from steel in motors was mysteriously labelled "toxic".

Despite my best efforts, in posts like "E-Waste Madness 2010", "We Shouldn't Have to Make That Choice 2009",  and Motherboard in 2011, the "Ewaste police" gathered steam.  I took arguments I'd made in trade print in 2002 (Recycling Today, "Setting a Higher Standard") and used the pulp blogging to document the innocence of the Geeks of Color.  Sometimes I wrote with facts and statistics, sometimes with reason, sometimes with literary allusions aimed at the higher education field, sometimes in other languages.  Sometimes I really stuck my neck out and named influential people who should know better, like Donald Summers, Josh Mailman, Solly Granatstein, and Terri Gross.   Sometimes, I use video and tweets.  But perhaps the most important efforts have been to document the actual trade, and fight the fraudulent statistics with real numbers, examined by grad students and professors in several continents.

E-Scrap News is the first major newspaper to call a duck a duck.   The stats on imports into Africa were fake. Basel Secretariat believed them, and sent researchers, and found ... exactly what I've been describing, in posts like Monkeys Running the Environmental Zoo.   The UN found several hundred scrap boys in dumps.  But they also found, shocker of shockers, 30,000 repair and reuse techs, producing value and internet, the exact same way as Singapore, South Korea, and Benjamin Franklin got started.  Buying surplus media production (display units or printing presses), and making them "good enough" for the "good enough market", creating sustainable jobs with added value.  Had CBS 60 Minutes spent one more day in China, and followed the film I'd given them, they would have seen the same thing.

So now what?  Will the E-Waste Madness now end?

Will someone from the UK Independent do a follow up story now on their headline grab, accusing a Nigerian of being a criminal, and exposing children to "toxic fumes"?  Will the Chief Reporter, Cahil Milmo, be more curious next time about asking the Nigerian being lynched for the crime whether a crime had actually been committed?

Man held after tonnes of illegal e-waste are exported to Africa

'Scavenger children' at risk from toxic fumes produced by broken equipment

What I'm having to deal with are a lot of bruised knuckles.    Being the guy who screams at the enviro police is not a good position for a true environmentalist, like myself, to be in.  It has cost me doubts among regulators and clients.   It has cost me hours of time making our staff at the company more accountable, in case the fact we export 22% and destroy 78% isn't enough evidence that we aren't "exporting harm".

At conferences, I meet good people who want compromise.  Sometimes, they don't realize how many years I spent trying to help BAN go get the story right, or they know me only from my decade as a business owner, not environmental activist, development volunteer, and business regulator.  They don't know that I already tried to recruit professional mediators like to balance the accusations.   Or about the efforts to film Geeks of Color, in their own words, on   Or the potential Fair Trade Recycling gave to California to take away my markets entirely, making money more efficiently by shipping West Coast displays to Pacific buyers.

They say Jim and Sarah at BAN are really, really nice people.  That I should try harder to get along with them.  They are just a small non-profit, which believes what they are saying, and are passionate about improving the world.  There is a magnetic appeal to them from groups like VPIRG, SVTC, etc.   And oh, think of the children!  Even if BAN and Greenpeace took cameras to a large African city dump, and told a lie that the e-scrap the kids were breaking apart was recently imported from white people... I mean, just look at those poor kids.  Someone needs to do something to get them out of poverty.

James F. Blake.

He was a world war II veteran.  He risked his life fighting Hitler, freeing the French.  He was no doubt a noble community member as well as civic employee of the Montgomery, Alabama public transit system, providing mass transit to poor people before it was cool.  And he didn't want to cause a stir, he was just doing his job.  He had a wife and family and didn't need all this ruckus.

Unfortunately for James Blake, part of his job description was to send several African Americans to sit in the back of the Montgomery bus.  And part of his job was to make timely rounds, collect fares, and get people to work.   Unfortunately for James Black, Rosa Parks' feet were tired.

This is not about whether you like Jim and Sarah better than Robin Ingenthron.  This is not about communication skills.  This is about African Techs getting labelled "criminals" on the front pages of mainstream press because they go to Europe and the USA and cherry pick good equipment, working and repairable, from scrap at WEEE collection points.  They are picky.  They don't take Pentium 1 or iMacs unless they are forced to do so - usually because they are forced to buy in a back alley from the only people willing to trade with African exporters.  The "no intact unit" companies like Electronics Recyclers International won't deal with them, and if they hear that YOU are dealing with them, watch out, because they'll take pictures of your sea container numbers and BAN will trace them to the country of import.

I'm meeting face to face again with Gordon Hui of Advanced Global in a few weeks, in South America.  I'm introducing him there to a woman-owned company in a macho society who found out about me from our Las Chicas Bravas.  Together we are going to try to pair up the geek factory refurb, as-is repair, and the lead mining in South America to create a sustainable takeback operation.  I'd have liked to do this in Ethiopia, where EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson visited last year.

But Jim Puckett of BAN left a long and lecturing comment on the blog  "Ethiopia, Geeks of Color Sighting", and drew a line in the sand.  Jim made clear that Ethiopians could not do the work that our Chicas in Mexico were doing, or at least could not legally do so on computers they import for reuse.  His vision is that the techies and geeks profiled need to just take and refurbish decades old equipment, wrung to the reuse bone, from Africa, and not laptops that need the fans cleaned from London.  The UK Independent story, you know.  Africans fixing African waste.  Never mind it's a 40 year old black and white TV... that's the green vision for Tinkerers in Africa, not working on laptop fans from rich nations too lazy to clean them.

If you work and get your hands dirty, you see BAN's line in the sand for what it is.   A line between the seats on the bus.   Ethiopia belongs in the back of the bus, and Jim is a veteran respected in the environmental community, our own Green Montgomery Groupthink.

So how long can I continue to write about this?  Day after day, week after week. Unlike the Montgomery Bus Boycott, covered every Black History Month, this boycottis still on.   Despite proof that the Geeks import 85% for reuse, and proof that the pics were taken at dump sites, the anti-geek, anti-export, anti-globalization, anti-trade,anti-reuse lobby is still lynching my friends and my friends kids.

To End Reefer Madness, the first step government has to make is to admit it has a problem.  If it's a chemical addiction, the 12 Step Program starts here.   If you have a gambling problem, it's similar.  If you are a false witness, and realize you falsely condemned someone, out with it.  If you are a victim of mental illness that causes a desire towards filicide, you need professional help. I don't know if I buy that racism is a mental illness, but admitting to falsely accusing people has to start somewhere.

I saw a letter from BAN to the environmental authorities in Indonesia, and the letter back.  There's a court settlement, and I can't get copies and don't trust everyone involved.  But to me, the letter outing the sea containers shipped to Indonesia looked a lot like this.  BAN should release the letter, and Indonesia authorities response to the letter, and tell how they were informed about the containers, and tell NRDC how the whole sordid thing happened.  That's not because I'm an anti-environmentalist.  It's because I'm an environmentalists.  The disease of denial strikes within the family.

Or we can just go on and on, BAN accusing geeks of toxic juju, environmental companies shunning trade or outright boycotting them, the Afro-geeks buying display units from back alleys with 15-30% pollution along for the ride, and never look at the General Mining Act of 1872.  As long as recyclers are fighting among ourselves, no one deals with the hard rock metal mines that release most of the mercury in the USA, and 45% of all toxics released by all USA industries.   One of the real problems with marijuana laws is that they distract police from crack dealers.

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